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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Little Jimmy & Little Joe

jimmy-scott-joe-pesciWhen the great ballad singer Jimmy Scott returned to action in the early ’90s, in a rediscovery primed by appearances on Lou Reed’s Magic & Loss and in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the surge of interest resulted in his recordings becoming widely available. They ranged from carefully curated collections of his work for Decca and Savoy in the 1950s (when he was known as Little Jimmy Scott) to new albums produced for Sire and Milestone by Tommy LiPuma, Mitchell Froom, Todd Barkan and others. There was also, finally, the reappearance of two legendary albums from the 1960s suppressed when Herman Lubinsky, the notoriously vindictive owner of Savoy, claimed that Scott had recorded them in breach of an existing contract: Falling in Love is Wonderful, produced in 1962 by Ray Charles for his own Tangerine label, and The Source, supervised by Joel Dorn for Atlantic in 1969.

Lubinsky’s action cost the singer what should have been the prime years of his career, but we were lucky to have him for the last 20 years of his life, until his death in 2014 at the age of 88. In that final phase, hardly surprisingly, his pipes were not what they had once been, but it wasn’t mawkish to feel that the signs of ageing added an extra poignancy to his interpretations. His marvellous phrasing was certainly unimpaired, and the wide vibrato still touched the heart.

Now, three years after his death, comes an album called I Go Back Home, the fruit of his final recording sessions, held in 2009, in which the German producer Ralf Kemper surrounded him with sympathetic musicians, arrangements, and guests. Sometimes, as in “Poor Butterfly”, Scott speaks the lyric, allowing the French harmonica player Grégoire Maret to add melodic decoration. Elsewhere, as on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “How Deep is the Ocean”, his singing has a surprising strength. There are duets with Dee Dee Bridgewater on “For Once in My Life”, with Oscar Castro Neves on “Love Letters”, and with Renee Olstead on “Someone to Watch over Me”. There are tracks featuring other distinguished instrumentalists: the pianist Kenny Barron, the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the tenorist James Moody, and the trumpeter Till Brönner (who displays a delicate lyricism on “If I Ever Lost You”). There are gentle and wholly appropriate string and woodwind arrangements by Mark Joggerst. There is a beautifully warm and clear mix by Phil Ramone.

The big surprise, however, comes in one of the two songs that do not feature Scott at all but are billed as “tributes” by other singers. It’s a version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, the Kern/Hammerstein song that Scott recorded — featuring the seldom-sung introduction — during a 1972 Dorn-produced session which remained unheard until the release of a Rhino/Atlantic album titled Lost and Found in 1993. But this time the singer, paying tribute to his old friend and influence, is the actor Joe Pesci.

We know that Pesci grew up in New Jersey alongside Frankie Valli, and that he had early ambitions as a singer. In 1968 he released an album under the name Joe Ritchie titled Little Joe Sure Can Sing! on the Brunswick label, produced by Artie Schroeck (who arranged Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”), featuring covers of things like the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. When it didn’t make waves he switched first to stand-up comedy and then to an acting career that took him to the heights of Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino.

His dead-slow version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” — one of my very favourite ballads — is good enough to make you wonder what might have happened had he stuck with the singing thing. His delivery is very much in Scott’s pleading high-tenor register, with subtle echoes of that distinctive vibrato, and occasional manipulations of timbre that seemed to echo the muted-trumpet obligato provided on the track by DeFrancesco, switching to his second instrument. Joggerst’s arrangement exudes a glowing serenity, particularly when the rhythm section lays out for a rubato statement of the six-bar bridge before Barron’s piano, the bass of Michael Valerio and Peter Erskine’s brushes pick it up for the final 12 bars.

I never thought I’d hear a treatment of this song to rival the enchanting version recorded by Peggy Lee with Nelson Riddle in 1957. This one does. I’ve been playing it for friends, without divulging the identity of the singer. They’ve all been amazed.

