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His tongue on fire

Bob Dylan turns 80 today. I commissioned this ink drawing for an issue of Time Out celebrating Dylan’s arrival to play at Earl’s Court in 1978, his first London shows in a dozen years. Ralph Steadman chose to make his image out of Bob’s words. When I left the editorship a few months later, the staff very kindly acquired the original from Ralph and gave it to me as a leaving present. As you might imagine, it’s a precious possession, although not quite as precious as all the songs Bob has placed in the common memory over the past six decades. Many happy returns to him.

Many accents, one voice

Just about the first thing I discovered when I began a three-year term as artistic director of Berlin’s historic jazz festival in 2015 was that I would be required to explain myself. More specifically, I would be asked to describe my “concept”. This was a little disconcerting since I didn’t really have one, at least not in any worked-out form.

What I came up with, thinking on my feet, was a definition applicable to the kind of festival I wanted to make. “Jazz,” I told my inquisitors, “is any music that couldn’t exist if jazz hadn’t existed.”

I’ve never been quite sure whether I invented that aphorism simply out of expediency, in order to cover myself and to explain some of the music I wanted to present, in which the elements of traditional forms of jazz were sometimes attentuated or modified almost to invisibility. Eventually I decided that I believed it enough to feel comfortable about using it whenever it was necessary to justify something.

In my first year, the best example was provided by Divan of the Continents, a 22-piece band jointly led by Cymin Samawatie, a singer born in Berlin to Iranian parents, and Ketan Bhatti, a drummer born in India. Both graduates of jazz courses at Berlin’s University of the Arts (the UdK), together they had devised an ambitious project to bring together a large ensemble of locally based musicians from various ethnic backgrounds, from the principal viola-player of the Berlin Philharmonic and an English free-jazz trombonist to virtuosos of the sheng, the oud, the ney, the kanun and the koto. The aim was to work at creating music which honoured the essence of each player’s respective genre while (and this is the important bit) aiming for something genuinely new. What it would not be was an example of musical tourism. It wouldn’t be obviously “jazz”, either. But you could even see this as being a modern version of jazz’s origin story, in which elements of African and European musics came together to form a hybrid that took on a life of its own.

Since the music was complex, it seemed right to arrange for them to have three days of rehearsals in the small concert hall at the UdK’s Jazz Institute, open to students and the public. Then, on the festival’s closing night, they gave a performance in the 1,000-seater hall of the Berliner Festspiele, leading off a bill completed by Louis Moholo-Moholo’s Four Blokes and Ambrose Akinmusire’s quartet with the singer Theo Bleckmann. It was, I think, a success: the audience gave every appearance of being intrigued, particularly by the settings of poetry sung by Samawatie and two other female singers.

Now Samawatie and Bhatti have made an album of that music, and other pieces, with an ensemble of similar size and instrumentation, containing about half the original personnel. In the meantime, the project been retitled: the album is called Trickster Orchestra. But the concept is the same, and the time spent in preparation has resulted in something rather extraordinary: a music in which the sheng of Wu Wei and the viola of Martin Stegner have equal weight, in which the double bass of Ralf Schwarz can emerge with a walking 4/4 line and the various items of tuned percussion can set up rhythm patterns reminiscent of Steve Reich. The words of the songs range from Psalm 130 to the Sufi poet Rumi and the contemporary poet Efe Duvan, and are sung in Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish. The lyricism is always poised and sometimes swooning, but the serenity can be punctured by a fusillade of drums, subtly coloured by electronics.

It’s not a mosaic, but it is a kaleidoscope. Each musician retains her or his own tuning and vocabulary. The various tones, textures and idiomatic accents are overlapped, juxtaposed and filtered through each other, creating something much more interesting than a flavourless fusion. I think it would have interested the founder of Berlin’s jazz festival, the late Joachim-Ernst Berendt, a man with a strong belief in the potential value of opening jazz up to new relationships with the music of other cultures. Trickster Orchestra is an impressive example of where that kind of thinking has led, giving musicians of high skill and inquiring minds the chance to find new paths.

