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Posts from the ‘Poetry’ Category

Patti Smith at the Albert Hall

When she was 15 or so, the woman said, she’d dreamed about a certain boy, about walking down the street holding his hand. And now here she was, performing at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, and she was going to sing one of his songs. And at the end of a most elegant version of “One Too Many Mornings”, Patti Smith said quietly: “Bob Dylan.”

The last time I’d seen Patti was in 1995 at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, when she and Dylan were touring together. She came on to sing “Dark Eyes” with him during his acoustic section, and then she joined him in the encores for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. It was nice to be reminded last night of the history they share, and she honoured it beautifully on the very stage where, 55 years ago, he sang “One Too Many Mornings” with another band.

But that was just one highlight in a night crammed with them, starting with the lyric to “Piss Factory”, the B-side of her first single in 1974, which she declaimed unaccompanied to start the 90-minute set. That was electrifying, and at the end of the evening my only regret was that she hadn’t done more reading.

But would I have swapped that for the lovely “Grateful”, the driving Velvets drone of “Dancing Barefoot”, the collective exhilaration of “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a most surprising and tender mid-set version of Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun”, Lenny Kaye’s dedication of the Stones’ “I’m Free” to Charlie Watts, the cathartic “People Have the Power”, which Patti wrote with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, or the thunderous closing run through “Not Fade Away”, when the instruments cut after the last “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be”, allowing Patti, the band and the entire pan-generational audience to bellow “You’re gonna give your love to me”?

What I also admired was the way she and the band — Kaye and Jackson Smith (guitars), Jesse Paris Smith (piano), Tony Shanahan (bass guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) — put on such a well calibrated show while keeping their garage-band rawness and honesty. Jackson Smith’s raga-rock solo on “Dancing Barefoot” was a beauty, as was Daugherty’s ability — probably learnt from reggae drumming — to leave spaces within a bar without losing power.

But I wasn’t really taking notes. I was on my feet, with everyone else.

Marianne & Joan

In 1965, when she was 18 years old, Marianne Faithfull was cast as Ophelia in Tony Richardson’s Hamlet, a Roundhouse production swiftly transferred to film. Two years later Bill Gaskill directed her in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Royal Court, alongside Glenda Jackson: “Marriane (sic) Faithfull looked Irina most plausibly,” Philip Hope-Wallace wrote in the Guardian, “even if she could still get more out of the words.” Today, in her maturity, Faithfull knows that the best lines can be allowed to speak for themselves.

Lines like Keats’ “The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing”, for example, and Tennyson’s “The mirror crack’d from side to side.” They’re heard on her new album, She Walks in Beauty, in which she recites verses from the Romantic poets over backdrops created by the Australian musician Warren Ellis.

I’ve no idea whether, following her recovery from a bout of Covid-19 which put her in intensive care for three weeks, she has plans to make any more albums. If not, She Walks in Beauty would make a fitting capstone to a career that began in 1964 when, at a party for the singer Adrienne Posta, Andrew Loog Oldham spotted a convent schoolgirl who was already in thrall to the poetry she reads here.

The album adheres to a single mood, tending towards the ethereal: drifting ambient soundscapes sparingly garnished by Ellis’s violin, Vincent Ségal’s cello, Nick Cave’s piano and, on two pieces, Brian Eno’s treatments. Faithfull’s delivery of the verses is respectful and measured: her deep contralto has the grain of experience, grounding the poetics. About half the tracks received their voice tracks after her recovery, which might explain why one or two of them are more deliberate than the rest, although not obviously or disturbingly so.

Among the pieces I particularly enjoyed are Byron’s title piece, Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy”. I was amused, too, that she borrows a tactic perfected by her old admirer Bob Dylan with “Desolation Row” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”: the trick of leaving the collection’s epic performance until last. In this case it’s the 12 minutes of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, which she gives in the 20-stanza version published in 1832, 10 years before the author revised the ending to suit Victorian sensibilities. (It’s a shame her script — repeated in the accompanying booklet — gave her “Through the squally east wind keenly/Blew…” rather than “Though…”, but the blemish is fleeting.)