Pesci also appears in a duet with Scott on “The Nearness of You”, and if you’re only half-listening you might not even notice where one begins and the other ends. So that’s an unexpected reason for investigating I Go Back Home, which stitches the final notes of a fabulously gifted and original singer, one matched as an interpreter of torch songs only by Billie Holiday and Shirley Horn, with tender care into a loving hour-long tapestry of sound.

* The photograph of Joe Pesci and Jimmy Scott together in the studio is from the booklet accompanying I Go Back Home, which is released on January 27 on the Eden River label.

Winter in America

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Darcy James Argue introduces Secret Society during the 2017 Winter Jazzfest in New York

“Welcome to the resistance,” Darcy James Argue said on Friday night to the packed audience at Subculture, a basement club on Bleecker Street. Then the Canadian-born, New York-based composer and bandleader  turned to his 18-piece ensemble, Secret Society, and, with deft flicks of his wrists, guided them into the opening of Real Enemies, his cycle of pieces based on the theme of state-sponsored paranoia. A few hours earlier, in another part of New York City, Donald Trump had been forced to listen to the representatives of the CIA and the FBI presenting evidence that Russia’s government and secret services had helped to get him elected as president of the United States.

“Social justice” was the theme of the event in which Argue was participating: the 2017 edition of Winter Jazzfest, the annual showcase featuring a two-day marathon of more than 150 groups at about a dozen venues centred on Greenwich Village. Different bandleaders expressed their attitude to the topic in different ways. The pianist and composer Samora Pinderhughes led his 11 musicians through an extended piece titled The Transformations Suite, a profoundly moving contemporary take on themes no less relevant than when they were explored half a century ago in Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. The Indian-American singer and harmonium player Amirtha Kidambi performed a piece inspired by the death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officers in 2014; she announced that all proceeds from that night’s sales of the new CD by her quartet, Elder Ones, would go to the fund supporting four members of the NAACP arrested earlier in the week for protesting against Trump’s nomination for attorney general of a man who has campaigned against voting rights. The trumpeter Peter Evans called for the recognition of musicians — he gave Matana Roberts as an example — who have a record of campaigning on these issues.

Others preferred to let the music speak for itself, but there was never any doubt of the continuing role that jazz musicians have to play in exposing issues, raising consciousness, and maintaining morale in difficult times. Their inherent independence of spirit, their understanding of the need to reconcile individual and collective action, their roots in an idiom that came from suffering and exploitation, and their acceptance of the need to fight against the commercial odds make them ideally suited to the task.

To get back to the music, Argue is a young man with an intriguing approach both to personal style (he looks as though he might relax at the weekend by putting on a cravat) and to finding new solutions to the problems inherent in playing jazz with a large ensemble. Throughout the performance of Real Enemies, he used a tablet to trigger sound bites from such people as Oliver North and Dick Cheney. With Ingrid Jensen among the trumpeters and Chris Speed among the reeds, the writing contained echoes of Elmer Bernstein, Bob Graettinger and Gil Evans: lots of drama, lots of complexity, lots of variety (particularly in the instrumental colours: a grouping of piccolo, flute, two clarinets and a bass clarinet, for instance, or a trumpet lead supported by four flugelhorns). It would be an important and pathfinding work at any time, never mind now.

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From left: Vuyo Sotashe, Jules Latimer, Jeremie Harris, Elena Pinderhughes, Clovis Nicolas, Lucas Pino, Riley Mulherker, Braxton Cook and Tony Lustig perform The Transformations Suite

Pinderhughes’ The Transformations Suite did not enjoy the same degree of attention when the recorded version came out last year, but it made a deep impression in the New School’s Glass Box space late on Friday night. There was nothing ironic here: the wounds of 400 years of slavery and its aftermath were allowed to bleed openly in the poems and lyrics delivered by the actor Jeremie Harris (who wrote some of the words), the wonderfully soulful South African-born singer Vuyo Solashe, and most of all by Jules Latimer, a young Juilliard drama student who took the considerable risk of acting out grief and fear without restraint. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” occasionally popped up as a leitmotif, and Pinderhughes’ lean but succulent writing for his five-piece horn section provided a platform for improvisations by his extravagantly talented 21-year-old sister Elena, who might just be on her way to becoming the finest flautist jazz has produced, the tenorist Lucas Pino, and Braxton Cook, who took the roof off the place with a roaring alto solo.