* Trickster Orchestra by Cymin Samawatie and Ketan Bhatti is out now on the ECM label. The photograph of Bassem Alhouri (kanun), Naoko Kikuchi (koto) and Ralf Schwarz (bass) is from their 2015 concert in Berlin and was taken by Camille Blake.

The sound of two

Daniel Cano is a Spanish trumpeter who was born in Huelva in 1983 and has lived in London since 2014. Doug Sides is an American drummer who was born in Los Angeles in 1942, moved to Europe in 1989 and now lives, improbably enough, in Ramsgate, a fishing and ferry port on the eastern tip of Kent. This week they released a four-track digital EP called Duplexity.

It slots into the modern tradition of trumpet-and-drums duets stretching back to Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, taking in Bobby Bradford and John Stevens and going all the way to Eyebrow, the contemporary Bristol-based pair of Pete Judge and Paul Wigens. If it reminds me of anything, it’s of the best parts of the duo concert by Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie at the Maison de la Culture de Seine Saint-Denis, released as Max + Dizzy: Paris 1989 by A&M. That’s an album which came a little too late in the careers of two great men, making you wish they’d done it 30 or 40 years earlier, when the fires were burning brightest. Duplexity, by contrast, seems to have been made at exactly the right time.

Cano, whose involvements as a leader and a sideman include membership of the London Improvisers Orchestra, studied at the conservatoire in San Sebastián. His groups — including an Ornette Coleman tribute band — have won festival prizes. Sides studied at the University of South California, New York University and Berklee College in Boston, where he was taught by the great Alan Dawson, a mentor of Tony Williams. Over a long career which featured an early stint as the house drummer at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, he has played with Illinois Jacquet, John Handy, Teddy Edwards, Phineas Newborn, Bobby Hutcherson, Abbey Lincoln and many others.

Recorded last October at Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, Duplexity is a fine showcase for the evidently strong relationship between a trumpeter whose warm, bright open tone evokes the hard-bop masters of the ’50s and ’60s and a drummer with a light touch and a supple sense of swing. Restricted means, in terms of instrumentation, but the result is a rich experience with no sense of austerity — or of overplaying to fill the spaces.

Trajectories and densities are chosen to make the most of the available resources. The session feels informal and spontaneous, with the rough edges left in. Two of the pieces were composed by Sides and two by Cano, and none of them, ranging from four and a half to six minutes, outstays its welcome. Most of all, it’s good to hear two musicians from different generations and of such diverse backgrounds revelling in the common language.

* Duplexity is available at www.danielcanomusic.bandcamp.com (click on the track “Perpetual Motion” to see a video). Cano and Sides will perform together in a livestream from Ronnie Scott’s Club on April 15: http://www.ronniescotts.co.uk/scheduledaily/2021/April/15. The photograph is by Martin Goodsmith.

The Weather Station live from Toronto

A year to the day since I was last able to see musicians performing in person, the Weather Station’s livestreamed concert from Toronto on Thursday provided a reminder of what’s been missing. Tamara Lindeman and her musicians were performing the 10 songs from her new album, Ignorance, shuffled in order but retaining the enigmatic allure that I wrote about in the March issue of Uncut.

I won’t repeat what I said in that review, except to note that the arrival of Marcus Paquin as Lindeman’s co-producer has brought a new perspective to her songs, which are now driven less — not at all, in fact — by strummed or finger-picked acoustic guitars and more by drums and bass, and decorated by subtle use of keyboards, electronics and wind instruments (and, on the album, a string trio). The new songs confront loss, both intimate and global: the departure of a lover, the disappearance of a species. These concerns, with their very different time-scales, are like messages lightly inscribed on two transparent sheets. They slide over each other, clarifying or converging, a pair of palimpsests coming in and out of focus over the band’s momentum.

