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Blissful company

QuintessenceWhat’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? The fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love might be a good time to reconsider Nick Lowe’s rhetorical demand. In these harshly polarised times, we might look back with wonder on a brief era when a young generation commanded the world’s headlines with a philosophy that was essentially generous, outward-looking and benevolent.

Quintessence were purveyors of Indian sounds and philosophies to the heads of Ladbroke Grove between 1969 and 1971. A lot of their material, some of it previously unreleased, has been unearthed in recent years on several albums compiled for the Hux label by the author and researcher Colin Harper, including a terrific live recording of their memorable 1970 concert at St Pancras Town Hall, released in 2009 as Cosmic Energy. Now their first three studio albums, recorded for Island, are compiled on Move into the Light, a two-CD set on Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint.

Naturally, being an underground band, they were featured in IT and ZigZag, but they had their fans in the straight music press, too. I wrote favourably about them in the Melody Maker at the time, as did my friend Rob Partridge in Record Mirror. I remember their flautist and leader, Raja Ram (born Ron Rothfield in Australia), telling me that he’d studied in New York with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano: “A dollar a minute, but believe me it was worth it.” Their singer, Shiva, another Australian, had been a star back home leading a blues-rock band under his birth name, Phil Jones. The excellent drummer, Jake Milton, was Canadian. Alan Mostert, the lead guitarist, was from Mauritius. The bass guitarist, Shambhu (Richard Vaughan), was American. Their rhythm guitarist, Maha Dev (Dave Codling), was British. The band’s manager, the somewhat intense Stanley Barr, was a poet.

They became regulars at places like the Roundhouse, Friars in Aylesbury, the Temple (formerly the Flamingo) in Soho and elsewhere before graduating to bigger venues around the country, including the Albert Hall, which they filled in December 1971. A disagreement over a deal to release their album in the United States provoked a rupture with Island, but they were already starting to disintegrate by the time they moved on to RCA, with whom they released their fourth and fifth albums in 1972.

The beatific preachiness of their lyrics would draw the odd chuckle today, and there’s a certain amount of 1970-style clumpiness in the rhythms, but much of the music on the three albums making up Move into the Light (In Blissful Company, Quintessence and Dive Deep, all produced by John Barham), still sounds pretty good. Taking their cue from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they mixed songs and extended jams as effectively as any band in Britain at the time, with confident flute and guitar solos.

But how things have changed in the part of London they once called home. “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We all sit around and meditate,” Shiva sings on a track from the first album. The hedge fund managers and investment bankers who nowadays populate the once shabby and affordable streets of London W11 might have their own variant on that refrain: “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We sit around and rig the LIBOR rate…”

Alice Coltrane

There’s more peace, love and understanding on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane, the first volume in a series on the Luaka Bop label titled “World Spirituality Classics”. This is music made by John Coltrane’s widow for semi-private circulation after ending her recording career with commercial labels and taking herself off to become the spiritual director of an ashram in Malibu, California, where she was known as Turiyasangitananda.

Between 1982 and 1995 she made four cassettes available to initiates: Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants. The Luaka Bop CD is a compilation drawn from those recordings (the vinyl edition, a double album, has two extra tracks), featuring individual and choral chants, based on drones created by various keyboards — harmonium, organ, synthesiser — and harp, strings, sitars and tamburas, sometimes accompanied by hand percussion. The result achieves a quietly glowing blend of South Indian timbres and tonalities and African American spirituals.

The opening track, “Om Rama”, gets straight under your skin, synths whooshing and skirling around an infectious group chant that changes gear and develops a gospel-music edge, featuring an impassioned male lead singer who reminds me a little of Philippé Wynne. There’s some poised solo singing — by Alice Coltrane herself, I’d guess — on “Rama Rama”, and “Er Ra” is a short piece for her solo harp, almost koto-like in its delicacy, and voice. A 10-minute version of “Journey in Satchidananda” (which had been the title track of one of her Impulse albums in 1970) is almost as stately and uplifting as one of her late husband’s musical prayers. She died in 2007, aged 69, having outlived John by 40 years. But when you listen to this music it’s easy to convince yourself that neither of them is really gone.