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MONK’estra with John Beasley at the piano, James Genus on bass and Greg Tardy on tenor

John Beasley’s MONK’estra performed their empathetic, swinging and sometimes hiphop-tinged revisions of Thelonious Monk tunes at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Lincoln Centre on Thursday night, in front of a window with a view of Trump Tower. Luckily the arrangements and the solos — notably by the always creative tenorist Greg Tardy, the trombonists Frank Lacy and Conrad Herwig, and a guest from France, the fine harmonica player Grégoire Maret — were more than enough to divert attention away from the new epicentre of American values. And, as Beasley reminded us, Monk himself had grown up literally only a stone’s throw away, on West 63rd Street.

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Mary Halvorson (left) with Jonathan Finlayson, Jon Irabagon, Ingrid Laubrock and Jacob Garchik at the New School

As impressive as anything I heard during three crowded days was the octet led by the guitarist Mary Halvorson, which features not just a bunch of great players (including the trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and the tenorist Ingrid Laubrock) but the leader’s extraordinary interplay with the pedal steel player Susan Alcom, which elevates the music to a whole different realm of texture and emotion. Halvorson’s compositions are fascinating enough in any case: sounding as though they are through-written, they have the impact of great short stories, full of surprising twists of plot and mood, never quite ending where you expect but always resolving brilliantly.

While the festival was taking place, the great jazz critic Nat Hentoff died in New York at the age of 91. Through his liner notes, his pieces for Down Beat, the Jazz Review and the Village Voice, and books such as Hear Me Talkin’ To You (co-authored with Nat Shapiro) and Jazz Is, he helped shaped the view of several generations of listeners. He was also a lifelong fighter for social justice. And in 1960, for his own short-lived label (which released classic albums by Charles Mingus and Booker Little), he produced Cecil Taylor’s sublime trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine”, which alone would earn him a place wherever the good ones go.

* All the music mentioned above is out now on CD. Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies is on the New Amsterdam label. Samora Pinderhughes’ The Transformation Suite is on Gray Area. John Beasley’s MONK’estra Vol. 1 is on Mack Avenue. The Mary Halvorson Octet’s Away With You is on Firehouse 12. “This Nearly Was Mine” is on The World of Cecil Taylor, on the Candid label.

Georgie Fame: the man in full

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Georgie Fame at the Cinnamon Club, Manchester, in 2007 (photo: William Ellis)

You wait decades for a proper anthology of Georgie Fame’s best stuff, and then two of them come along almost at once. Last year there was the beautifully produced five-CD box called The Whole World’s Shaking, including his first four albums for the Columbia label between 1963 and 1966 — Rhythm & Blues at the Flamingo, Fame at Last, Sweet Thing and Sound Venture, each with bonus tracks — plus a fifth disc of rarities and oddities from the period. Now there’s an equally handsome new six-CD set, also released on Universal/Polydor, called Survival: A Career Anthology 1963-2015, which ranges from the Blue Flames’ first two instrumental 45s for the R&B label to the lovely album, Swan Song, which came out last year, and which he billed as his last (although I gather he might be having second thoughts on that). This new box is so full of good stuff that I hardly know where to begin, although I suppose I should point out some of the less obvious highlights.