It was a treat to be able to watch her and the band tackling this fascinating material. The live performance — in Toronto’s Revolution Recording Studios — turned out to emphasise the similarities rather than the differences between the songs, making the whole thing feel satisfyingly coherent. I was particularly struck by the restless swells of “Loss”, Christine Bourgie’s fine guitar solo on “Subdivisions”, the spellbound poise of “Trust”, the galloping rhythm of “Heart”, and the closing free-ish jam between Brodie West’s alto saxophone and Lindeman’s piano on “Robber”, where Ben Whiteley’s bass guitar and Kieran Adams’s drums conjured something like an alt-rock version of one of Norman Whitfield’s Temptations epics. (Here’s the album version of “Robbery”, in case you haven’t heard it.) The other musicians were Johnny Spence (piano), Will Kidman (guitar, keyboards), Ryan Driver (flute), Philippe Melanson and Evan Cartwright (percussion) and Felicity Williams, whose voice shadowed Lindman’s to particularly good effect on “Heart”.

Perfect sound (by Brenndan McGuire) and a restrained approach to lighting (Louise Simpson) and camerawork (Lulu Wei) ensured that the qualities which make the Weather Station so special were allowed to speak. In a little prologue, a just-recognisable Lindeman lay on a pebble beach under a sheet, reading a book, while a dancer wheeled and turned in the distance. We were taken back to that setting at half-time, just where you’d be turning over a vinyl album, and again at the very end, for Lindeman to read short verses by the American poet Ed Roberson. Nicely done, but the real pleasure was in witnessing her own poetry brought to life by musicians, with masks but no headphones or baffles, playing together in real time, so beautifully.

Cats, herded

Alexander Hawkins and Evan Parker (photo: Dawid Laskowski)

Organising free improvisers might seem like a fool’s task. Why would the special breed of players who spend their lives resolutely creating music from scratch suddenly want to submit to the will of a composer? Nevertheless, history proves that sometimes it works: notable successes were recorded by Michael Mantler with the original Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Alexander von Schlippenbach with his Globe Unity Orchestra and Barry Guy with the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. Each project depended to some extent on the leader/composer’s familiarity with the techniques of contemporary European straight music, but the idea was given new impetus with the introduction of the looser and perhaps more organic-to-the-idiom technique of “conduction”, pioneered by the late Butch Morris and pursued by George Lewis and Tyshawn Sorey, among others. Slightly to one side were the adventures of the British duo Ashley Wales and John Coxon, known as Spring Heel Jack, who created stimulating modern environments for many individual improvisers, including Wadada Leo Smith and John Tchicai.

The first sound heard on Togetherness Music: For Sixteen Musicians, Alexander Hawkins’ new album, is that of Evan Parker’s soprano saxophone, unwinding its always surprising coils of sound, the seemingly unbroken skeins of notes punctuated by split-second darts and lurches into other registers. As usual, it’s exhilarating and mesmerising, particularly when the sound of the isolated soprano blooms with reverberation, which may or may not be the natural property of Challow Park Studios in Oxfordshire, where the set was recorded. But then Hawkins introduces his other resources: the five string players of the Riot Ensemble and nine other musicians, including the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, the saxophonist and flautist Rachel Musson, the cellist Hannah Marshall, the bassist Neil Charles, the drummer Mark Sanders, and Matthew Wright on electronics, all conducted by Aaron Hollway-Nahum. Gradually they add sombre pedal-points, heightening the atmosphere before Parker drops out and the strings begin to slip and slide until the piece ends, after almost 10 minutes, with several of them holding a tentative D natural.

Sanders and Pursglove are the next to get the concerto grosso for improvisers treatment, a layer of restless percussion under the silvery trumpet continuing into a dialogue with written lines for flute/bass clarinet and viola/cello. On the third piece Parker returns for a pointilliste conversation with Hawkins’ scrambling piano in which the Riot Ensemble make their full presence known, soaring and churning as the music holds itself together through some mysterious centripetal force.

Hawkins, the 16th musician, is featured on the fourth piece, against a walking line played by two basses (Charles and Marianne Schofield) and possibly one of the two cellos, too. Showing the pianist at his most inventive and hyper-alert, it has the loping gait and harmonically ambiguous flavour of the music created by young Cecil Taylor and the bassist with his early groups, Buell Neidlinger, before Parker pipes up with a reminder of another early Taylor collaborator, Steve Lacy, in a passage of ensemble agitation that resolves into an elegant, ruminative diminuendo.

