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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Words and music

From Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn to Josef Skvorecky’s The Bass Saxophone and beyond, many novelists have made use of jazz in their stories. Jazz musicians, in turn, sometimes take inspiration from novels and plays, as with Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder and John Dankworth’s What the Dickens. Here are two new examples, coming from different angles and at different trajectories.

Jonathan Coe hoped for a career in music before becoming a celebrated novelist, playing keyboards in various bands before What a Carve-Up! established his career as a writer in 1994. The Rotters’ Club, a winner of the Wodehouse Prize in 2001, got its name from the title of an album by Hatfield and the North, giving a clue to his interest in the progressive rock and jazz-rock fusion music of the 1970s. He has collaborated with the High Lamas, Theo Travis and Louis Philippe, and now with Italy’s brilliant Artchipel Orchestra, whose previous projects have involved tackling the music of Soft Machine and Phil Miller.

Artchipel’s members arranged and performed several of Coe’s compositions at a festival in Milan in 2021, with the writer as a guest musician. A recording of the concert appeared recently as a CD included with an issue of Italy’s Musica Jazz magazine, and it turns out to be very enjoyable. The five pieces engage the senses in a twisty-turny Canterbury Scene kind of way, full of neat bits of melodic and rhythmic invention, adroitly fleshed out by the arrangers (including Ferdinando Faraò, Artchipel’s founder and leader).

Once or twice a tricky time signature gets in the way, but the music relaxes over the course of almost an hour, giving plenty of room for fine improvisations from the tenor saxophonist Germano Zenga on “I Would If I Could (But I Can’t)”, the flautist Carlo Nicita and the trombonist Alberto Bolettieri on “Erbalunga”, and the pianist Luca Pedeferri on “Spring in My Step”. Coe’s own solos, on electric piano on “Suspended Moment” and organ on a groovy closing passage in “Looking for Cicely”, are more than creditable. Two female singers, Naima Faraò and Francesca Sabatino, add a welcome extra texture.

Ten of the 11 pieces on Two Moons, a new album by the German pianist Sebastian Gahler, are inspired by the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami, whose work often alludes to jazz, as well as pop and classical music. The eleventh piece is “Norwegian Wood”, the song which gave its title to Murakami’s breakthrough novel in 1987 and turned the author into something of a pop star himself.

I share Gahler’s interest in Murakami (I interviewed him for the Guardian here in 2003) and I like very much what he’s done with the idea, which is to make an album that might have come out on Blue Note in the early 1960s, alongside the contemporaneous work of people like Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. This is a timeless form of music, so even though no boundaries are being stretched, equally nothing sounds tired or dated.

Fans of the books will recognise titles like “Girl with Magical Ears”, “Aomame” and “Crow”, but there’s nothing explicit in the music itself to indicate the presence of Murakami in the minds of the composer and his fellow musicians: Denis Gäbel on tenor and soprano saxophones, Matthias Akeo Nowak on double bass, Ralf Gessler on drums and, on two tracks, the trumpeter Ryan Carniaux. Here’s the trailer: nice to see that two-inch tape rolling on a Studer machine.

* To get hold of the Artchipel/Coe CD, you’ll probably have to buy a copy of the November 2022 issue of Musica Jazz (musicajazz.it). But YouTube has extracts from the Milan concert here and here and from a subsequent concert in Turin last summer here. Sebastian Gahler’s Two Moons is on the JazzSick label.

Songs for his father

The drummer Sebastian Rochford is one of the ten children of the poet Gerard Rochford, who died in 2019, aged 87. In memory of his father, Seb sat down at his grandfather’s piano in his childhood home in Aberdeen and composed seven short piano pieces, adding an eighth written by his father, and then recorded them with his friend Kit Downes playing the piano and Seb himself occasionally adding a discreet commentary from the drum kit. The resulting album, titled A Short Diary, is the son’s remembrance of his father, a gathering of thoughts and feelings.

Unsurprisingly, the result can feel like a distillation of songs and perhaps hymns heard in childhood, filtered through retrospection and lamentation while quietly radiating a sense of joy and gratitude. The music is spare but not austere, simple yet profound, elegiac but never passive, drifting but not diffuse, melodic but not banal. Sometimes the sounds seem muffled, like the drums in a funeral parade, while clear in tone and articulation; at other times the overtones hang in the air, curling like smoke. ECM’s Manfred Eicher mixed the results, bringing the music — as Seb puts it — into focus, using his studio tools to make the piano sound like itself, allowing its natural resonance to sing out.