I was at Island Records in the mid-’70s when Chris Blackwell signed him, to the surprise of those at the company who thought his adventures in the middle of the road during his time with CBS (“The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”, and so on) had destroyed his credibility. From a commercial perspective, the Island liaison was a failure.  First, with J. J. Cale taking over from Mose Allison as the dominant influence on his music, Blackwell sent him to Tulsa with Denny Cordell to make an album that never saw the light of day, and then Glyn Johns took over for one that was released but made no impact. There’s a whole disc from those sessions, including the slinky blues “Ozone” and a high-stepping version of Bobby Womack’s “Daylight”.

But what we also have from the Island vaults are seven tracks from the previously unheard tapes recorded at a Lyceum gig in the autumn of 1974 with an expanded 12-piece all-star Blue Flames line-up, including Marc Charig alongside Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton on trumpets and Elton Dean in a saxophone section also including Alan Skidmore, Stan Sulzmann, Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle. Brian Odgers (bass guitar) and Brian Bennett (drums) are the rhythm axis, with Colin Green and Bernie Holland on guitars and Lennox Langton on percussion. Thanks to careful remixing supervised by Tristan Powell, one of Georgie’s talented sons, it’s a treat to hear them roar through “Point of No Return”, “Parchman Farm” and so on in front of an enthusiastic audience at a venue that was once a great place for gigs, before The Lion King took up permanent residence.

The other big surprise to me was a track from his sole album for Pye, Right Now, produced in 1979 by the rather unlikely team of Karl Jenkins, then midway between Soft Machine and the knighthood earned for his classical compositions with Latin titles, and Jimmy Parsons, for many years the suave maitre d’ of Ronnie Scott’s. The song is called “Eros Hotel”, and Georgie wrote it with the UK-based American poet Fran Landesman, best known for her lyrics to “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”. A gentle reverie, swathed in strings, it’s a most elegant evocation of seduction in London, and it makes me want to seek out the album from it comes.

We know what Fame can do with other people’s songs, but “Eros Hotel” is a reminder of what an accomplished composer he became. From “Getaway” through “Flamingo Allnighter”, “Vinyl” and “Mose Knows”, his stuff is hip. There’s another example of his lovely ballad-writing in “A Declaration of Love”, one of the 11 tracks here from the fine New York sessions supervised by Ben Sidran in the early ’90s. The eight-minute title track, the bluest of blues on altered changes, comes from those sessions: you can imagine how much he enjoyed sharing the studio with A-Teamers Richard Tee (piano), Robben Ford (guitar), Will Lee (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums).

An abundance of great material among the 111 tracks includes items from the two tremendous live albums, Name Droppin’ and Walking Wounded, recorded live at Ronnie’s in 1997. There’s also a glorious “Since I Fell For You” on which he’s accompanied only by his Hammond B3 and Guy Barker’s trumpet, and a fine “Funny How Time Slips Away” from the Pye session, and tons of other things that you might never have heard before but will be very pleased to meet in the course of a journey through a wonderful life in music, in which even the occasional misstep was simply the preface to a graceful recovery.

The team who put this exemplary package together — Tristan Powell, the disc jockey Dean Rudland and the Universal A&R man Chas Chandler — deserve the highest commendation. The blemishes are few: the Basie drummer Sonny Payne is mistranscribed as Sonny Cain, Bill Eyden is wrongly identified as Phil Seamen (the man he replaced as the Blue Flames’ drummer) in a caption to one of the many fine photographs in the accompanying 48-page hardback booklet, and I’d have liked the generally comprehensive musician credits to have extended to identifying those who played on the Island studio sessions. But those are quibbles. If I didn’t already have Survival, it would be the only thing I’d want or need for Christmas.

Paolo Conte’s ‘Amazing Game’

paolo-conte-8858-ph-dino-buffagniAn all-instrumental album from Paolo Conte: that would be like an episode of The Sopranos without Tony, right? Well, not exactly. He doesn’t sing on Amazing Grace (although he does mutter the word “Tips” at the beginning and end of the short track of that name), but in its way this is still an album of full-strength Conte, offering perspectives that don’t normally get exposed.