The strings dominate the fifth piece, a collective statement in which the individual instruments glide around each other as if in mismatched orbits, the fine details of tone and timbre revealed within an aural space that feels busy yet uncluttered. The sixth and final composition opens with a trio of Charles, Sanders and Wright, bass and drums working around light electronic taps, thuds and crackles. Pursglove and Hawkins emerge with staccato trumpet figures and a purposefully wandering single-note piano line, continuing as Sanders briefly dominates with thrashing brushwork before the other musicians reappear in a crescendo of exultant sound. A graceful withdrawal gives the last word to Parker and Hawkins, two improvisers who share a near-infallible instinct for an ending.

The six pieces are titled, in order, “Indistinguishable from Magic”, “Sea No Shore”, “Ensemble Equals Together”, “Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher”, “Ecstatic Baobabs” and “Optimism of the Will”. I’ve described them in such details because the more you listen, the more distinctive they become: each one a living organism with its own cellular structure, texture and micro-climate. I’ve said before that Hawkins has a rare understanding of how to combine composition and improvisation, and here, in this very special recording, we have a perfect example of his gift.

Perhaps I’ve found Togetherness Music particularly valuable because I’ve missed attending live performances of free improvisation very much over the past year. Recordings of small groups, however excellent, aren’t the same thing as hearing and seeing this music conjured in front of you. But by framing improvisation so creatively, Hawkins brings it to life in a different way.

* Alexander Hawkins’ Togetherness Music is out now on the Intakt label (www.intaktrec.ch)

Collarless Beatles

Pierre Cardin was “perhaps best known for giving four mop-topped Liverpudlians their collarless matching suits,” according to the obituary of the French clothes designer in The Times this morning. Wanting something closer to the truth, I asked the peerless Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn how it really happened.

Inevitably it was their friend Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer with an instinct for the avant-garde, who started it off. Astrid put her boyfriend, Stuart Sutcliffe, into a round-collared jacket in Hamburg in March 1961, shortly before he left the Beatles to study painting at art college while the others went back to England.

That October, on a trip to Paris, Paul McCartney and John Lennon saw Cardin’s collarless suits and liked them. But it was not until March 1963 — between “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You”, their second and third singles — that they approached the tailor Dougie Millings to ask him to make matching suits for them to a similar design in a silk and mohair blend. Millings was based in a first-floor cutting room at 63 Old Compton Street in Soho, a couple of doors away from the 2 is coffee bar, where other clients, including Cliff Richard, had made early appearances.

The Beatles’ radical new suits were worn that year, in either pale grey or dark fabrics, for stage shows, TV appearances and photo shoots, teamed with white shirts and black ties. Many of us started saving money for cheap copies of those jackets.

It would be tempting to imagine that their habitually well dressed manager played a part here. Not so. “Brian Epstein had no part in any of this,” Mark told me, “but criticism that he made the Beatles wear such stage suits was levelled against him ever after.” By 1965, when they made their famous appearance at Shea Stadium, they were still wearing matching uniforms, but now the ties had gone, the pale beige lapel-less Millings jackets had stand-up Nehru collars and military epaulettes, and the trousers were a contrasting black.

In 2004 one of McCartney’s original by-Millings-after-Cardin pale grey suits was put up for auction at Christie’s in New York. With no reserve, and an estimate of $8-10,000, it was knocked down for $53,775.

* The first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s three-part history of the Beatles, Tune In, was published in 2013 by Little, Brown.

2020: the best bits

A still from Lovers Rock, part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series

The end of a year that left a lot of holes: so many gone, to be mourned only at a distance. People I loved, people I worked for and alongside, people whose artistry — whether expressed in one 45rpm disc or across the entire arc of a long career — affected my life. Musicians including Keith Tippett, whom I knew for 50 years, and Little Richard and Gary Peacock, to whom I’d been listening for even longer. Ennio Morricone. Juliette Gréco. McCoy Tyner. Lee Konitz. Andy Gill. Betty Wright. Henry Grimes. Florian Schneider. Jimmy Cobb. Tommy DeVito. Roy Head. Hux Brown. And on, and on.