It’s worth adding that ownership of the special edition of She Walks in Beauty is much enhanced by the inclusion of reproductions of a dozen watercolours — including the cover illustration — by the English artist Colin Self, any one of which I’d be happy to have hanging on the wall.

As a collateral benefit, Faithfull’s album sent me back to Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, a 1968 release in which Joan Baez read and sang poetry over music by the composer Peter Schickele. Conceived by Maynard Solomon, the co-founder of Vanguard Records, it was an ambitious project in which Schickele created bespoke settings for verses from poets ranging from anonymous medieval Chinese and Japanese writers through John Donne, William Blake and Walt Whitman to Arthus Rimbaud, Wilfred Owen, Henry Treece, James Joyce, Federico García Lorca, Jacques Prévert, Countee Cullen and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

The album is bookended by Treece’s “Old Welsh Song”, a fragment sung by Baez, backed by a harmonium. Much more of a mosaic of miniatures than Faithfull’s album, the mood of the programme is defined by a hatred of war and bloodshed, beginning with Whitman’s “I Saw the Vision of Armies”, read to softly rolling tom-toms and cymbals, and the Chinese verse “Minister of War”, punctuated by a distorted guitar and a clashing gong-like effects. A hovering unison cello and bass line wanders disconsolately behind Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translation of Prévert’s “Song in the Blood”, glockenspiel and celeste accompany the sung version of Joyce’s early “Of the Dark Past”, a jaunty string quartet matches the vivacity of a fragment from the same writer’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

If the flute and harp embroidering Rimbaud’s “Childhood” are a bit twee, his “Evil” gets a cinematic soundtrack whose opening sounds of strife thin out as they give way to pathos. The flute, viola and celeste colouring Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Japanese haiku are appropriately exquisite, and Schickele gives Baez a lovely melody for e.e. cummings’ “All in green went my love riding”. Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, with its devastating payoff, is wisely left unaccompanied.

Baez was 27 at the time of this recording. Sometimes her delivery could be a little over-reverent, but mostly she found the right tone, nowhere more powerfully than on the two short poems at the heart of the album: Blake’s “London”, with its appalled visions of the corruption of the flesh and the spirit, and Norman Rosten’s “In Guernica”, where a simple, almost photographic description deepens into tragedy through a single word: “In Guernica the dead children / Were laid out in order on the sidewalk / In their white starched dresses / In their pitiful white dresses.” Both pieces employ the tolling of tuned percussion over strange drones.

By 1968, Baez had sold a lot of albums. Her two In Concert albums had made the Billboard top 10 in 1962-63, and in a year later Joan Baez 5 reached the UK top three. Baptism made it no higher than No 84 in the US and failed to register at all in Britain Somehow, though, partly for its sense of adventure and partly for “London” and “In Guernica”, it’s the one that’s stayed with me.

In Underground London

Underground London 2

I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in recent days from listening to Underground London, a three-CD set that attempts to recreate, through a mosaic of recordings, the feeling of being a certain kind of person in London in the first half of the 1960s, someone either growing out of, or who had been a little too young for, the full beatnik experience in the 1950s, but looking for similar sensations in a changing time: free speech, free jazz, free verse, free love.

The first disc starts with Ornette Coleman’s “W.R.U.”, ends with Jimmy Smith’s “Autumn Leaves”, and includes Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading “Dog”, Allen Ginsberg reading “America”, a track from Red Bird, the jazz-and-poetry EP Christopher Logue made with Tony Kinsey, and György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères”. The second opens with Jimmy Giuffre’s “Jesus Maria”, ends with Albert Ayler’s “Moanin'”, and includes Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Jog”, Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody, and the Dudley Moore Trio playing the theme from Beyond the Fringe. The third opens with Cecil Taylor’s “Love for Sale”, ends with Thelonious Monk’s “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” and includes Davy Graham and Alexis Korner playing “3/4 AD”, Aldous Huxley reading from The Visionary Experience, the MJQ playing “Lonely Woman”, Luciano Berio manipulating Cathy Berberian’s voice in “Visage”, and “A Rose for Booker” by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with Charles Lloyd.