The Height of the Reeds

Humber Bridge 1Halfway through the 40-minute walk across the Humber Bridge on Saturday,  I started to slow down. Eventually I came to a halt and just stood there, looking out over the water. The reason: I wanted to enjoy the music.

What music? A sound installation titled The Height of the Reeds, a contribution by Opera North to Hull’s year as the UK’s City of Culture. It was composed by and features three of my favourite Norwegian musicians — the trumpeter/singer Arve Henriksen, the sampling wizard Jan Bang and the guitarist Eivind Aarset — in collaboration with the Hull-based sound artist Jez riley French, who made field recordings of the noises emitted by the suspension bridge’s component parts, including the resonances of its vast anchor chambers and the creaking of its many steel wires. The arrangements for Opera North’s orchestra and chorus are by another Norwegian, Aleksander Waaktar. Also embedded in the piece are translations of words by the Norwegian poet Nils Christian Moe-Repstad, read by three Hull voices: the actors Barrie Rutter and Maureen Lipman and seven-year-old Katie Smith, a pupil at a local primary school.

You listen to it on a pair of headphones attached to a small receiver worn on a lanyard. The piece lasts 41 minutes; it’s in eight sections, each transition triggered at a particular point during the 2.2km walk across the bridge. It begins quietly, with some of the sounds recorded by French, and with the young girl’s voice. Thereafter I was too busy listening to take notes, but there are several passages of heart-stopping beauty as the music accompanies your journey from the north to the south shore. Were it available on CD, I’d have bought one as soon as the walk was over, and I imagine many others will feel the same.

As for the bridge itself, you can’t spend time in proximity to such a thing without admiring the genius of the civil engineers who turned an architect’s design into physical reality. I was awed by the sheer mass of the tilted and tiered concrete blocks holding down the structure at either end, the soaring simplicity of the two towers, and — most of all — the sense of countless lines and points of tension held in stasis by spun steel wires (well, not exactly stasis: the centre of the bridge, which carries four lanes of traffic with a walkway on either side, is designed to accept lateral movement of 4m in high winds).

All sorts of thoughts cross your mind: some to do with the weather, which is liable to change during your passage, and others concerning the landscape’s ancient history and its reshaping in the age of human intervention. As you approach the southern shore, you see a bed of reeds, a muted orange against the pale grey-brown river and the dark green of the riverbank. Visible in the far distance are the steel chimneys of an oil refinery, an arrangement of silver pipes looking like some strange percussion instrument from another world.

The good news is that the installation is open to the public for the month of April; the bad news is that all 5,000 tickets have already been sold. In the light of that success, it’s hard to believe that Opera North and the Hull authorities won’t find a way of prolonging its run. The bridge was opened in 1982 and has a design life of 120 years, so future generations could be enjoying this remarkable creative response almost a century hence. I hope they get that chance.

A night at Silent Green

CCH Silent Green 1Last summer I was blown away by the latest album from Catherine Christer Hennix, the 68-year-old Swedish-American composer, singer and keyboardist who studied with La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath before striking out on her own exploration of sound, light, drones, spirituality and just intonation. Last night I got the chance to see her perform during Berlin’s Maerzmusik festival, at a converted crematorium church in the Wedding district.

Now named Silent Green, it’s an octagonal space with two circular balconies. The floor was covered with oriental rugs, on which the majority of the audience reclined or assumed yoga-style positions. Hennix was positioned alongside one wall, seated at a two-manual electronic keyboard, flanked by the mixing equipment and other devices operated by Stefan Tiedje, her sound engineer and computer programmer. The rest of the audience had chairs on the first balcony. Above us in the upper balcony  were five brass players: Amir ElSaffar (trumpet), Paul Schwingenschlögl (trumpet and flügelhorn), Hillary Jeffery (trombone), Elena Kakaliagou (French horn), and Robin Hayward (microtonal tuba).