Between the start of 2020 and the onset of the pandemic in mid-March I saw a handful of memorable gigs: Craig Taborn at the Royal Academy of Music, an extremely on-form Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall and a riotous benefit for Louis Moholo Moholo at the Vortex. And that was it for the live experience. Thank goodness for streaming, which gave many musicians a route to their audience and made unanticipated introductions — in my case to the Welsh guitarist Toby Hay, whose series of improvised outdoor morning and evening ragas lifted the spirits during the spring lockdown.

There was special gratitude, too, to the people who make high-quality television programmes, a near-universal balm this year. So let’s start with them.

TV SERIES

1 Normal People (BBC) I watched it week by week, rationing myself, wanting to extend the experience of this perfectly written, designed, filmed and acted adaptation for as long as possible. Afterwards I read Sally Rooney’s novel for the first time and discovered that Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal were inhabiting the characters on the page: a reciprocal benefit.

2 Call My Agent (Netflix) High comedy of great wit and style, with a parade of mostly female French stars — Juliette Binoche, Béatrice Dalle, Nathalie Baye, Françoise Fabian, the Isabelles Huppert and Adjani — lining up to take the piss out of themselves. The regular cast — Camille Cottin, Thibaut de Montalembert, Liliane Rovère, Grégory Montel and the rest — were equally magnificent.

3 Small Axe (BBC) For me, the highlight of Steve McQueen’s sequence of five feature-length films was Lovers Rock, in which lighting, camera movement, editing, diagetic music and Mica Levi’s score largely took the place of dialogue as a superb cast — including Michael Ward, Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling and Shaniqua Okwok — established a mood that seemed to hang around for days.

4 The Bureau (Amazon Prime) A story in The Times recently quoted a French military chief’s complaint that the external branch of his country’s secret service — the DGSE — habitually screws everything up. That would come as no surprise to fans of The Bureau and its magnificent cast, not just Mathieu Kassovitz but particularly Florence Loiret-Caille and Jean-Pierre Darroussin. I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t tell me how it ends.

5 Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC) An exemplary reconstruction of the Bush/Blair intervention, at its most harrowingly effective when allowing the Iraqis to tell their own stories. The interviews with American military personnel are all the evidence anyone might need that no lessons at all were absorbed from the experience of Vietnam.

NEW ALBUMS

1 Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)

2 Ambrose Akinmusire: On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note)

3 The Necks: Three (RnR)

4 Irreversible Entanglements: Who Sent You? (International Anthem)

5 Keith Tippett: The Monk Watches the Eagle (Discus)

6 Maria Schneider: Data Lords (ArtistShare)

7 Sault: Untitled (Rise) (bandcamp)

8 Hedwig Mollestad: Ekhidna (Rune Grammofon)

9 Bruce Springsteen: Letter to You (Columbia)

10 Matana Roberts / Pat Thomas: The Truth (Otoroku)

11 Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl: Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12)

12 Eyvind Aarset / Jan Bang: Snow Catches on Her Eyelashes (Jazzland)

13 The Henrys: Paydirt (Bandcamp)

14 Pete Judge: Piano 2 (PJM)

15 Robert Cray Band: That’s What I Heard (Thirty Tigers)

16 Lucia Cadotsch: Speak Low II (We Jazz)

17 Martin Pyne: Spirits of Absent Dancers (Discus)

18 Carla Bley / Andy Sheppard / Steve Swallow: Life Goes On (ECM)

19 Jasper Høiby: Planet B (Edition)

20 Matt Rollings: Mosaic (Dualtone)

21 Dave Alvin: From an Old Guitar (Yep Roc)

22 Soft Machine: Live at the Baked Potato (Moonjune)

23 Misha Mullov-Abbado: Dream Circus (Edition)

24 Diana Krall: This Dream of You (Verve)

25 Hailu Mergia: Yene Mircha (Awesome Tapes from Africa)

ARCHIVE / REISSUE

1 Richard & Linda Thompson: Hard Luck Stories (Universal)

2 Mike Westbrook: Love and Understanding (My Only Desire)

3 Charles Mingus: Bremen 1964 & 1975 (Sunnyside)

4 Roberta Flack: First Take (50th anniversary edition) (SoulMusic)

5 Solomon Burke: The King of Rock ’n’ Soul (SoulMusic)

6 King Crimson: The Complete 1969 Sessions (DGM)

7 Bryan Ferry: Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974 (BMG)

8 Kenny Carter: Showdown (Kent)

9 Carla Thomas: Let Me Be Good to You (SoulMusic)

10 Jon Hassell / Farafina: Flash of the Spirit (tak:til)

MUSIC BOOKS

1 Aaron Cohen: Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power (Chicago University Press)

2 Andy Neill: Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here (Universal)

3 Magdalena Grzebałkowska: Komeda: A Private Life in Jazz (Equinox)

4 Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (4th Estate)