Add in Stockhausen, Don Cherry and John Coltrane, Annie Ross, John Cage and David Tudor, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy and Joe Harriott, and you get the idea. And to set up the mood for the sort of extended listening session the set deserves, I’d suggest candles in Chianti bottles, something vaguely cubist on the wall, the Tibetan Book of the Dead on the coffee table, and a black polo-neck sweater, or perhaps a chocolate-brown corduroy jacket. And if the party is going well, maybe a Beatle or two, in an adventurous mood, will drop by on the way home from Abbey Road.

But it’s not really a joke, or a caricature. There’s a lot of completely wonderful stuff here, some of it revealing new qualities when isolated from the context of its original full-album setting (an underrated virtue of anthologies or compilations). And practically everything is on the edge of something, some new discovery, some unexplored territory worth taking a risk to reach. How exciting was that?

* The photograph of Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall was taken in 1965 by John Hopkins and was used in the poster for the International Poetry Incarnation held on June 11 that year. It’s included in the booklet accompanying Underground London: Art Music and Free Jazz in the Swinging Sixties, which is on él records, via Cherry Red. 

Another me, another way

Another me 3

The self-portrait above was painted by an inmate of Vinney Green Secure Unit, a young offenders’ facility in Bristol. It’s part of “Another Me”, an exhibition of artworks by people incarcerated within the criminal justice system, currently on show in the Spirit Level rooms at the South Bank centre, below the Festival Hall. It caught my attention when I noticed that it had been curated for the Koestler Arts foundation by Soweto Kinch, the brilliant composer, saxophonist and bandleader. Anything Kinch is involved in tends to be worth your time, and “Another Me” is no exception.

At Koestler Arts’ building in Wormwood Scrubs, he went through 7,610 entries submitted in 52 categories from UK prisons and British prisoners abroad. His selection spans a range of media, from conventional painting and photography to wall-poetry, music of various genres (which you can hear through headphones), all ranging from the sombre to the defiantly whimsical. There’s a particularly extraordinary piece made from used nitrous oxide canisters found in various London locations — outside a school, an off-licence, a night club, a hospital — and labelled and framed in the style of Victorian museum objects under the title “Nitrouonites: Future Fossils”. As you walk around, you’ll hear the sound of drifting saxophones and electronics: a non-invasive but gently atmospheric sound installation specially devised by the curator.

Many of the works display great technical skill, but I was struck by the one at the top of this piece, a particularly eloquent and moving articulation of the exhibition’s theme. As another of the artists writes in a commentary on his own self-portrait, the title of show “suggest(s) so many possibilities, reflecting on past actions or future selves. It speaks of the masks we all use in our day-to-day lives. Our best selves, our worst. Perhaps most powerfully it suggests change is possible — there can always be another me, another way.”

* Another Me is at the Spirit Level exhibition space of the Royal Festival Hall until November 3. Soweto Kinch performs his new work The Black Peril at Hackney EartH on November 22 with an ensemble including the drummer Makaya McCraven, the bassist Junius Paul and members of the LSO, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

Poem: Listening to Miss Peggy Lee

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When Peggy Lee recorded “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” in 1957, the song — with music by Jerome Kern and words by Oscar Hammerstein II — was already 20 years old. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, conducted by Frank Sinatra, the recording became a Lee classic. I saw her perform it on The Perry Como Show, broadcast weekly by the BBC in the days when there were only two TV channels. On the surface, Lee and Riddle turned the song into a reassuring vision of the white-picket-fence America of the Eisenhower era. I heard that, too, but I found myself, young as I was then, responding to something deeper, more ambiguous, containing both optimism for adulthood and a hint of anxieties to come. The poet Roy Kelly seems to have experienced a similar reaction. Roy writes for The Bridge, the Bob Dylan magazine; his long piece on the ‘Mondo Scripto’ exhibition is in the next issue. His book Bob Dylan Dream: My Life with Bob was published in 2015. I’m grateful for his permission to publish this new poem, and I hope you like it as much as I do. RW

 

ON LISTENING TO MISS PEGGY LEE SING

THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL

 

By Roy Kelly

 

The song I heard as a child

and ever since, beautiful Fifties America

art song, popular and commonplace

in anyone’s Sunday kitchen,

coming out of radios as if it never

could end, that time, that childhood.

