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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Xhosa Cole in the round

Xhosa Cole at the Cockpit Theatre (photo: Steven Cropper)

In heaven, if there is one and we get to go there, all gigs will be like Jazz in the Round, the monthly series now in its tenth year at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone. It was good to be back in that intimate space for the first time since the start of the pandemic, among an audience encircling the young Birmingham-based saxophonist Xhosa Cole, whose debut album, K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us, is one of the year’s highlights.

Last night Cole brought a new band, a trio completed by the double bassist Josh Vadiveloo and the drummer Jim Bashford, and a repertoire which he announced would be devoted to the compositions of Thelonious Monk. Then he fooled many of us by starting with a Monkish tune of his own devising before moving on to a highly wrought version of “Played Twice”. Already the trio was revealing itself to be a finely balanced mechanism in which even drum solos become conversations.

The obvious comparison would be with Sonny Rollins’s classic 1957 Village Vanguard recording for Blue Note with Wilbur Ware and Pete LaRoca. Tenor, bass and drums can form an austere, unforgiving format, but Cole, Vadiveloo and Bashford made it seem welcoming, not least thanks to the care put into the arrangements. “Evidence”, already the most staccato of jazz tunes, was made even more so, but without forfeiting a powerful sense of flow. “Pannonica” added the tiniest hint of vaudeville to spice up a tune whose strolling A section is as close as Monk ever came to writing a pop tune (before he added a defiantly chromatic middle eight).

It’s no disrespect to the bassist and drummer, marvellously agile and responsive throughout, to say that the dominant memory of the evening was provided by Cole’s lengthy unaccompanied reading of “Round Midnight”, which grew directly out of “Played Twice” and began with the sound of clicking pads. Supple and full of life, unhurried but rich in variations and allusions, employing subtle hints of multiphonics in a wholly relevant way, Cole’s solo sometimes evoked Monk’s own habit of adding arpeggiated flourishes to his solo piano improvisations, relishing the sense of decoration without losing the thread of continuity.

Unexpectedly, it reminded me of the first version of “Round Midnight” that I remember hearing, a feature for Johnny Griffin on Lookin’ at Monk, a 1961 recording by the two-tenor group Griffin co-led with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. I think Griffin, one of the great post-bop tenorists, would have admired not just Cole’s impressive technical command but the poise, maturity and warmth with which the 25-year-old found new life in a very familiar tune.

* Xhosa Cole’s K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us is on the Stoney Lane label.

Hipster, still eminent

Of course there’s nothing really new to be heard on the pair of live albums Donald Fagen has just released, one under his own name and the other under that of Steely Dan: Northeast Corridor, a selection of the Dan’s songs recorded at the Beacon Theatre in New York and Boston’s Orpheum Theatre, and a concert version of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo masterpiece, pieced together from those and a couple of other venues across the US. Why would there be? The original recordings were pretty close to perfect in the first place, or as close as Fagen and his late partner, Walter Becker, could make them across days, weeks and months in state-of-the-art studios.

So what’s the point? Perhaps it’s to allow us to replicate the sensation of hearing them for the first time, which is what even the slightest shift of emphasis or ornament allows. The slightly adjusted harmonies of the chorus to “Kid Charlemagne”, the melodica on “Aja”, the drum coda to “Reelin’ in the Years”, the brand-new rhapsodic trombone intro to “Things I Miss the Most”, the ceding of the solo bridge passage of “Maxine” to a member of the close-harmony backing choir — they’re small changes, but they help us to see the bigger picture anew. Otherwise the proportions and trajectories are much as they were on the originals — although in the case of The Nightfly the overall feel is a little more, shall we say, fatback: fuller and funkier, but not so much as to change the tone.

Maybe the most significant change is to Fagen’s voice, and even that doesn’t really alter the listener’s response. Always the instrument of someone who had to be persuaded to to take the lead on his own songs, and the more authentic for that, age has cost it some of its strength but none of its capacity to beguile and engage. It was always a sidelong voice, and his delivery of the confessions of a graveyard-shift DJ on The Nightfly‘s title track seems even more affecting.

When Fagen made The Nightfly, he was looking back 20 years to the time immediately before the Kennedy assassination, when capitalism seemed ready to share its material abundance throughout the western world. Now, another 40 years later, in a period of disillusion and uncertainty, the evocation of that period’s Madison Avenue-inspired optimism carries extra weight.

The musicianship across both albums is, of course, immaculate. Keith Carlock’s drums and Freddie Washington’s bass make those mid-tempo rhythms as crisp as a brand-new button-down shirt. The two-brass, two-reeds front line swivels on a dime (with a special mention for Roger Rosenberg’s baritone solo on “Black Cow”, and no blame to tenorist Walt Weiskopf for not quite being Wayne Shorter on “Aja” or Michael Brecker on “Ruby Baby”). Guitarist Jon Herington produces a great Denny Dias tribute on the euphoric “Bhodisattva” and pianist Jim Beard romps through “Glamour Profession”.