5 Luc Sante: Maybe the People Would Be the Times (Verse Chorus Press)

6 Philip Nanton: Riff: The Shake Keane Story (Papillote Press)

7 Edwin Prévost: An Uncommon Music for the Common Man (Copula)

8 Duncan Heining: Stratusphunk: George Russell, His Life in Music (Jazz International)

9 Ian Preece: Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels (Omnibus)

10 Maureen Mahon: Black Diamond Queens (Duke University Press)

OTHER NON-FICTION

Ed Caesar: The Moth and the Mountain (Penguin Viking)

FICTION

David Diop: At Night All Blood Is Black (Pushkin Press)

POETRY

Caroline Bird: The Air Year (Carcanet)

FILM

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma)

EXHIBITION

Charlotte Salomon (Jewish Museum, London)

‘The Monk Watches the Eagle’

My last memory of Keith Tippett comes from a night in Berlin in 2015, when he brought his octet to play a new suite, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. He was always edgy before a performance, and this concert was no exception. There was a fine new 9ft Steinway for him to play, tuned twice during the day — once before the afternoon soundcheck, once after. An hour before the start of the concert, however, he went back to the piano, played a few notes, and came to me with an urgent request that it be retuned.

At that point the only thing a festival director can do is keep the artist happy. The piano tuner had gone home hours before. But his home number was found, and he was summoned in time to give the instrument another going-over. (After completing the task, he muttered to me that it had remained perfectly in tune.) Keith and his musicians proceeded to play a glorious set that delighted the audience, who were transfixed when Julie Tippetts, Keith’s wife, materialised next to the piano towards the end to sing “The Dance of Her Returning”. It was a triumph, one of many in his long career.

Keith was a wonderful man and one of the finest British composers of his generation. Following his death n June 2020, the first posthumously released Tippett recording is a piece of which he was specially proud: The Monk Watches the Eagle, a cantata for two saxophone quartets, the BBC Singers, and his wife, Julie, who provided a libretto evoking the last earthly thoughts of a holy man on his deathbed.

The recording is of its first and only performance, performed in 2004 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which had commissioned it, and recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in Norwich Cathedral. Dedicated to his late father, the nature of the work and the setting of the performance remind us that Keith’s early musical experience included spells as a chorister and church organist in his native Bristol.

His whole career showed us that he was comfortable in many idioms, from his astonishing solo piano improvisations to his appearance with King Crimson on Top of the Pops and his marshalling of the extraordinary 50-piece Centipede. The Monk Watches the Eagle finds him flying free of genre, blending the gestures of contemporary classical choral music with perfectly integrated saxophone improvisations — by Paul Dunmall (soprano), Kevin Figes (alto), Ben Waghorn (tenor) and Chris Biscoe (baritone) — and Julie’s powerfully affecting singing.

Keith’s use of his resources here is flexible and imaginative. His deployment of the singers is in a very English tradition of choral music, the voices sometimes soaring up to the 12th century cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling. There are times when he makes the saxophones sound like a pipe organ powered by human breath; even more astonishing is a passage where you imagine you’re hearing distant gongs and bowed cymbals.

The 40-minute piece is continuous, but for our convenience the CD is programmed with seven divisions. The fourth of them, a 14-minute passage, contains some of the most moving music I’ve heard this year: a series of slow movements featuring lean a cappella vocal writing, a dissonant slow upward swirl of voices and reeds giving way to a glowing melody emotionally related to John Tavener’s “The Lamb”, Julie’s mbira (thumb piano) and her wonderfully poised vocal solo over saxophone harmonies, and the return of the choir, with Biscoe’s soft baritone tiptoeing gently between their legato phrases.