It is, he says, a collection of “recordings made at different times (from the ’90s to the present day), for soundtracks of theatre productions and for study and experimental purposes, that I had very carefully tucked away at the back of various drawers”. He was right to decide that they needed to be exposed to the light of day.

There are 23 pieces, ranging in length from 61 seconds to six minutes, and in style from clarinet ballads and a tango for piano and bandoneon to romantic string quartets and soulful wind chorales and a sweeping orchestral piece, and a lovely, pensive fragment for solo piano called “Gli Amici Manichini” that sounds like it was recorded on primitive equipment in some deserted hotel ballroom 100 years ago. That last item is one of six written for a theatre piece called Il Ballo dei Manichini, of which the final work is the only song of the set: a jaunty pop number called “Changes All in Your Arms” sung by two women, Ginger and Rama Brew, as if they’re gathered around a pub piano.

Maybe the best of all is a track called “P.U.B.S.A.G. (Passa Una Bionda Sugli Anni Grigi)”, its lyrical theme stated by the trumpet of Alberto Mandarini and the clarinet of Massimo Pitzianti, supported by Jiri Touche’s double bass and Daniele Di Gregorio’s drums, Conte’s piano nudging them along with simple and unhurried but exquisitely timed phrases. And it’s followed immediately by the title track, another gloriously melodic reverie in the form of a trio for piano, bass and Di Gregorio’s vibes.

Perhaps I wouldn’t swap these pieces for favourite songs like “Alle Prese Con La Verde Milonga” or “Los Amantes Del Mambo”, but it’s amazing how the pungency of his character comes through even when he denies us the pleasure of the rasping voice, with its characteristic combination of world-weary wisdom and irrepressible youthfulness, of a man — a unique and precious jewel of our musical world — who will turn 80 next month.

* The photograph is by Dino Buffagni. Amazing Game is out now on the Decca label.

Liberation Music Orchestra

liberation-music-orchEight years ago I was fortunate enough to be at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village to hear Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra on the night of the US presidential election, and then again the following night after it had been confirmed that Barack Obama would be serving as America’s first black president. The anxious optimism of the first night and the joy and relief of the second could hardly have formed a greater contrast with the current mood of the world, in which the orchestra — minus Charlie, who died two years ago, and now directed by his long-time collaborator Carla Bley — arrived in London to play at Cadogan Hall as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

I don’t think I was the only one to find their music even more emotionally charged than usual, which is saying something for a band that began life in 1969 delivering an uncompromising musical protest against the evils of the age, with a line-up including Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri and Roswell Rudd. Tonight’s 90-minute set maintained the tradition by concentrating on the concerns of the hour and consisted of material from their last two studio recordings: Not in My Name (2004) and the new Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings), the environmental album on which they were working before Haden’s death, and which was completed under Bley’s supervision. All of it resonated powerfully.

The new pieces included Bley’s beautifully plain arrangement of “Blue in Green”, her own “Silent Spring” and Haden’s “Song for the Whales”, which featured a lovely passage for Seneca Black’s trumpet, Tony Malaby’s tenor saxophone, Darak Oles’s double bass and Matt Wilson’s drums. Bill Frisell’s gorgeous, slow-burning “Throughout” made a lovely encore. The evening was sprinkled with fine solos from Malaby and his fellow tenorist Chris Cheek, Loren Stillman on alto, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Marshall Gilkes on trombone, Vincent Chauncey on French horn, Earl McIntyre on tuba and Steve Cardenas on guitar. Oles, who perhaps had the hardest gig of the night, did the right thing by playing Haden’s parts and evoking his spirit without trying to be him.

But the heart of the concert came in the long, carefully wrought medley of “America the Beautiful”, “Lift Every Heart and Sing” and Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America”, and particularly in the arrangement of “Amazing Grace” to which Bley brings every bit of her great and precious expertise at making highly schooled musicians sound like the world’s greatest town brass band. As they played it, investing every note with humanity, I couldn’t help thinking of Obama’s sudden decision, during his address to the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a US senator, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June last year, to sing the song as part of his eulogy to the priest and the eight other victims murdered by a white supremacist during a Bible study class. It’s a different world now.