As a coda to the Steely Dan album, Fagen and his superlative quartet of backing singers leave the stage to a single-chorus instrumental arrangement of “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry”, a blues-ballad from a 1958 Joe Williams album. It’s a reminder of the depth of Fagen and Becker’s knowledge and love of music — as are these two albums as a whole. Which, come to think of it, is by itself a good enough reason for their existence.

* Steely Dan’s Northeast Corridor and Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live are out now on Universal Music. The photograph of Fagen is from the booklet with the Steely Dan album and was taken by Nick Antaya.

Supreme in Seattle

When John Coltrane died in the summer of 1967, aged 40, he left us engaged in a discussion that will go on for as long as people are still listening to his music. “Late Coltrane”, as the music of his last two years is known, provides an endless source of speculation over its intention and argument over its value.

With the original studio version of A Love Supreme, recorded in December 1964 and released a month later, he reached a pinnacle that marked the end of his middle period and signalled the beginning of something new. Formally, the album retained the by-then familiar and much admired approach of his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). But its explicitly devotional message hinted at the direction he was about to take, towards a music in which the individual notes were less important than the feelings they expressed and the spiritual release they sought.

His subsequent music, often featuring expanded versions of the line-up, with more horn players and percussionists, tended to stir up trouble among those who didn’t appreciate his engagement with the newer forms of expression that freed him from the last vestiges of Western song-form. From Ascension, released in January 1966, to the benefit concert at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in New York in 1967, this last music inspired some and infuriated others, and continues to do so.

For those still searching for a key to unlock the apparent mstery of Late Coltrane, the release of a hitherto unknown live version of A Love Supreme, recorded in October 1965 on the last night of a week-long run at the Penthouse in Seattle, provides a perfect portal to his changed universe. The quartet had played the four-section masterwork at the Antibes jazz festival in the summer of 1965, sticking close to the studio blueprint. The Seattle version, although following the same scheme, is very different in approach. With the quartet augmented by Carlos Ward on alto, Pharoah Sanders on tenor and Donald Garrett on bass, the approach is far looser, with solo space for the guests and the individual movements separated (or linked) by interludes featuring solo passages by the bassists and the drummer.

Well over twice as long, at 75 minutes, as the original, this version allows the listener to hear the new initiatives in the context of a familiar, albeit flexible, structure, which may help some to make “sense” of it. Exalted moments abound. Following Coltrane’s opening solo, Sanders’ soft-edged buzzsaw lifts “Acknowledgment” to another level of energy, driven by Jones’s Latin-inflected barrage. In the first interlude, Garrett and Garrett play together, entwining their pizzicato lines. (In the third and fourth, they play consecutively.) Ward has a beautiful solo on “Resolution”, the Panamanian saxophonist — later a valued partner of Don Cherry and Abdullah Ibrahim — displaying his personal approach to Eric Dolphy’s angular phrasing. Jones’s interlude is a six-minute solo tour de force that sets up the bravura performance of “Pursuance”, on which Tyner plays what might be one of his mightiest solos, ideas flooding from the keyboard at a blistering 80 bars (or 320 beats, if you prefer) per minute. As for Coltrane himself, the beautifully controlled winding-down on the concluding “Psalm”, arco basses echoing the tenor, is as nakedly affecting as anything he ever played.

By comparison with the unsuccessful sextet versions of two of the movements Coltrane recorded on the day after the original studio session, when he experimented with adding the tenor of Archie Shepp and the bass of Art Davis to the quartet, this is fully realised music, all its elements held in perfect balance. Not surprisingly, given the sustained intensity and unbroken beauty of what the Penthouse audience has been hearing, there’s a lengthy silence at the end before the applause begins.

The audio quality, restored from the original recording made at the club by the flautist Joe Brazil on a reel-to-reel machine, is far better than adequate. What little it might lack in perfect balance is outweighed by a clarity and an immediacy that bring us very close indeed to the first-hand experience of an historic occasion. For anyone who has ever been touched by Coltrane’s music, and perhaps wants to understand it better, this is essential listening.

* John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is released on October 22 on the Impulse! label. The photograph of Coltrane in 1965 was taken by Chuck Stewart.

One saint among many

Fans of the The Sopranos will watch The Many Saints of Newark, the new movie prequel to the six-season TV series, expecting to hear some good stuff on the sound track. They won’t be disappointed by a selection that runs from the Marvelettes’ “Danger Heartbreak Ahead” to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. (And don’t leave before the final song overlaying the closing credits: the exquisite “Calling All Angels” by Jane Siberry with k. d. lang.)

But there was one choice that surprised and even shocked me. I hadn’t read anything about film in advance, entirely on purpose, so I wasn’t aware of the key role played in the narrative by the four days of rioting in Newark, New Jersey during the long hot summer of 1967, when the city’s black population rose up in protest against the beating of a black cab driver by two white police officers.

The sequences depicting the uprising are brilliantly staged and powerfully affecting. They are also subtly accompanied by the strains of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, the five-minute studio recording made on November 18, 1963 and included the following year on the album Live at Birdland. My spine tingled when I heard it, but it also made me uncomfortable.