“Now it is silent, and words hang warm,” they sing in this section. “All is calm. All that remains… All that remains in my heart is still. All is still. Now in the quiet — and quite alone — not alone!” But the luminous serenity is disturbed by a writhing Dunmall soprano solo, emerging from a babble of voices, demonstrating that the inherent possibilities of such collaborations did not end with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Singers. The parallel harmonies of the closing movement have an unadorned elegance reminiscent of plainsong.

It’s a work of great spiritual depth and power, radiating its beams of light as though shining through stained glass — the motif of the cover design. I remember Keith telling me about it with special pride. Now everyone can hear it, and join the long applause that filled the cathedral at the conclusion of a marvellous performance that reveals a different and very precious facet of the soul of a great musician.

* Keith Tippett’s The Monk Watches the Eagle is released on the Discus label. The photograph of Tippett, by Paolo Soriani, is from the CD sleeve.

It’s a disco night (don’t stop)

So disco’s back. “The golden years, the silver tears / You wore a tie like Richard Gere’s…” Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Crying at the Discothèque” is a remake of a 1980 record by Alcazar, which borrowed the Chic-produced rhythm track of “Spacer”. The new disco-revival albums from Ellis-Bextor and Kylie Minogue take me back to the late ’70s, when my friend Howard Thompson, then recently relocated to New York, taped shows from all-disco WKTU (92.3 FM) and mailed the cassettes to me in London. The 12s I bought in those days mostly came from Groove Records on the corner of Greek Street and Bateman Street in Soho. Here are a dozen lasting favourites, not exactly unpredictable, from that time. 

1. Odyssey: “Native New Yorker” Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, formerly collaborators on “A Lovers’ Concerto” and “Let’s Hang On”, with the help of the great arranger/producer Charlie Calello, created a whole movie in a song: “It’s the thought you had / In a taxicab that got left on the kerb / When he dropped you off at East 83rd…” I love the uptown 25-35 lead vocal of Lillian Lopez — born, as it happens, in Connecticut — and the slight Latin emphasis in this extended mix, particularly the piano playing of Richard Tee.

2. Evelyn Champagne King: “Shame”  I’d be happy to die now if I knew I’d be reincarnated as one of the guitarists behind Ms King, extending this sublime track into eternity.

3. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: “Bad Luck” Teddy Pendergrass in his pre-solo pomp, with Ronnie Baker on bass, Earl Young on drums and Vince Montana Jr on vibes, and a rap on Nixon closing perhaps the best breakdown in history. 

4. Norma Jean: “Saturday” An early Chic production, from a time when Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards found a different keyboard or tuned percussion lick for every hit. Here it’s Dave Friedman’s vibes.

5. Gladys Knight: “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind” The impossibly prolific Van McCoy wrote this one for Gladys, and it’s a perfect fit: “Your ex is back in town / What you gonna do when she comes around / And she starts going through her act…” 

6. Sheila (and) B. Devotion: “Spacer” Chic’s Rodgers, Edwards and Tony Thompson again, this time confecting perfect Euro-disco with a French singer. The strings were conducted by Gene Orloff, 30 years after he played violin with the Neil Hefti Orchestra behind Charlie Parker on “Repetition”.

7. Cheryl Lynn: “Got to Be Real” (12-inch version) Toto’s David Paich produced this with his dad, Marty, a fine jazz pianist and arranger who worked with Chet Baker, Mel Tormé and countless others. Ray Parker Jr plays guitar and James Gadson is on drums. Cheryl was barely 21 when she wrote this with David P. and David Foster. Tracking herself on backing vocals, she sounds like a trumpet section in full flare.

8. Oliver Cheatham: “Get Down Saturday Night” A snare flam sets up the top-of-the-beat groove that provides minimalist support for a living-for-the-weekend song (gotta have one of those). No idea who mixed this, but they did a wonderful job.

9. Melba Moore: “This Is It” (Tom Moulton mix) More Van McCoy magic. Melba is the daughter of the bandleader Teddy Hill, with whom Dizzy Gillespie paid his first visit to London in 1937, and who went on to manage Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in ’40s, providing an after-hours home for Gillespie and his fellow bebop pioneers Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian.