* Time/Life is out now on the Impulse label.

Mike Westbrook at the piano

mike-westbrook-kp2In the days leading up to Mike Westbrook’s solo recital at Kings Place on Saturday afternoon, part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, I’d attended a run of performances by several younger pianists — Kit Downes, Michael Wollny, Giovanni Guidi and Jason Moran — of great reputation and achievement. Spending just over an hour listening to Westbrook as he stitched together songs that have meant much to him over the years provided a useful reminder of what age can bring.

Westbrook turned 80 this year. Afterwards, in conversation with Philip Clark, he spoke of the way a prolonged examination can change the material: “a deep process”, he called it, and one which he applied with equal success to songs by Duke Ellington (“Sophisticated Lady”) and Thom Bell (“You Make Me Feel Brand New”) and to pieces from his own pen, including some from his works inspired by Blake, Goethe and Lawrence.

“You don’t have too much respect for the material,” he observed. “You use it. You find harmonies that interest you more than the original. You layer one chord on top of another to make it more magical, or more beautiful, or even to throw a spanner in the works. But it’s not random. It’s logical.” The reharmonisation of some of these pieces was striking. “It’s no secret,” Westbrook said, “that when you’re writing arrangements at the piano, you become a master at holding down chords while you reach for a pen to write them down. I’ve developed a piano style almost out of that.”

It’s his version of what used to be called “arranger’s piano”, the spare approach associated with Tadd Dameron and Gil Evans, among others. And you could hear very specifically what he meant when he struck thick, dark chords and allowed them to resonate and bounce off the lid of the 7ft Steinway Model B in the silence between “You Make Me Feel Brand New” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”.

The mood was reflective, sometimes elegiac, particularly when he included a First World War poem in the first of the long, loosely themed sequences into which the recital was divided. Throughout the hour I loved the sense of a man playing these pieces for the thousandth time but still searching for new angles, new shapes, and new combinations of notes with which to deepen his investigation of their wordless essence. There was not a wasted note, not a superfluous gesture, not the tiniest hint of display for its own sake.

Much of the programme reflected the structure of his new solo album, which is titled Paris and was recorded earlier this year in an art gallery and performance space near the Porte d’Orléans. In his online notes to the album (to be found at http://www.westbrookjazz.co.uk), he says this while introducing the sequence of pieces grouped under the heading of Bar Room Music: “I often enjoy playing the piano in a crowded room where people are talking. Though almost no one is paying any attention to the music, it nevertheless affects the general atmosphere.”

Those words reinforce his strong sense of the social function of music, made explicit in the past in the work he and his wife Kate have done with street theatre groups and with their brass band. But the Kings Hall recital was at the opposite end of the spectrum: a carefully focused performance in an optimum listening environment, in front of a rapt full house. As always with Westbrook, a massive authority was lightly worn– but its presence was never in doubt, and the result was unforgettable.

* Paris is out now on the ASC label.

Mose Allison 1927-2016

mose-allisonWhen we were just a bunch of white boys barely out of school, falling in love with the sounds of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley and wondering if we’d found a language that we could somehow call our own, Mose Allison showed how it could be done. Allison had been born in Mississippi and grew up on a cotton farm, the son of a piano-playing general store owner and a schoolteacher. He had a directly acquired knowledge of the culture of African American people, and he knew that the way to adopt their language while retaining some sort authenticity was to be yourself. Among those who learnt that lesson were Georgie Fame and Pete Townshend.

The first Mose Allison record I owned was an EP containing tracks from Back Country Suite, his first album, recorded for Prestige in 1957. All but one of the tracks were piano-trio instrumentals: miniatures with titles like “New Ground”, “Train” and “Warm Night”, somehow evoking the sights and sounds of the Delta, with Allison demonstrating a keyboard touch that blended the deftness of bebop with something earthier. The exception was a track called “Blues”, on which he sang in a voice that was high, light, and barely inflected: “Well, a young man ain’t nothin’ in this world today.” He didn’t sound like any of the blues singers I’d been listening to, but he sounded real.