The eighth piece, “Even Now I Think of Her”, was initially recorded by Gerard Rochford on his phone and sent to his son, who gave it to Downes. It’s a thing of exquisite beauty, the lovely melody and its gentle harmonic underpinning held aloft by a gentle rustling of brushes and cymbals.

Seb is best known for his work with Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland, Sons of Kemet, Adele, Leafcutter John, Brian Eno, Ingrid Laubrock, Damon Albarn and many others. He is a virtuoso. The virtuosity on show here, however, is not of technique but of something deeper and more valuable: the ability to take the deepest, most personal feelings and turn them into wordless music in which everyone can share. This is music without rhetoric or ostentation, in which delicacy and strength find an ideal balance. A quiet masterpiece, I think.

* The photograph of Sebastian Rochford is by Rosie Reed Gold. A Short Diary is released on ECM on January 20.

For Jason Yarde

Xhosa Cole and Caroline Kraabel arrive at Café Oto

In the middle of the afternoon, an outsized multicoloured scarf walked through the door into the Vortex, playing an alto saxophone. It turned out, after he had unwrapped himself, to be Xhosa Cole, who carried on playing as he made his way to the stage. There he fitted seamlessly into a free improvisation being devised by the trumpeter Chris Batchelor, the tenorist Julian Siegel, the cellist Shirley Smart and the pianist Liam Noble as part of a three-venue benefit for the saxophonist Jason Yarde.

Yarde, who is one of Britain’s very greatest jazz musicians, collapsed on stage in south-west France in mid-October after suffering a massive stroke. The presence of a couple of medics in the audience may have saved his life, and the process of treatment for a bleed on his brain continued at a hospital in Toulouse. He is recovering at home now, but an appeal for funds to meet his costs has met a predictably warm response, leading to the three jazz clubs in Dalston — the Vortex, Café Oto and Servant Jazz Quarters — getting together to organise a highly unusual benefit.

Starting at two o’clock in the afternoon, several dozen musicians of diverse age, gender and ethnicity spent two and a half hours migrating between the three adjacent venues, joining up for collective improvisation in spontaneously self-selected ensembles. I began my listening at the Vortex, where a group featuring the altoist Caroline Kraabel, the tenorists Dave Bitelli and Harrison Smith, the guitarist Dave Okumu, the bassist Dominic Lash and the drummer Sebastian Rochford surged through free passages into a charging section of unruly swing that reminded me of Charles Mingus’s “Hog Callin’ Blues”. Later Cole joined a group with Loz Speyer (trumpet), Neil Charles (bass) and Rochford again on drums, whose interplay was agile and intuitive.

Arriving at Café Oto, I discovered I’d just missed a line-up featuring Evan Parker and Eddie Prévost. Instead I heard a set by a group including the singer Cleveland Watkiss, the baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts, the trumpeter Charlotte Keeffe and the violinist Benedict Taylor, in which the pianist Veryan Weston played a duet with the improvising tapdancer Petra Hasler. As I was leaving, a re-scarfwound Cole was marching towards the Oto’s entrance, accompanied by Kraabel, together creating al fresco counterpoint for two altos.

Next, over in the basement at Servant Jazz Quarters, I had said hello to the pianist Steve Beresford and heard a couple of minutes of a set featuring the tabla player Ansuman Biswas and several string players. But then, with a loud BANG, the lights went out and the music stopped dead. A water leak from adjacent building works had found its way into the club’s electrics. No injuries but plenty of confusion. End of music.

Back at the Vortex, the altoist Dee Byrne, the pianist Laura Cole, the guitarist Daniel Thompson and the drummer Mark Sanders, with Taylor on violin and Lash on bass, had just got started when Charlotte Keeffe and Cath Roberts arrived to join them, already playing as they made their way up the stairs. Soon they were joined by another violinist, Sylvia Hallett, and together they conjured something that soared at first noisily and then gently before floating to earth in the sort of inspired ending that is one of the joys of free improvisation.