The piece is believed to have been composed by Coltrane in response to the bombing by white racists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 16, 1963, in which four black schoolgirls died as they were changing into choir robes in the church basement. (Say their names: Carole Denise McNair, aged 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.) It’s necessary only to mention Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders to evoke Alabama’s previous role as a key location in the civil rights struggle, but it’s fair to assume that, given the eight-week gap between the church bombing and the recording, Coltrane had that particularly tragedy on his mind.

The result was a piece of music that occupies a special place in the saxophonist’s history. The starkest and most distilled example of what might be called his hymnal mode, it reached his public at a time when the spiritual content of his music was beginning to make itself apparent. A couple of years later A Love Supreme would leave no doubt about his intentions (and after his death, a group of followers in San Francisco would set up the Church of St John Coltrane).

But in addition to its aura of spirituality, “Alabama” had a specific meaning. Ben Ratliff, the author of an excellent Coltrane biography, called it “an accurate psychological portrait of a time, a complicated mood that nobody else could render so well.” If anyone wanted to understand how Coltrane could begin to inspire awe, Ratcliff added, they needed to look no further than this track.

So was it legitimate for Alan Taylor, the director of The Many Saints of Newark, to co-opt this much revered musical prayer, divorcing it from its original meaning in order to underscore the drama of a cinematically rendered scene from a riot three years later in a different city, exploiting the piece’s authentic emotional depth in what is, for all its layers, essentially a Mob movie?

Of course it’s nice to know that it will now be heard for the first time by many of those who go to see the film. Some of them may wonder about the musician behind those few seconds of sound, and might pursue their interest further. And of course you could say that since “Alabama” was inspired by an episode from the civil rights struggle, it has hardly been wrenched out of its context. If I can’t help feeling a little uneasy, then perhaps I’m wrong.

Barney and the Blue Note

Almost 30 years after collaborating with Miles Davis on the historic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 film Lift to the Scaffold, Barney Wilen had disappeared from view. Then he discovered that he’d become the subject of a popular strip cartoon in the French magazine À Suivre. Written by Philippe Paringaux, the editor in chief of Rock & Folk magazine, and drawn by Jacques de Loustal, the bande dessinée titled “Barney et la Note Bleue” told the story of a French tenor saxophonist — young, white, gifted, bespectacled — as he made his way through a jazz life, all the way to a fatal overdose.

To begin with, Wilen was upset. For a start, he told Paringaux and Loustal, he was still alive. But the episode turned out well. Encouraged by Paringaux (who confessed that the inclusion of a doomed love affair had been based on an incident from his own life), Wilen returned to the recording studio and made an album titled after the strip, following its narrative and using Loustal’s distinctive artwork for the cover. A season at a Paris jazz club drew a new young audience who had followed the fictionalised story in À Suivre. Released in 1987, the album won the French jazz album of the year award, the Grand Prix of the Académie Charles Cros.

After a decade bathed in the light cast by his second coming, and many more concerts and recordings, Wilen died of cancer in 1996, aged 59. Now the Note Bleue album has been reissued, in a version remastered by the original engineer, Hervé Le Guil, and with added outtakes plus a second disc devoted to a set from a Paris nightclub, Le Petit Opportun, in 1989.

Wilen is one of my favourite European jazz musicians of the post-war era, a beautifully balanced post-bop soloist with an inquiring mind that took him into adventurous engagements with free jazz, rock and African music before he found his way back to his original idiom. This celebrated album found him delivering concise versions of some of his favourite vehicles — Consuelo Velázquez’s “Besame Mucho”, Duke Pearson’s “No Problem”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, a legato rephrasing of Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” — plus several originals, Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne” and a gorgeous, near-definitive reading of Gordon Jenkins’s ballad “Good-Bye”, which he had never heard before it was suggested to him at the session. There’s also an amusing nod to the episode of the strip in which Barney plays a Twist number with a rock and roll band. The other members of his fine quintet are the guitarist Philippe Petit, the pianist Alain Jean-Marie, the bassist Riccardo Del Fra and the drummer Sangoma Everett. The outtakes include a spellbinding unaccompanied reprise of “Besame Mucho”.

The live session features most of the same tunes, performed in stretched-out versions with the brilliant pianist Jacky Terrasson, then 24 years old, Gilles Naturel (bass) and Peter Gritz (drums). The mood is looser, the playing more fiery. Wilen plays soprano on a couple of the tunes, and there are interesting interjections by the compère, Claude Carrière (in French, naturally).

With the two discs comes a booklet including many images captured during the original studio session by the Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec and English texts from many of the original participants, including Paringaux, Loustal, Jean-Marie, Del Fra, Everett, Le Guil and Patrick Wilen, Barney’s son, who supervised the project with his wife, Satomi Wilen.

It’s great to have this wonderful record available again, enhanced by the improved sound and the inclusion of additional music that is not merely tacked on but feels wholly integral, expanding our understanding of the life and work of a great musician.

* Released on the Elemental label, Barney et la Note Bleue is available as a boxed set including a vinyl version of the original album and a paperback edition of the original strip, or as a set of two CDs. The illustration is taken from one of Jacques de Loustal’s preliminary sketches.

Songs of the earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Johnson by himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Challenger’s ‘Imasche’

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

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

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

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

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

Another side of Charlie Watts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry Lowther at the Vortex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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