Of course it was the singing that would make him famous: with his own compositions, like “Parchman Farm”, “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy” and “Your Mind Is on Vacation”, and with those of others, like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind”, Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind”, Mercy Dee’s “One Room Country Shack” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”. His songs sounded like theirs, and theirs sounded like his. What they shared was a wry, rueful, plaintive, homespun wisdom.

He played the trumpet, too, having taught himself and worked with a Dixieland band. There’s a lovely short version of “Trouble in Mind” on his second album, Local Color; he plays it tightly muted, in a traditional style, with just bass and drums, and you know this was someone who worshipped Louis Armstrong

But it’s his piano-playing that I come back to nowadays, to the lightness of those early sketches and to the much denser textures of his later improvisations, heard to great effect when he finally became a regular visitor to London in the 1980s. There’s a mostly instrumental Atlantic album from 1962 called Swingin’ Machine which features a stellar quintet line-up — Jimmy Knepper (trombone), Jim Reider (tenor saxophone), Addison Farmer (bass) and Frank Dunlop (drums) — and provides another demonstration of what a fine player he was.

* Mose Allison’s first six albums are collected on a two-CD set from the Fresh Sound label: Complete Prestige Recordings 1957-59. Two dozen of his vocal recordings from 1957 to 1971 are anthologised in a new BGP set titled I’m Not Talkin’: The Song Stylings of Mose Allison.

Jazz Abstraction

evan-parker-at-raAs I was on the way to see the blockbuster Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy the other day, it was pointed out that jazz and AbEx seem to share a special relationship. I suppose that has something to do with synchronicity. Franz Kline and Mark Rothko were creating their revolutionary canvases at the same time as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were making the music that changed everything, and the two developments seemed to share a sensibility. It’s easy to imagine Kline or Rothko playing “Ornithology” or “Well, You Needn’t” while working on a canvas in a Greenwich Village studio.

Easy, but probably misleading. I seem to remember reading that Jackson Pollock listened to Brahms while working on his drip paintings. Yet when Nesuhi Ertegun, the producer of Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic recordings, asked the collector and gallerist Sidney Janis for permission to reproduce Pollock’s “White Light” on the cover of Free Jazz in 1961, he was establishing a link that seemed to contain an emotional truth, if not a literal one. And Coleman’s double-quartet recording was by no means the only modern jazz album to make use of abstract expressionism on its cover: see the art of Martin Craig on the pianist Herbie Nichols’ two 10-inch LPs for Blue Note in 1955, The Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vols 1 & 2, for example.

At the RA, the breathtaking Pollock rooms are the strongest part of an exhibition that also gave me a greater appreciation of Robert Motherwell and Sam Francis. The much-vaunted assembly of giant Clifford Still canvases left me curiously unmoved, and the round space devoted to Rothko resembles an oligarch’s car-boot sale. The final couple of rooms are curiously incoherent. But of course it has to be seen.

The link with jazz was reaffirmed last night when, as one of the opening events in this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, Evan Parker gave a short solo concert and a conversation with David Ryan under the heading “Jazz Abstraction”– a title adapted from that of a 1961 Atlantic album by Coleman, John Lewis, Gunther Schuller and others (and which, come to think of it, also has an abstract expressionist painting by John Jagel on the cover).

Parker’s improvisations were as astounding as ever in their combination of fine detail and hurtling momentum. Later he remarked, non-judgmentally, that one difference between the AbEx painter and the free improviser is that in the case of the music, the process is the work.

The conversation also produced a couple of self-deprecatory gems. If La Monte Young, while still playing sopranino saxophone, had discovered circular breathing as a means of tying together the repeated motifs with which he was working, the world might never have heard of Evan Parker (who then gave us a demonstration of practising the breathing technique). And had the artist Alfreda Benge not introduced Evan to John Stevens one night in 1966, he might, as he put it, “still have had my nose pressed against the window”. Or so he claimed.