It was the kind of a day when the music really does turn itself into a common property, its barriers dismantled and prejudices abandoned, available to all. A day that fully reflected the qualities of the inspired and inspiring musician to whose recovery it was dedicated.

* For those who didn’t know about Jason Yarde’s stroke, or who couldn’t make it to the benefit, and would like to make a donation, here’s the crowdfunding link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/jason-yardes-stroke-rehabilitation-journey?utm_campaign

What a little bookshop can do

There was an event called Quiet Revolutions at the Barbican Library last week, celebrating radical bookshops old and new, from Housmans of King’s Cross, Newham Books in East London, New Beacon Books of Finsbury Park and Gay’s the Word of Marchmont Street to Five Leaves of Nottingham. I wasn’t there, but it reminded me of the importance of such places, and in particular the pivotal role played in my own life by two such places, the ancestors of Five Leaves.

The Trent Book Shop was opened in 1964 by Stuart Mills and Martin Parnell, two young men who’d abandoned careers as schoolteachers. It was on Pavilion Road, a little street leading down from Trent Bridge to the main entrance to the Nottingham Forest football ground (which may have been how I first found it). From the beginning it was a local equivalent to Indica and Better Books in London: a place to buy alternative literature, particularly the products of small poetry presses. After a couple of years Mills and Parnell found new and larger premises in Drury Hill, a narrow street running down from the Lace Market near the city centre, which they opened under the name Bux. It was there that I spent many hours until moving to London in 1969, buying the early editions of International Times and the publications they’d imported from the US, including the Village Voice and its rival, the East Village Other. I still have some of the books and pamphlets I bought there, including LeRoi Jones’s Blues People, The Dead Lecturer, The System of Dante’s Hell, Home and Preface to a 20-Volume Suicide Note, Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries and Guerrilla Warfare, the screenplays of Godard’s Alphaville and Made in USA, and the English-language edition of Cahiers du Cinéma.

The things I’m happiest to have preserved are copies of the only two editions of a jazz magazine called Change, published in Detroit in 1965 and ’66 and founded and edited by the poet and activist John Sinclair and the trumpeter Charles Moore under the aegis of the Artists Workshop Press, a co-operative organisation. Change was printed on cheap paper in A4 format, $1 a copy. Archie Shepp was on the cover of the first issue, photographed by Leni Sinclair, John’s wife, and Andrew Hill on the second. There were letters from correspondents in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris and London. Tam Fiofori and Jim Burns sent pieces from the UK.

There were reviews of concerts (Shepp, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor at the Down Beat festival in Chicago, Mingus at UCLA, Ornette Coleman in Paris and San Francisco) and albums (Hill’s Point of Departure, the New York Art Quartet’s ESP LP, Albert Ayler’s Bells, Shepp’s Fire Music, Coltrane’s Ascension). Sometimes the writers abandoned conventional prose and turned their reviews into poetry, e.g. Clark Coolidge’s abstract impressions, five pages long, of Giuseppi Logan’s ESP debut. That’s also how Sinclair wrote his introduction to the second issue: “We are the products / of our emotions, of our / uncovered lives. Changes/2 / is reflection. Dig your selves / & let them out / into the light. The sun / will never set.” The dateline on the piece was the Detroit House of Corrections, following Sinclair’s arrest for marijuana possession. (In 1969, having played a part in the emergence of the White Panther Party — formed to support the Black Panthers — and the MC5, he would be sentenced to a 10-year term for trying to sell joints to two people who turned out to be undercover cops, thus attracting the support of Abbie Hoffmann and John Lennon, which led to his early release.)

Now, so many years later, these magazines have their own soundtrack, in the shape of an album titled John Sinclair Presents: Detroit Artists Workshop: Community, Jazz and Art in the Motor City 1965-81, containing music recorded at concerts during and in the years after the short life of Change. There’s a spoken introduction by Sinclair from a radio show, followed by two pieces from Donald Byrd in concert with the Paradise Theatre Orchestra in 1978: “Blackjack”, the title track of one of his Blue Note albums, and a lovely version of the immortal “Cristo Redentor”. Three tracks from the Coltrane-influenced Detroit Contemporary 4 in 1965-66 feature Moore’s trumpet and the piano of the young Stanley Cowell. The tenorist Bennie Maupin leads his quartet. Other tracks feature outstanding work from the guitarist Ron English and an uncredited altoist who may be Marion Brown. A 1979 benefit for the altoist “Sonny Red” Kyner yields an invigorating composition for a big band and choir led by Teddy Harris, a pianist who had played on Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” in 1957 and served as the Supremes’s musical director from 1970-86. Lyman Woodard’s Hammond B3 solo with his own band on the funky Latin rhythm of “Déjà Vu” is all too short (Woodard was also Martha and the Vandellas’ MD).