Together they performed a piece called “Raag Sura Shruti”, which began with quiet drones from Henna’s voice and keyboard, gradually increasing in intensity until the brass players joined in, coming and going as the music flowed and ebbed and flowed again. If you wanted a shorthand description, you could say that it was as though Terry Riley’s “Persian Surgery Dervishes” had been reorchestrated by Giovanni Gabrieli for the brass choir he had at his disposal in St Mark’s, Venice in the 16th century.

That part of the concert lasted three hours. Not every member of the audience stayed with it. I was fascinated by the slowly changing colours and the stately arc of the music’s evolving narrative. Sometimes it was very beautiful: lustrous, resonant, ambiguous in its tonal movement (thanks to the use of the non-tempered scale), at one point reaching the sort of lung-crushing decibel count normally encountered in another part of the city at Berghain, the techno club with the world-famous sound system. There were other times, understandably enough, when the underlying drones seemed to be hanging around, waiting for something to happen.

Maybe it was my interest in the arrangement of the moving parts that prevented me from achieving the sort of transcendence that this music is ostensibly about. Perhaps I should have been lying down, eyes closed, on one of the Persian rugs, giving myself up to the waves of sound in a non-analytical way. But that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the experience thoroughly and admiring the music greatly, even if it didn’t quite reach the peaks scaled during the New York concert preserved on last year’s album.

Just when the last drone had diminished to a whisper and almost faded away completely, and the musicians had got up from their balcony seats and left the arena, Hennix took over with a closing 15-minute solo improvisation on the keyboard. As she crunched her fingers and fists on the keys, setting up brief, spidery phrases and then splintering them, I thought of how a Chinese boogie-woogie pianist might sound if invited to play a Philip Glass piano étude on one of Sun Ra’s early electronic instruments — the Rocksichord, wasn’t it? — in the style of Cecil Taylor, with an intermittently malfunctioning power supply. An excellent evening all round.

Mind on the Run

hidden-orchestraIt was with regret that I had to leave Hull after only 24 hours of Mind on the Run, the weekend festival celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin, the visionary composer who spent three decades in the city, working in complete obscurity until his death in 2005, aged 77.

When the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the event, the first call I made was to Brian Eno. I had introduced the two men in 1973, while preparing the release of the second volume of Basil’s World Within Worlds on Island’s HELP label. Eno immediately recognised the value of his work with manipulated tapes of organic sounds, and more than 40 years later he was happy to talk about the impression it made.

The festival, held in the City Hall as part of Hull’s 2017 UK City of Culture programme, was quite brilliantly curated to include contributions from Matthew Herbert, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory (with a contingent of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell), Wilco’s Jim O’Rourke, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne, Evan Parker with Adam Linson and Matt Wright of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, and a DJ set of Kirchin’s library music by Jerry Dammers.

On the first evening I heard a spirited set by a local five-piece band led by DJ Revenu (Liam van Rijn), heavy on imaginative electronics. That was followed by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan with a piece inspired by several of Basil’s themes and performed by an nonet — including the outstanding harpist Serafina Steer — in a style that made me think of what might happen were Steve Reich to get it into his head to reinterpret those miniature tone poems that Brian Wilson used to drop into mid-period Beach Boys albums: things like “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” from Smiley Smile and the title track of Pet Sounds. O’Hagan’s music was minimalist, lyrical, unhurried and unrhetorical, with a fragile charm. (Just after it had finished I told a friend that I was particularly attracted to the way the music felt, even now and then, as though it might be about to fall apart; during a conversation an hour or so later O’Hagan mentioned, unprompted, that this was precisely the effect he’d been after.)