An arranged figure lifting

and repeating, horns and strings

in melancholy grandeur;

not the tune but inextricable

precursor to its unfolding,

to the appearance of her voice,

small and clear, steadfast, intimate,

 

close as a whisper rising into

the narrative of melody,

the story of a union to come,

Darby and Joan who used to be

Jack and Jill, woven and layered

in the resonance of words and music,

the grief at the core of happiness,

tears in the heart of all things,

so that for years I never hear it

but my eyes brim, my throat swells to closing.

Genius art song of Fifties America

informing me of a life that might have been

and the future I have now,

 

the family I am blessed with now,

in a story we need to tell each other

of how it is loving and being loved,

as she loved and was loved, wishing

on a world that lives in songs,

memory and imagination a focused vision,

childhood and old age meeting

in her voice, her eternal clarity,

the unison that moved me to tears

and will again though I forget she is dead,

the uplifting splendour of the everyday

coming alive on anyone’s radio

as if these moments never will end.

Sandburg/Wilson

Carl Sandburg 2

Carl Sandburg

It’s National Poetry Day, and since I have a weakness for the much abused hybrid known as jazz and poetry that goes back to schooldays, this is a good excuse — if one were needed — to write about Matt Wilson’s new album, Honey and Salt, in which he sets the words of the poet Carl Sandburg to music.

Some people don’t like the star system of reviewing, but it was while reading the August edition of Down Beat in Ray’s Jazz Shop the other day that a five-star lead review sent me across the floor to search out a copy of Honey and Salt. It turned out to be a good tip.

Wilson, a fine drummer familiar in many contexts, whom I last heard with Liberation Music Orchestra, recruited an excellent band for this project: Ron Miles (cornet), Jeff Lederer (reeds and harmonium), Martin Wind (acoustic bass guitar), and Dawn Thompson, who plays guitar and sings on a handful of the 18 selections, plus an interesting group of readers better known as instrumentalists: Christian McBride, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano and Carla Bley. Oh, and the actor Jack Black.

Sandburg (1878-1967) won two Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry, and a third for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. He was from Knox County, Illinois, as is Wilson. Sandburg’s first cousin was married to Wilson’s great-great-aunt. While researching an essay on the poet during his college days, Wilson discovered Sandburg’s interest in jazz.

The poems are dry, pithy, witty and humane, some of them with a powerful resonance in the new century. Here’s one called “Choose”: “The single clenched fist lifted and ready, / Or the open asking hand held out and waiting. / Choose: / For we meet by one or the other.” And here’s one of his best known, called “Fog”: “The fog comes / on little cat feet. / It sits looking / over city and harbor / on silent haunches / and then moves on.” Wilson includes Sandburg’s own recording of “Fog”, accompanying the poet’s gentle voice with mallets on tom-toms.

The arrangements are unfailingly inventive, and the playing of the individuals — particularly the always brilliant Miles — is outstanding. The readers are all terrific, and to Bley falls the privilege of delivering, without accompaniment, the marvellous “To Know Silence Perfectly”: “There is a music for lonely hearts nearly always. / If the music dies down there is a silence / Almost the same as the movement of music. / To know silence perfectly is to know music.” On this evidence, their acute awareness of tone and cadence and expression makes jazz musicians great readers of poetry.