Good luck with trying to find copies of Change/1 and /2. But the album is easy to acquire and well worth it, not just for the music but for the documentation included in the accompanying booklet, particularly the manifesto of the Artists Workshop, written in November 1964 and fully illustrative of the sense of struggle and optimism in the air. Explaining the need to charge members an initial $5 a month in subscription for upkeep of the premises, the principles are outlined:

(1) Each member of the Workshop is to assume an equal responsibility in the project’s success. (2) Members have to go into their already near-empty pockets, thus the project cannot be treated lightly. (3) We feel that any commercial means of support, at least (& especially) in the beginning, would tend to create an artificial community hung together on money. Rather than a genuine community built on mutual need and mutual interest. (4) No ‘outside’ pressures, hang-ups, interferences. (5) The Workship ideal can be maintained, i.e. there will be no pressure on artists to produce work that would result in commercial success, rather than integrity and aesthetic honesty, as its ultimate purpose. We do believe, however, that commercial ventures will come into being as logical and desirable outgrowths of the Workshop as it has been conceived and is now operating. For example, we can see in the future a coffeeshop where musicians would present their work; a gallery for painters and other graphic artists to exhibit their work; a small printing and/or publishing concern through which poets & writers could introduce their work; an operating film society that would enable local film-makers to produce and possibly market cinematic ideas.

Dreams, dreams. And in Detroit, at least, such a dream came true, for a while.

* The CD of John Sinclair Presents: Detroit Artists Workshop is on the Strut label.

William Blake in Piccadilly

Although any performance of the Westbrook Blake — as Mike Westbrook’s settings of William Blake’s words have been known for more than 40 years — is a powerful event, the emotional impact of last night’s concert by Mike and Kate Westbrook and their musicians at St James’s Church, Piccadilly was intensified by the knowledge that this Christopher Wren church, consecrated in 1684, was the place where the English poet, painter and visionary was baptised in 1757, soon after his birth in Soho.

Titled Visions and Voices: Echoes of William Blake, the evening began with Kate Westbrook delivering “London”, one of the most harrowing poems in the English language, before Phil Minton took over for “Let the Slave”, the next in the sequence of poems linked and illuminated by instrumental solos. Billy Thompson’s fiddle summoned angels and demons, Chris Biscoe’s alto saxophone spoke to the human capacity for joy, Mike Westbrook and a guest, Matthew Bourne, delivered absorbing piano solos, Steve Berry’s bass was lifted out of a solemn reverie by artful background figures, and most of all the accordion of the remarkable Karen Street transfixed the audience with a long unaccompanied improvisation that soared and dived and spun as if a flock of birds of many shapes and sizes but linked by an avian telepathy had found their way into the church. It was, I think, the most astonishing single piece of playing I’ve heard this year.

You might have seen the Westbrook Blake a few times over the years, and be familiar with the recordings, but its grip never slackens. In fact as the country collapses, hollowed out by a greed that Blake identified two centuries ago, it grows more strikingly relevant. As usual, Mike Westbrook recited passages as urgent and resonant in today’s seemingly very different circumstances as they were when first written:

Compel the poor to live upon a crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our earth will be overrun
Without these arts.
..

A few years years after creating his Blake settings, Mike Westbrook composed an extended work for band and orchestra titled London Bridge Is Broken Down, commissioned by and first performed at a festival in Amiens in 1987. Inspired by travels around Europe and meditations on its history at a time when an old order was falling apart, it is divided into sections titled London Bridge, Wenceslas Square, Berlin Wall, Vienna and Picardie. A much admired studio version came out on Virgin the following year. Now there’s the release of the recording of a performance in Zürich in 1990, with Westbrook’s 11-piece unit and the 35-piece Docklands Sinfonietta. Even if you already have the original release, I recommend hearing this one, too, for the exceptional spirit with which the work is played and sung (by Kate Westbrook, using texts from Goethe, Siegfried Sassoon and others).