I enjoyed taking part in one of the panel discussions, alongside Bob Stanley and  Jonny Trunk, and listening to another that featured Matt Stephenson, co-director (with Alan Jones and Harriet Jones) of a 45-minute documentary film which did an excellent job of summarising Basil’s extraordinary life through interviews with those who had known him at various stages of his career. It also featured a wonderful film clip of the Ivor Kirchin Band in the early ’50s, with the leader’s young son as the featured drummer, from a time when dance band musicians wore cardigans and sensible slacks. (When someone in the audience likened Basil’s skin-pounding, cymbal-flaying antics to those of Animal from the Muppet Show, Matt was able to regale us with the priceless information that the real drummer of the Muppets had been the great session man Ronnie Verrell — who, in an earlier incarnation, had replaced the man who replaced Basil on the drum stool in Ivor’s band…)

Trunk, who has done so much over the past decade to create interest in Basil’s work, also mentioned that the handful of CDs released on his label represent no more than a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come from the archive of Kirchin soundtracks and library music.

Among Basil’s credits was the score to The Abominable Dr Phibes, the truly bizarre 1971 British horror film in which Vincent Price played the eponymous villain, who celebrated his dreadful deeds by letting loose on a pipe organ. The film was screened on Friday night, with the figure of a caped Alexander Hawkins emerging through a gauze screen from time to time, playing the music live on the City Hall’s mighty organ: the third largest in England, it is said, and the possessor of a massive 64ft pipe which, if unleashed at full volume, would probably turn the Victorian building’s foundations to dust.

Before leaving Hull I also managed to creep into the soundcheck of Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra (pictured above), and was beguiled by the grooves and textures of a band featuring two drummers, violin, cello, harp, trumpet and keyboards. If you want to know more about that performance, and others, read Tony Dudley-Evans’s report for the London Jazz News website.

It was interesting to discover how Hull, a victim first of the Luftwaffe and then of the Cod Wars, is making use of the opportunity to present a new face to those lured by the year of cultural events. There are five excellent Francis Bacons on temporary loan at the refurbished Ferens Gallery in the main square, which is dramatically spanned until March 18 by a 75-metre aluminium wind-turbine blade created by Nayan Kulkarni. An exhibition devoted to the story of COUM Transmissions, the renegade art collective founded in Hull in the early ’70s by Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, is at the Humber Art Gallery in the streets of the former Fruit Market, where all sorts of hipster enterprises are springing up.

It’s not all great, of course. Take a bow, “Sir” Philip Green, for the vacant hulk of the striking early-’60s building until recently occupied by British Home Stores. But if you can imagine a cross between Copenhagen and Hoxton, that seems to be how Hull is attempting to reshape itself, and the audiences who flocked to Mind on the Run demonstrated the potential of this culture-led Humberside renaissance. I hadn’t been to the city since a single visit in 1965. Now I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.

January 20, 2017

us-flagWith three hours to go until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the coffee shop I frequent was playing the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself”. That’s a record with a lot of American history in it, one way and another: a message delivered by a mixed group of black and white singers and musicians, showing how music can provide encouragement, comfort and even guidance.

The saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the singer Lucinda Williams have chosen to mark today’s events by releasing an eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, streamable on Spotify here. It was recorded live at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on November 28 last year, three weeks after the election, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Rueben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. That’s a real A Team, and together they give Dylan’s song the full treatment: harsh, menacing, an ebb and flow of emotions but underneath simmering with rage.

As a teenager in Memphis in the 1950s, Lloyd played with B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland. He is 78 years old now, and has performed in public through 12 presidencies, counting this latest one. “The world is a dog’s curly tail,” he says in the press statement accompanying the release. “No matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and to dissolve lines of demarcation that separate us. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love, vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll succeed. We go forward.”

2016: The best bits

The Nobel Prize in Literature

To live outside the law, you must be honest.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.

Sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked…

Like William Shakespeare, whom he mentioned in his acceptance speech at the Nobel awards ceremony, Bob Dylan has lodged more phrases in the collective consciousness than you could begin to count. To me, that’s one cast-iron argument in favour of awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature. The announcement met some opposition, much of it incoherent, but it seemed to me like one of the very few bright public moments in a notably dark year.