‘A Porky Prime Cut’

a-porky-prime-cutThere’s an interesting new poem by Michael Hofmann in the latest issue of the New Yorker. It’s called “Lisburn Road” and it’s about surveying the scattered detritus of a life. In the final stanza there’s a reference that might be puzzling to some of the magazine’s readers: The ‘Porky Prime Cut’ greetings etched in the lead-off grooves…

The poem has begun with a mention of “A few yards of vinyl records, well thumbed.” The allusion to greetings etched in the run-out grooves (as I would call them) refers to the signature of the cutting engineer who mastered the albums in question. “Porky” was George Peckham, then the finest exponent of his craft in the UK music industry.

Liverpool-born, and a member of the Fourmost before becoming an engineer at the Apple studio in Savile Row, Peckham cut masters in the 1970s at studios on Riding House Street, around the corner from the BBC’s Broadcasting House, and then at IBC in Portland Place, also nearby. He built a reputation and soon, with the record business in full spate, he had more work than he could handle.

When did the habit of etching graffiti into the space around run-out groove begin? Maybe with Phil Spector, who scratched words recording his relationships with his first two wives, Annette Merar and Veronica Bennett, into his 45s. For a while, John Lennon emulated him with a “John and Yoko” message.

“A Porky Prime Cut” was not Peckham’s only signature: “Pecko” and “Pecko Duck” were others. The difference between his marks and those of others was that he was not one of the people who had actually made the music within the grooves, but a technician. For record buyers of a certain level of obsessive interest in the minutiae of the 1970s, they became part of a rich landscape of signs and meanings.

* Michael Hofmann’s “Lisburn Road” appears in the March 6 issue of the New Yorker.

In the land of Sinatra and Dylan

In the early days of The Blue Moment, I published a poem called “The Cool School”. Roy Kelly, the poet in question, wrote this new one in San Francisco last summer, several months before the announcement that, on February 2, Bob Dylan will release an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, called Shadows in the Night, previewed on bobdylan.com by a version of “Full Moon and Empty Arms”.

 

AT THE END OF AMERICA

By Roy Kelly

 

At the end of America looking west

and thinking east, surrounded by

the sadness of leaving, thinking of voices

under the vastness of the endless sky

 

that rolls back across days and nights,

successions of darkness and light, so strange

and so ordinary, all the hours and miles to home.

And here fallen cloud like a gorgeous mountain range

 

rearing and roiling on top of this one, its lower

reaches of plump softness already flowing

white and thin, dispersed and sparse down

gullies and ravines as we contemplate going,

 

brooding and musing on a world already gone,

and this one, always coming to pass,

the radio voices always alive in the whenever moment

of listening, even if high school class

 

was where they entered your heart and soul.

And now someone with silver hair

looks back from every reflective surface,

leaving you wondering how he arrived there.

 

Looking west and east, imagining those voices

that began with actual people and are now a myth

that conjures a country and time, the emotional history

of every age their records grew up with:

 

Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra, soundings from a cloud

that covers the waterfront of this and last century,

every past and every future in polar voices

that blow in the wind that comes to fly with me

 

at the end of America, looking forward

and back, remembering love’s strange rights and wrongs,

insignificant and wonderful under a continental sky,

and the blessed ordinary magic of songs.

Remembering Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro 1Laura Nyro had missed her intended flight from New York to London, forcing her to take a plane that arrived at six o’clock in the morning. Now here she was, barely 12 hours later, warming up before recording a performance before an invited audience in a small auditorium at the BBC’s Television Centre, for a series called In Concert.

This was in May 1971, three months after she had made her British debut at the Royal Festival Hall, giving a solo concert in which the first set was performed by her then boyfriend, Jackson Browne, who was also appearing in the UK for the first time. It had been a wonderful recital: she started with “Stoney End”, included “Timer”, “Been on a Train”, “Emmie”, “Map to the Treasure” and “Christmas in My Soul”, read a poem called “Coal Truck”, and finished with a lovely medley of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Spanish Harlem”. Such range, such composure, such deep connection with her audience seemed exceptional in one who was still only 23 years old.