All Westbrook’s virtues and trademarks are allowed to flower in this 80-minute performance, which stands tall among his catalogue of extended works. The 23-minute sub-section of Vienna titled “Für Sie”, with solos by Alan Wakeman on soprano saxophone, Paul Nieman on trombone, Chris Biscoe on baritone and Pete Whyman on alto, is a slowly unfolding kaleidoscope of exquisite shapes, sounds, trajectories and textures.

* Mike Westbrook’s London Bridge: Live in Zürich 1990 is released on Westbrook Records (www.westbrookjazz.com)

Michael Gibbs / Vortex

Tom Challenger soloing with the Trinity Laban Jazz Orchestra at the Vortex

Small space, big band. Can’t beat it. Five trumpets, four trombones, four reeds, five rhythm, making the air move within the confines of a proper jazz club. Even the smallest concert hall wouldn’t be the same. And sitting just behind me at the Vortex last night was Mike Gibbs, smiling and cheering as the Trinity Laban Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Josephine Davies, performed a selection of his compositions and arrangements in one of four sets arranged over two nights as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, in celebration of his recent 85th birthday.

The finest tribute to the great man was the spirit shown by the young musicians of the orchestra, buttressed by a few distinguished elders, including Julian Siegel and Tom Challenger on saxophones, Lewis Wright on vibes, Hans Koller on piano and Gene Calderazzo on drums. Challenger’s alto soared unstoppably on a heart-lifting “Almost Ev’ry Day”, Wright proved yet again on “Ramblin'” that he doesn’t know how to play an uninteresting phrase, Siegel took firm control of “Round Midnight”, and Calderazzo kept the music on its toes. But the newer faces also had points to make: Kobe Heath Ngugi’s bass matched the drummer’s power and agility, Talfan Jenkins delivered a poised alto solo on Gibbs’ fascinating arrangement of Eberhard Weber’s “Mauritius”, Alex Polack’s trumpet cut through on the closing sequence of “Round Midnight”, and the guitar comping of Joseph Leighton behind Koller and Wright on “Ramblin'” was stimulating enough to remind me of Ray Crawford’s contribution to Gil Evans’s “La Nevada”, than which there can be no higher praise. These are all student at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, and all names to watch.

Gibbs has worked with many musicians and orchestras in his long career — Kenny Wheeler, Gary Burton, Joni Mitchell, John McLaughlin, John Scofield and so on — but not much can have been more fun than this. At the end of the set, he was presented with a birthday cake while the band stood to play “Happy Birthday”. The fizzing candle was only one of the night’s fireworks.

* If you hurry, there are two more sets tonight: https://www.vortexjazz.co.uk/events/?s=Mike+Gibbs

Binker Golding / Purcell Room

There were times tonight when it felt as though Binker Golding was inventing a new kind of music. He wasn’t, of course, not really. But by combining and recombining familiar elements, and putting them through the filter of his own personality, the saxophonist and composer was doing something that jazz has always done, often to its great and lasting benefit.

On the opening night of the 2022 EFG London Jazz Festival, Golding arrived at the Purcell Room with the music from his recent album, Dream Like a Dogwood Wild Boy, and the brilliant musicians with whom he made it: Billy Adamson (electric and acoustic guitars), Sarah Tandy (piano), Daniel Casimir (bass) and Sam Jones (drums). But he added a whole extra dimension through the presence of the singer and violinist Alice Zawadzki and the harmonica player Philip Achille, who fleshed out the themes and tags that distinguish a set of tunes taking their inspiration as much from the influences behind 1970s singer-songwriter music — folk, gospel, pop — as from the free and post-bop jazz with which Golding has been associated.

He started the concert from a different angle, with the band minus piano and drums playing chamber versions of songs he loves, including Carole King’s “Way Over Yonder”, the Smashing Pumpkins’ “To Sheila”, the traditional “I’ll Fly Away” and Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day”, all featuring Zawadzki’s pure voice. When Tandy and Jones arrived, the enlarged band slammed straight into “(Take Me to the) Wide Open Lows”, the new album’s irresistible opening track, on which Golding and Tandy soared in solos that built to ecstatic heights, with the saxophonist finding an unexpected sweet spot somewhere between Pharoah Sanders and Junior Walker.