The appearance of Dylan’s friend Patti Smith at the ceremony in Stockholm, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, was wonderfully moving, and her description of the experience was equally affecting. As she delivered the line “I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,” I thought of the report I’d read that morning about the two girls, possibly as young as seven or eight, said to have been used as suicide bombers in the market of Maiduguri, a city in north-eastern Nigeria, the previous day. While I can’t imagine Dylan ever thinking in terms of prophecy, his words have a way of retaining, even deepening, their resonance through time and space. And that’s what literature does.

(Another occasion on which an old song seemed to find a new place in history was Bruce Springsteen’s intense performance of “American Skin (41 Shots)” at Wembley Stadium in June. Written after the killing of Amadou Diallo and now rededicated to Trayvon Martin, it formed a stark interlude in the middle of an otherwise euphoric concert on a warm midsummer evening. I’m hoping, without much confidence, that next year’s most memorable moments will be unshadowed by such concerns.)

Live performances

1. Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra (Cité Universitaire, Paris, January)

2. Matana Roberts’s ‘For Pina’ (Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, November)

3. Arve Henriksen / Jan Bang / Eivind Aarset (LSO St Luke’s, May)

4. Liberation Music Orchestra (Cadogan Hall, November)

5. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band  (Wembley Stadium, June)

6. Mike Westbrook (Kings Place, November)

7. Ches Smith Trio (New School, NYC, January)

8. The Necks (Union Chapel, April)

9. Laura Jurd / Evan Parker / Orphy Robinson / Alexander Hawkins (Cockpit, March)

10. Oddarrang (Jazzahead, Bremen, February)

11. Christian Lillinger’s Grund (Tiyatrom, Berlin, August)

12. Oslo Jazz Festival Band (Ronnie Scott’s, January)

13. Twelves (Vortex, July)

14. Wadada Leo Smith (Cafe Oto, July)

15. Orphy Robinson’s Bobby Hutcherson tribute (St James the Great, East London, September)

16. Terry & Gyan Riley (Barbican Hall, September)

17. Moses Boyd (Phonica, October)

18. Jason Moran’s ‘The Wind’ (Milton Court, November)

19. The Enemy (Vortex, November)

20. Elephant 9 (Ronnie Scott’s, May)

New albums

1. Catherine Christer Hennix: Live at ISSUE Project Room (Important)

2. Tyshawn Sorey: The Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi)

3. Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World (Mais um Discos)

4. Masabumi Kikuchi: Black Orpheus (ECM)

5. Radiohead: A Moon-Shaped Pool (XL)

6. Beyoncé: Lemonade (Parkwood)

7. Ossatura: Maps and Mazes (ReR)

8. Andrew Cyrille: The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)

9. Darcy James Argue: Real Enemies (New Amsterdam)

10. David Bowie: blackstar (Columbia)

11. Philip Clemo: Dream Maps (All Colour Arts)

12. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (Columbia)

13. Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone (Pi)

14. Anna Lena Schnabel: Books, Bottles & Bamboo (ENJA)

15. Jason Palmer / Cédric Henriot: City of Poets (Whirlwind)

16. Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra: Time/Life (Impulse)

17. Empirical: Connection (Cuneiform)

18. Laurence Crane + Asamisimasa: Sound of Horse (Hubro)

19. Paolo Conte: Instrumental Music (Decca)

20. Applewood Road (Gearbox)

Archive/reissue albums

1. Georgie Fame: Survival: A Career Anthology 1963-2015 (Universal / Polydor)

2. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto: Getz / Gilberto ’76 (Resonance)