She readied herself for the BBC’s cameras in a voluptuously flowing mauve and lilac dress with lace half-sleeves: a typically dramatic costume. As she sat at the piano, I was struck by the way that she could turn her head to look like at one moment like a exquisitely soulful contessa from a Velasquez painting and at the next like a lusty young maid from one of Chaucer’s tales.

As well as her manager of the time, Richard Chiaro, there was a new boyfriend along for the ride. “You’ve got to sit somewhere I can see you,” she told him. But a few minutes later she was scolding him for singing along while she ran through some of her numbers.

In such an intimate setting, the evening was unforgettable: opening with a medley in which “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” sandwiched “Natural Woman”, she sang “Buy and Sell”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, the then-unrecorded “I Am the Blues”, “Christmas in My Soul”, a medley of “Timer”, “Ooo Child” and “Up on the Roof”, and “Mother Earth”; she delivered “Stoney End” as an encore. It was transmitted on BBC2, but in the intervening years it seems to have vanished. Long ago I asked Alan Yentob, a senior arts person at the corporation, to see if he could unearth it, but there was no trace.

It was 23 years later, in November 1994, that Laura made her final British appearance, accompanied by her three backing singers in the ideal 19th century Gothic environment of the Union Chapel in Islington. The set finished with her lovely version of “Walk on By”. And then she was gone, to be carried away by ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.

She remains a powerful and enduring presence among those who fell under the spell of her extraordinary talent. One of those fans is Billy Childs, an American jazz pianist — known for his work with Freddie Hubbard and Dianne Reeves, among others — who has just released an album called Map to the Treasure, on Sony’s Masterworks label, in which his arrangements of 10 Nyro songs are delivered by different singers.

It’s a risky undertaking. Nyro’s first success came with other people’s versions of her songs (the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, Blood Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die”, Barbra Streisand’s “Stoney End”, Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”), but it didn’t take long for her listeners to realise that the composer’s own versions far outstripped those of her interpreters. Nyro’s full-strength personality suffused her writing, as became apparent in her two masterpiece albums, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969), and their successors. Only she could properly explore the duality of the Madonna/streetchild persona (which she encouraged through her choice of jacket photos for those two albums). So to attempt cover versions at this stage of the game might seem otiose. Who, after all, can add anything new to such cherished pieces as “The Confession” and “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”?

Amazingly, Childs manages it — not by attempting to match or emulate the raw, romantic power of the originals, but by looking for facets of the songs to which he can apply his considerable resources, and by recruiting a group of singers who do not set out to sound like Nyro but bring their own voices, along with an unmistakeable admiration for the source of the material.

A string quartet appears on every track, with guests soloists featured alongside the singers: Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone with Esperanza Spalding on “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”, Chris Botti’s trumpet with Shawn Colvin on “Save the Country”, Steve Wilson’s alto saxophone with Susan Tedeschi on “Gibsom Street”, and Jerry Douglas’s dobro with Alison Krauss on “And When I Die”. Childs is the pianist throughout, supported by the impeccable rhythm team of Scott Colley (double bass) and Brian Blade (drums).

Childs jumps in straight at the deep end by opening the album with “New York Tendaberry”, one of Nyro’s most personal songs, delivered by the operatic soprano Renée Fleming and the cellist Yo Yo Ma. So right away you know we’re not in for a set of mere recreations. The beauty of Fleming’s tone and the sensitive formality of her phrasing takes the piece away from Nyro’s uptown-soul sensibility and into a different dimension.

That’s one of the highlights. Another comes straight afterwards, with Becca Stevens’s equally poised but comparatively uncorseted tilt at “The Confession”. At the centre of the whole thing, in structural and emotional terms, is Rickie Lee Jones: out of all the singers in the project, she is the one who most resembles Nyro in style and delivery (and, as she has often said, is most influenced by her), making her perfectly suited to bring out the tragedy of “Been on a Train”, helped by a most imaginative arrangement for the string quartet. Her presence makes me wish Childs had also called upon Mary Margaret O’Hara, the other singer I think of as an heir to Nyro’s legacy.