Most of all though, it’s the pervasive sense of melody that makes Golding’s new music so appealing. The edge of hard bop is still there in something like “Howling and Drinking in God’s Own Country”. But it’s applied to the cadences of gospel and country, and to chord changes that come from pop music, including Motown, but all metabolised into something with its own organic integrity. Tonight Zawadzki’s fiddle and Achille’s agile chromatic mouth harp immeasurably enhanced these flavours. There was a hoedown mood to the music, a sense of joy, a freshness, a feeling that this was something you really ought to be dancing to.

* Binker Golding’s Dream Like a Dogwood Wild Boy is on Gearbox Records.

Just before the world changed

Sixty years ago this month, “Love Me Do” made the charts and the world changed. But what was it changing from? Not just the drab, complacent cardigans-and-Billy Cotton caricature of post-war British culture. Before the Beatles and Stones came along to provide a focus, there were plenty of signs, if you were looking, that something was about to happen. And two dozen of them are collected in A Snapshot in Time, a new compilation of sounds from 1960-63 that can be seen today as a series of premonitions.

I was 15 at the time, primed for change and and looking for those signs, in particular anything that resembled the incursion of the blues or modern jazz into mainstream pop music. “Sugar Baby Pts 1 and 2” by Jimmy Powell, a raw-voiced R&B singer from Birmingham was one. The more decorous Lyn Cornell — formerly of Liverpool’s Vernons Girls — singing Jon Hendricks’s lyric to Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'” was another. Anthony Newley’s skewed Cockney-hipster version of “Strawberry Fair”, too. They’re included in this collection, which is subtitled “Society, scandal and the first stirrings of modernism 1960-63”.

One of the defining events of this fast-changing culture was the broadcast of the first episode of the satire show That Was the Week That Was by the BBC in November 1962. One track is a reminder of the national mood caught and amplified by TW3: “Christine” by Miss X exploits the Profumo affair in a cocktail-piano rhumba punctuated by lubricious faux-ingénue vocal interjections from Joyce Blair (sister of Lionel). Produced by John Barry, with the piano played by the Spanish aristocrat and film actor Jaime Mora y Aragón, and released on Jeff Kruger’s Ember label, it was propelled into the lower end of the charts by scandalised newspaper stories.

More seriously indicative of the future was the music evolving among those who had come out of the skiffle, folk and trad scenes, like Long John Baldry singing Willie Dixon’s “Built for Comfort” with Blues Incorporated, the guitarist Davy Graham’s solo set-piece “Anji” and two tracks, “Country Line Special” and “Chicago Calling”, released as the first single by the singer and harmonica player Cyril Davies, the Ken Colyer of British R&B. Others also came by way of the jazz scene, like the tenorist Red Prince with the Danger Man theme and the trombonist Don Lang with “Wicked Woman” (composed by the person who was to become P. J. Proby). Oh, and Sounds Incorporated’s Markeys-like “Sounds Like Locomotion” and “Why Should We Not”, Manfred Mann’s first single, a jazz-waltz instrumental heavy on alto saxophone, organ, harmonica and tom-toms.

A number of the tracks — including those by Powell, Lang and Cordell — came into being because Jack Good, the great producer of the TV show Oh Boy, had an A&R deal with Decca Records. Good was a visionary who wrote columns in the music press extolling the virtues of US records such as Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” and Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” (which, of course, provided the inspiration for John Lennon’s harmonica on “Love Me Do”). Among the three Powell tracks is a version of “Tom Hark”, a South African kwela song that had been a hit for Elias and his Zig-Zag Jive Flutes, a pennywhistle band from Johannesburg, in 1958.

The track that sums it up best for me is “Orange Street”, a finger-snapping instrumental by the Blue Flames, with Georgie Fame on Hammond organ. I bought it on a school trip to London and yearned to be a part of the groovy scene to which it provided a soundtrack. Pretty soon, we all were.

* A Snapshot in Time, compiled by Rob Finnis and Roger Armstrong, is released on the Ace label.