3. Albert Ayler Quartet: European Radio Studio Recordings 1964 (hatOLOGY)

4. Ray Charles Orchestra: Zurich 1961 (Montreux Jazz)

5. Various: Jon Savage’s 1966 (Ace)

6. John Surman: Morning Glory (Fledg’ling)

7. Don Cherry / Irene Schweizer / JohnTchicai: Musical Monsters (Intakt)

8. Shirley Horn: Live at the 4 Queens (Resonance)

9. Chet Baker: Live in London (Ubuntu)

10. Various: The Motortown Revue in Paris (Tamla)

Books: Fiction

1. Emma Cline: The Girls (Chatto & Windus)

2. Patrick Modiano, trans. John Cullen: Villa Triste (Daunt Books)

3. Christine Otten, trans. Jonathan Reeder: The Last Poets (World Editions)

Books: Non-Fiction

1. William Finnegan: Barbarian Days (Little, Brown)

2. James McBride: Kill ’em and Leave (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

3. Damon Hill: Watching the Wheels (Macmillan)

Feature films

1. The Assassin (dir. Hou Hsaio-Hsien)

2. Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

3. Our Little Sister (dir. Hirozaku Korea)

4. Love and Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)

5. Victoria (dir. Sebastian Schipper)

Documentary films

1. Don’t Blink (dir. Laura Israel)

2. I Called Him Morgan (dir. Kasper Collin)

3. What Happened, Miss Simone? (dir. Liz Garbus)

Exhibitions

1. Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy, October)

2. Alex Katz (Serpentine Gallery, June)

3. Picasso portraits (National Portrait Gallery, October)

Reconsidering Frank Zappa

zappa-film-1In the final moments of Eat That Question, a documentary in which the director Thorsten Schütte creates a chronological collage of interviews and performance clips from throughout Frank Zappa’s career, we see Zappa with a baton in hand, conducting a piece of his orchestral music. We’re in the early ’90s and, after several years of treatment for prostate cancer, he is close to death. As he waves the stick in a staccato 4/4 pattern, several percussionists play a fascinating jigsaw tattoo. Hearing his score come to life, the composer is clearly entranced. It’s a lovely and touching moment.

I interviewed Zappa a couple of times around 1970, and found it an uncomfortable experience. This was, after all, a man who said that rock criticism was people who couldn’t write writing for people who couldn’t read, or something like that. And I was a rock critic (of sorts). It has always seemed to me a stupid remark, a dismissal of a lot of worthwhile work from some talented and enthusiastic people, but it was probably the result of a series of bruising experiences.

He was intensely clever, of course, and he was funny, if not always as funny as his most fervent admirers found him. The Zappa I had liked at the beginning was not the ironist and satirist but the Zappa who wrote “Memories of El Monte” for the Penguins, who created Ruben and the Jets, and who got the Mothers of Invention to juxtapose sleazy East LA doo-wop with homages to free jazz on Uncle Meat. That was a Zappa who clearly loved his sources. I lost interest when Hot Rats came out; it seemed to me that other people were doing that sort of jazz-rock thing a lot better, and I never properly re-engaged.

But I came out of Eat That Question feeling a whole lot more sympathetic to him. I loved the clip from the eye-wateringly funny appearance on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 where the totally unknown Zappa demonstrates the music he’s devised to be played with drumsticks and violin bow on a pair of bicycles (the whole thing is on YouTube). I was interested by his suggestion that all his pieces might in fact together comprise one single composition, and also by his definition of his philosophy of writing music: “Any thing, any time, any place, for no reason at all.” His excoriation of communism is gob-smacking, his exchange with Tipper Gore’s parental-ratings committee hilarious. I was touched by the film of his visit to Prague in 1990, when he is welcomed by Vaclav Havel and a member of a Mothers of Invention-inspired band called Electrobus recounts how, in the Soviet era, he had been told: “We will take your Zappa away — you will not spread his ideology here.”

Throughout the film, Zappa’s sparring sessions with TV interviewers are generally thoughtful and good-natured, sometimes in the face of complete incomprehension (although the interview with NBC’s Today show, taped during his final days, is very sensitive). It made me wish I’d liked him, and his music, more.

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.

Music and Murakami

murakami-on-musicYou don’t have to be a hi-fi nut or a vinyl fetishist to enjoy a place like Spiritland, the listening club/café tucked away in the redeveloped King’s Cross buildings that also house Central St Martin’s art college. It’s the perfect place to hold something like yesterday’s event at which the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s connection to music was discussed, to tie in with the new book of his conversations with the conductor Seiji Ozawa. I imagine the jazz bar called Peter Cat which he and his wife, Yoko, ran in Tokyo before he became a full-time writer had a similar atmosphere: comfortable and chilled, with the music of Red Garland or Duke Ellington coming out of a high-end sound system.