But once you get the measure of what Childs is up to, there isn’t a bad track here. What he gives us is a beautifully conceived and meticulously executed song cycle, a fitting tribute to one of the most original and gifted artists of our time. Yes, it’s polished thing, far more polished than Nyro’s own records ever were, but that polish is no superficial gloss: it’s the patina of a profound respect. And beneath it beats the heart of an extraordinary woman.

Laura Nyro BBC ticket

* The photograph of Laura Nyro comes from the cover of her 1984 album Mother’s Spiritual and was taken by Irene Young. The ticket for the 1971 BBC TV concert is mine. Anyone who loves Nyro’s music and hasn’t already read Michele Kort’s excellent biography — Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, published by Thomas Dunne Books in the US in 2002 — should do so. And here, for free, is a link to an interesting piece by an academic, Patricia S. Rudden, from a 2006 edition of the newsletter of the Emily Dickinson Society (you’ll need to scroll down to the third page). Clips of Nyro on YouTube tend to get taken down quickly, but here’s a beauty: her performance of “Poverty Train” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, giving the lie (despite a lame band of session men) to the myth that it was a total disaster. And here’s a real oddity from 1969.

Westbrook’s Blake

Mike Westbrook 3The parish church of St Giles-in-the-Fields turned out to be the perfect place for last night’s performance of Glad Day, Mike Westbrook’s settings of William Blake’s poetry. Situated close to the modern junction of Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, and known as the Poets’ Church, the present building was completed in 1733 on the site where first a monastery and chapel and then earlier churches had ministered to lepers (St Giles is their patron saint) since the 12th century. The first victims of the Great Plague of 1665 were buried in its garden.

Blake was born in nearby Soho and in his time the church stood next to the warren of dwellings known as the Rookery, London’s most notorious haunt of thieves and prostitutes, immortalised in Hogarth’s Gin Lane drawings and Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. It’s a gentler place now, although had Blake, Hogarth and Dickens been living today they might have been interested to leave the church, turn left down Denmark Street, cross Charing Cross Road and witness the sights of 21st century Soho on a Saturday night.

The concert was in aid of the Simon Community, which recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its work with London’s homeless population. In the church’s soft yellow light Westbrook was joined by two solo singers — his wife, Kate, and Phil Minton — and the 30-voice Queldryk Choral Ensemble, conducted by Paul Ayres, plus the violinist Billy Thompson, the accordionist Karen Street and the double bassist Steve Berry.

They began, appropriately enough, with the searing images of “London”, sung by Kate, before Minton delivered “Let the Slave” and Mike Westbrook himself recited “The Price of Experience” above a lulling choral vamp: “It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun / And in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn. / It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted, / To speak of the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer…”

“Holy Thursday”, “The Tyger and the Lamb” and “Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell” were among the texts, most of them arranged by the late Adrian Mitchell and the others by Kate Westbrook. The audience remained silent between the individual pieces, reluctant to disturb the mood, but the dramatic conclusion of “The Poison Tree”, on which tango rhythms propelled Kate’s bitter vocal and Thompson’s dazzling fiddle solo, provoked spontaneous cheering.

The musicians were given plenty of space for unaccompanied solos, each one relevant to Westbrook’s overall structure while ensuring a constant variety of texture. They all shone, with Berry’s dark-toned bass outstanding throughout, and particularly when he launched “The Human Abstract” with an improvisation located somewhere between Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, which is not a bad place to be. But nothing was more quietly electrifying than the transition from Minton’s open-hearted vocal to Thompson’s spirit-possessed violin which led from “The Fields” to the concluding “I See Thy Form”.

Westbrook has been working on this material for many years, and it is among his several masterpieces. Like his fellow pianist/composer Keith Tippett and his old associate John Surman, he came out of the jazz ferment of the 1960s and found his way to a music in which he can employ everything he has learnt while making profound use of his indigenous heritage. For his admirers who couldn’t make it to last night’s concert, there’s a new DVD and CD, called Glad Day Live, of a performance by the same singers and musicians, filmed at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel five years ago. Highly recommended, of course.