The spirit of 1971

On an earlier re-release of the first and only album by Centipede, the 50-strong (and therefore 100-footed) band assembled by Keith Tippett, RCA’s marketing department used a quote from the Melody Maker‘s original review: “No one who wants a permanent record of where our music was at in 1971 will want to be without Septober Energy.” It was true at the time and today, listening to a remastered and reissued version of the double album made by an ensemble containing actual and former members of Soft Machine, King Crimson, the Blue Notes, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the Blossom Toes, Nucleus, Patto, the Steam Packet and Dantalian’s Chariot, it still feels right.

In his notes to the new Septober Energy reissue, Sid Smith quotes my description of it at the time as “a miracle”, but as miracles go it was an eminently achievable one, given the spirit of creativity, goodwill and mutual encouragement in which it was conceived and implemented under Tippett’s inspired guidance. This was the first of his large-ensemble projects; if it lacked some of the finesse of later endeavours, it wanted for nothing in terms of spirit.

The clue was in the title. “Energy” was a word much applied back then to the kind of improvising habitually done by the freer players here — the tenorists Gary Windo and Alan Skidmore and the trombonist Paul Rutherford, for example, the singers Julie Tippetts and Maggie Nichols, and the three marvellous South Africans: the trumpeter Mongezi Feza, the altoist Dudu Pukwana and the bassist Harry Miller. But others from related fields were cheerfully infected by the same vibe: the trumpeter Ian Carr, the guitarist Brian Godding, the oboeist Karl Jenkins and the 19 string players led by the violinist Wilf Gibson. And then there were the horns from Tippett’s own sextet, already borrowed by Soft Machine and King Crimson: the cornetist Mark Charig, the trombonist Nick Evans and the altoist Elton Dean. There were five bass players in all, including Jeff Clyne and Roy Babbington, and three drummers, two of them being Robert Wyatt and John Marshall. Robert Fripp played guitar on stage and produced the album.

I seem to remember that the announcement of their debut concert, at the Lyceum in November 1970, made the front page of the MM. After that first gig, boisterously exhilarating but inevitably chaotic, they went on the road in Europe and had a great time. The following June they went into Wessex Studios in north London, located in an old church hall, with just four days for recording the 80-minute piece under Fripp’s supervision and a couple more days for him to mix and edit the results into four movements, each one fitting a side of the double album. Their last appearance was at the Albert Hall in December 1971.

All the enthusiasm of the time, as yet unspoiled by time and the depredations of the music industry, is there on the album. And so, thanks to the skills of the composer and the producer, is a clear view of the individual strengths of the featured soloists (meaning practically everybody), as well as their readiness to attempt a coalescence into something greater than the sum of the parts.

Part 1 begins with the sound of small percussion, like something from a Shinto temple, before long tones — strings, voices — emerge and hover, soon disrupted by the first hints of the storms to come. Gradually the brilliant disposition of the orchestral resources comes into focus as Tippett balances the roistering horns and thunderous drums with subtler deployments and great control of crescendo and diminuendo. The wrapover to Part 2 is a lovely bass conversation — one bowed, one plucked, one playing harmonics con legno — leading to a very period-correct jazz-rock sequence with Tony Fennell’s drums and Babbington’s bass guitar accompanying quarrelsome saxes over a brass choir, suddenly interrupted by giant overlapping unison riffs in which, metaphorically, the entire band seems to have been fed through a fuzz-box. A space is cleared for Carr’s serene trumpet and Skidmore’s urgent tenor to take solos against the rhythm section, both exploiting the lift of lyrical chord sequence, before Godding’s distortions announce the return of the heavy artillery. An improvised trombone quartet adds another contrasting texture.

Part 3 opens with the four singers — Tippetts, Nichols, Zoot Money, Mike Patto — delivering Julie’s lyric without accompaniment: “Unite for every nation / Unite for all the land / Unite for liberation / Unite for the freedom of man.” Then the trio of drummers take over for a powerful conversation, each individual carefully separated in the stereo picture, leading into a long ensemble passage that builds to a shuddering climax before a slow electronic fade leads to the two female singers improvising over the strings, like a giant version of the SME, the same forces combining in a disquieting written section that ends the side. Tippett’s solo piano announces Part 4, sliding into a broad, swelling theme for brass, mutating through a long Elton Dean soprano solo into a trenchant restatement of the “Unite for…” song, and ending with a pensive coda for piano and cornet.