Murakami’s love of music is well known and is frequently threaded into his stories as motif or incidental colouration, from Percy Faith’s “Go Away Little Girl” in After Dark through Wilhelm Backhaus’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata No 32 in Sputnik Sweetheart and Cream’s “Crossroads” in Kafka on the Shore to Janáček’s Sinfonietta in 1Q84. He’s a collector of rare jazz LPs, and when I interviewed him for the Guardian in 2003, the final question I asked him was this: if his house caught fire, which three albums, from his library of several thousand, would he save? He thought for a minute. “I give up,” he said finally. “I couldn’t choose three. So I let it burn. Everything. I save the cat.”

Yesterday I was rather hoping to hear “Star-Crossed Lovers”, from Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, a piece which plays a role in Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, through Spiritland’s sound system, but the house DJ, Tony Higgins, didn’t play it in the couple of hours I was there. He did play Curtis Amy, Gene Ammons, Oliver Nelson and many other good sounds, but the principal memory I left with was that of the classical pianist James Rhodes delivering a blazing attack on the British government’s attitude to music education in schools.

Just off a flight from Barcelona, where he had been performing Chopin and Beethoven, Rhodes was scheduled to discuss the topic of “deep listening and literature” with Alex Clark. Having read the book, he was impressed by the knowledge and understanding of classical music that enabled Murakami to engage in discussions with Ozawa that ranged across many musical topics, including the variations between the way orchestras of different nationalities typically interpret the same composition.

Before long, however, he had detoured into what is obviously a serious preoccupation. He spoke of how absurd it was to build another concert hall in London at a cost that would subsidise many years of music education. He described offering to subsidise such lessons for pupils at a school in Basildon, only to be told by the head teacher that if the money were made available, it would have to be spent on English and maths in order to satisfy the priorities of Ofsted, the government’s education watchdog. His tone as he told this story was pleasingly intemperate.

Clark prefaced one of her questions by saying, “If you were the Jamie Oliver of music education…” In a sane world, that is exactly what he would be.

* The photograph above shows Alex Clark and James Rhodes in conversation at Spiritland. Rhodes is the author of Instrumental, a memoir published in 2015 by Canongate, and of How to Play the Piano, published last month by Quercus. Absolutely Music by Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa is published by Vintage.

The People’s Palace

roundhouse-1The last few things I’ve seen at the Roundhouse —  Willie Colón on his farewell tour, Bob Dylan on good form, a wonderful performance on authentic instruments of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the reformed Television, and John Cale — seem pretty typical of the musical variety the circular brick building at Chalk Farm has been offering London since Arnold Wesker had the idea of repurposing the old engine shed as a centre for the arts in 1966. Earlier first-hand memories of the place include Nico’s first London concert, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Ramones, a Company week featuring Derek Bailey with assorted friends, Gil Evans’s British band, and a Fairport Convention night with Fotheringay and Matthews’ Southern Comfort.

Tomorrow night an excellent BBC4 Arena documentary titled The Roundhouse: The People’s Palace tells the building’s story, starting in 1847, when it began 10 years of service to the railway before being sold to Gilbey’s for use as a gin warehouse, a function it maintained for 100 years. Anthony Wall, the programme’s director, assembles some marvellous archive film, both performance and interview, including footage of the Dialectics of Liberation conference in 1967, with a platform featuring Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, Emmett Grogan and a sinister-looking R. D. Laing. Others who flash past through the years include Gyorgy Ligeti, James Brown, Peter Brook and the Clash.

The Roundhouse has struggled to survive at various times during its half-century as a home for arts, but the purchase of the building by the toy manufacturer Sir Torquil Norman began a process that led to the reopening in 2006 and seems to have guaranteed it a future. The film’s climax comes with Vanessa Kisuule reading “Identity Jenga”, the stirring poem with which she won first prize at the Roundhouse’s Poetry Slam competition in 2014. Its impact ensures that the programme does not fade away into nostalgia but properly reflects the role the building plays in the cultural life of contemporary London.