10. Philippé Wynne: “We Dance So Good Together” The death of the former (Detroit) Spinners lead singer from a heart attack on stage in Oakland, California in 1984 removed one of the most creative soul singers of his generation. This track, from his 1980 solo album, was produced by George Clinton and ex-Motown/Invictus songwriter Ronnie Dunbar, with Bernie Worrell on synths, and written by James Dean (co-composer of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”) and John Glover. 

11. Candi Staton: “Victim” “I told you young hearts run free…” In Dave Crawford’s bespoke lyric, Candi sings about being “a victim of the very songs I sing.” This is almost too much of a song to be danced to: “Oh well, I guess I’ll end up in the lost-and-found / It looks like love and me, we’ve lost another round.” But the groove and the vibes touches are irresistible, as is the backing singers’ “doo doo-wap” interlude.

12. Vera: “Take Me to the Bridge” Fabulously tacky Euro-disco from Montreal. Music and production by Louis Toteda, words by Don Saunders. The identity of the lead singer is disputed. Goodness knows which or what “bridge” is the subject of her erotically charged plea (I don’t think it’s the middle eight), but the record’s hook is the double-pop of the bass in the chorus. 

Re-reading Brian Eno’s diary

Many of these new words suggest the dissolution of a certain quality of public discourse that we have taken for granted since the Enlightenment, which hinged on the possibility of reaching evidence-based concensus — albeit even temporary — about what constitutes reality. The post-modern scepticism of any distinction between ideologically derived value systems and evidence-driven science is now grasped at gratefully by libertarians, populists, identitarians and tax evaders the world over: “Why shouldn’t there be a special reality just for me?” they demand. An early warning sign of this attitude creeping into politics was when a member of Dubya’s entourage, questioned about the veracity of some claims he’d made in support of the Iraq war, said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

It’s interesting to watch that kind of hubris crash up against a little strand of RNA — and conspicuously lose the battle. As I write this, we’re five months into the Covid pandemic, and it turns out that even an empire can’t change biological reality. I wonder if it will make any difference to how we view the role of leadership in the future, when we evaluate the various national responses to Covid and notice that the people who dealt with it most successfully were not the macho braggarts, not the “we-make-our-own-reality” brigade, not the “man-up” populists, not the Panglossian libertarians, but the people who had the humility to listen to the science and the humanity to care enough to act upon it.

Those words are taken from the new introduction to a 25th anniversary edition of A Year with Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno’s diary of 1995, and form part of a commentary on a list of words and terms created since the original publication: AI, Airbnb, Alexa, algorithm, alt-right, alternative facts, Amazon and so on — several pages of them, fact, all the way to zero-hour contract, zero-tolerance, Zooming and zoonotic.

The original diary, written in a different world, records collaborations with David Byrne, Dave Stewart, U2 and the band James, conversations about drugs with an Eritrean taxi driver and presenting the Turner Prize with Nicholas Serota, outings to judge Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World competition and to lunch with Bono and Eve Hewson at the Colombe d’Or in the hills above Nice, digressions on stuff like the art market, the Bosnian conflict, the language of car horns and the three principal debts to African music (pushed rhythm, flattened scales and call-and-response), chat about buying a computer for his young daughters and looking at Dan Flavin’s neon tubes in the Guggenheim, repeating a very good Tommy Cooper joke, and then another.

He’s a serious thinker but his sense of humour is never far away, along with a gentle self-mockery (17 April: Lou Reed, Lenny Henry and David Bowie all called. Enjoying Tricky CD. He didn’t call21 December: At the party, Rob Partridge said to me: ‘You gave hope to other balding men.’ My new epitaph: ‘Co-wrote a couple of decent songs and went bald shamelessly’).

All this makes it well worth reading, or re-reading, today, for both entertainment on trivial matters and the application of critical thinking and common sense to some of the big problems of our time. And it prompts me to wonder how different our lives would be right now, had Brian Eno spent 2020 as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Failing that, I hope he’s at least been compiling another diary.

* The new edition of A Year with Swollen Appendices is published by Faber & Faber.