Of course it sprawls, and not every note played over the course of almost an hour and a half could be described as deathless or essential. But it was and remains a triumph of conception and execution, a vision of musical scale with, as it were, the Little Theatre Club at one end and Woodstock at the other. It also set me thinking about the form an equivalent project might take today, with similarly open-minded and collaboratively inclined musicians drawn from newer generations. Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke from Radiohead would have to be there. Shirley Tetteh, Shabaka Hutchings, Olie Brice, Sheila Maurice Grey, Moses Boyd, Nubaya Garcia, Rachel Musson, Tom Skinner, Rosie Turton, Cassie Kinoshi and Theon Cross from the new London jazz scene. Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley from Portishead. Keiran Hebden (Four Tet) and Sam Shepherd (Floating Points). Well, you can make your own list.

* The CD reissue of Centipede’s Septober Energy is on the Esoteric label. I don’t know who took the photograph at the Lyceum show.

Remembering John Stevens

I’d been working at the Melody Maker only a few weeks in the autumn of 1969 when the drummer John Stevens and the saxophonist Trevor Watts arrived to see me, unannounced, at the paper’s offices in Fleet Street. They’d sensed the presence of a writer sympathetic to their music and they’d brought me a copy of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s new album, recorded for Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade label. I already knew about them, of course, and over the years I saw John play on many occasions and in many different musical environments. His death from a heart attack in 1994, at the age of 54, deprived the London scene of a musician who, his own great gifts aside, had devoted much of his life to encouraging others to express their creativity.

“John didn’t just change my life — he saved it,” the singer Maggie Nichols said at the Café Oto last night, while introducing an evening of hitherto unseen films featuring Stevens in a variety of contexts. They had been put together by the music and label owner Mark Wastell from a cache of videos owned by John’s widow, Anne, and his children, Ritchie and Louise. There is, as Wastell remarked, so little filmed evidence of John’s life and work available to be seen that anything is to be treasured — and these films brought him back to life in full strength.

Four films were shown. I was able to see the first three, each half an hour long. The first, filmed at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in 1976 on a single hand-held camera in black and white, captured a date on a tour by the trio of Stevens, Danny Thompson on bass and John Tchicai on soprano and alto saxophones. This was the bearded, roaring John Stevens with the bearded, roaring Danny Thompson — together in another incarnation as John Martyn’s accompanists — giving Tchicai the most enthusiastic and empathetic encouragement.

The second film, shot at a club in Stavanger by Norwegian TV in 1991, was a far more polished affair in every way. The music produced by this trio, completed by the American bassist Kent Carter and the Norwegian altoist Frøde Gjersted, was just as impassioned, running through different modes of collective improvisation: time, no time, and the sort of pointillism that recalled John’s famous “click pieces”, when the SME or workshop groups were instructed to use the shortest possible sounds to create their improvisations. This film included a joint interview with the three musicians, during which Carter memorably summarised his philosophy of constant renewal: “If the audience can recognise what we’re doing, it’s already been done.”

A year later, in 1991, Channel 4 filmed John’s new quartet, with the saxophonist Ed Jones, the trumpeter Byron Wallen and the bassist Gary Crosby, performing a Stevens composition dedicated to the then recently deceased Dudu Pukwana, called “Dudu’s Gone”. Not a lament but a celebration, recalling Ornette Coleman’s bounciest medium-tempo tunes, it showcased John’s beautiful time playing, with its strong echoes of Max Roach’s drive and Billy Higgins’s float. The unedited takes we were shown included an interview in which John was asked what it took to play free music. “It’s a freedom that demands high discipline and high articulation,” he replied.

Regrettably, I wasn’t able to stay to see the final episode of the evening, a 70-minute film of John playing and talking with Derek Bailey at Jazz Rumours in London in 1992, released in an edited form on video cassette by the Incus label in 1996. But I left with some more of Maggie Nichols’s words in my head, about the experience of being introduced by John to the practice of free improvisation back in the late ’60s: “It was like walking off a cliff — terrifying and ecstatic at the same time.”