What the painters and the jazz musicians of Parker’s generation and slightly earlier had in common was not just the reassurance of an environment in which they could afford to live cheaply but a powerful belief in the value of their work, whatever valuation the world initially placed upon it. It’s just a pity that today’s commercial market doesn’t view them in the same light.

* Abstract Expressionism is on at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1 until January 2. Evan Parker’s latest album is As the Wind, with Mark Nauseef (percussion) and Toma Gouband (lithophones), released on the Psi label. The photograph is of Parker (right) and David Ryan at the RA.

Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ in the time of Trump

ravi-coltrane1Probably I’m not supposed to write about the music at a festival I curate, but something happened in Berlin on Saturday night that made me want to ignore the rules of etiquette. It occurred during the hour-long set by the trio of Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, when they slipped into the theme written by John Coltrane as a response to the deaths of four schoolgirls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, all aged between 11 and 14 — in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama by white supremacists on September 15, 1963.

John Coltrane called his piece “Alabama”, and included a studio version on the album titled Live at Birdland in 1964, released as he was approaching the height of his fame. Sombre and stately in its lamentation, with moments that hint at violence and others in which a great healing serenity breaks through, the piece is one of his finest moments: an artist protesting against against intolerance in the best way he knows how. It’s like a great war poem or painting, a “Guernica” in miniature.

DeJohnette played with John Coltrane. Ravi is John’s son. Matthew Garrison is the son of Jimmy Garrison, the bassist with the great Coltrane quartet. DeJohnette has known the two younger men since they were children. Together they took “Alabama”, stretched and turned it gently, made allusions to and abstractions of the theme, and turned it into a hymn for the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. When DeJohnette swapped his sticks for mallets, you knew he was thinking of the way Elvin Jones played on the original. And when Ravi hinted at the theme, the echo of his father’s voice filtered through the son’s own tenor saxophone sound made the scalp tingle.

In this of all weeks, when the future seems to depend on whether a man who symbolises intolerance can succeed in lying and bullying his way into power, the music took on an almost unbearable weight of feeling.

* The photograph of Ravi Coltrane at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele during Jazzfest Berlin was taken by Camille Blake.

The house of Buddy Bolden

buddy-boldenThe other day I read two stories about famous people’s homes. One was about the house in Austria in which Adolf Hitler was born. Finally the authorities are thinking of razing it to the ground, to prevent its use as a neo-Nazi pilgrimage site (although they’re nervous about it being interpreted as an attempt to erase the country’s dark past). The other was about Buddy Bolden’s house in New Orleans, which is lying derelict in the grounds of a mega-church and could be demolished at any moment to make way for car parking.

A piece by John McCusker in The Lens, a New Orleans news website, depicted the single-storey wooden house at 2309 First Street in Central City, a once poor quarter now in the process of rapid gentrification. It was where the great cornetist lived with his mother and sister until he was taken away to spend the last 25 years of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he died in 1931, aged 54.

Anyone familiar with Michael Ondaatje’s great book Coming Through Slaughter, a wonderfully vivid imagining of Bolden’s life, will feel something stirring while looking at McCusker’s photographs of the house. They might even feel moved to write to Bishop Paul Morton of the Greater St Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, which shows no sign of making good on its promise to restore the building in recognition of its history — or even simply to stop it falling to bits and put up a commemorative plaque.

Gil Evans once told me that Louis Armstrong told him that Miles Davis’s tone reminded him of the way Bolden sounded. Armstrong, of course, had heard Bolden at first hand. You and I have no idea of whether he really was, as his legend suggests, the first jazz musician. But there are enough verifiably true elements of the legend to make him a valuable symbol of America’s great art form. Is there still time for Barack Obama to make some sort of presidential decree?