Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The last of AMM

It seemed fitting that the final performance of AMM, the pioneering London-based improvising ensemble, should have featured two of the musicians who started the group in 1965. Eddie Prévost, with a small array of gongs, cymbals and drums, and Keith Rowe, originally a guitarist but now manipulating small boxes to trigger and modify samples or electronic signals, appeared together at Café Oto in Dalston last night in the fourth and last event held in celebration of Prévost’s recent 80th birthday.

AMM, whose name remains defiantly undecoded, started out with the saxophonist Lou Gare alongside Rowe and Prévost in a trio that quickly began to unshackle itself from the musicians’ jazz roots. Soon additional members — the pianist/cellist Cornelius Cardew, the accordionist/cellist Lawrence Sheaff, the percussonist Christopher Hobbs, the pianist John Tilbury, the cellist Rohan de Saram — were coming and going. There were occasional guests, such as the saxophonist Evan Parker and the pianist Christian Wolff. Sometimes they were a quartet, sometimes a quintet, often a duo — Prévost and Gare, Prévost and Tilbury, Prévost and Rowe. Tilbury was to have made it a trio last night, but health considerations intervened.

Prévost began and ended the hour-long set with the sound of bowed cymbals, gongs and bowls, an art of which he is a master. Snare and bass drums were used as additional timbral devices, activated by beaters or an electric toothbrush. Rowe deployed his resources with great economy, dropping in samples of male, female and brass chorales, the absent Tilbury’s piano and fragments of speech alongside the radio-scanner cracklings and howls. A packed room listened intently and in complete stillness. At the end, the applause went on for several minutes. This was not just in recognition of the significance of the event, to which Prévost had alerted us beforehand, but in response to the degree and intensity of emotion evoked by the sounds — so seemingly austere, so demanding of listeners, so resistant to any form of literal interpretation — that the two men created together. As a farewell, it could not have been bettered.

* AMM’s first album, AMMusic, was recorded for the Elektra label in 1966 and subsequently reissued in both CD and vinyl formats. Other recordings have been released on the Matchless label (www.matchlessrecordings.com). Eddie Prévost’s books on AMM and related historical and dialectical issues include No Sound is Innocent (1995) The First Concert (2011), and his autobiography, An Uncommon Music for the Common Man (2020), all published by Copula.

Ornette and the skies of London

Fifty years ago today, at 10 o’clock on the morning of Monday 17 April 1972, the photographer Val Wilmer and I arrived at Abbey Road Studios to hear Ornette Coleman recording The Skies of America with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was the first of four three-hour sessions, held on consecutive days, during which the entire work was committed to tape. Here’s one of Val’s pictures, reproduced by her kind permission, and my report, published in the Melody Maker later that week.

“This is The Skies of America, take one.” The smoothly modulated voice of Paul Myers, the head of CBS Records’ classical department, halts a conversation among the second violins.

David Measham, the conductor, counts off a bar, and the orchestra launches itself into a jagged ensemble in which it’s hard to perceive a lead voice. But Measham hears a goof, and drags it to a halt.

“We’ll do it without the trumpets and trombones,” he says. “Are the horns comfortable with this?”

“No more uncomfortable than anywhere else,” mutters a youngish, bespectacled musician, one hand wedged firmly up the bell of his French horn.

He seems to be expressing the consensual view of the London Symphony Orchestra. Mild bewilderment and a certain amount of genteel exasperation are mingled with rather smaller amounts of genuine interest and curiosity about the nature of the work that confronts them this morning in the famous Studio No 2.

This is quite an unusual day in the life of the LSO. The Skies of America is a new work, and they are recording it in the presence of the composer, Ornette Coleman. It’s his first symphonic piece. And it seems to be quite unlike anything the musicians have had to face before.

Some of the problems have been caused by the composer. Certain passages of the work, which consists of 21 short sections and will last about 40 minutes, are almost impossible to play. The strain on the trumpeters, for instance, is such that they’ve made an agreement between themselves to alternate the high-note passages, in order to save their lips from damage.

This is the first day of recording. Last week there were three days of rehearsal, but the parts are still causing trouble. Poor copying, for example, has led the tuba-player to confuse his sharps and flats. “You just have to approximate it,” he sighs. Is it hard? “Bloody impossible.”

The work was to have been recorded with the LSO and Coleman’s quartet, but Musicians’ Union restrictions prevented the use of the American players. “So then we wanted to take the tapes back to New York and overdub the quartet,” Coleman explains, “but they wouldn’t let us even do that. And I always thought electronics were supposed to make things quicker and easier, didn’t you?”

During the takes, Ornette sits on his upturned saxophone case, next to the conductor’s rostrum. He’s wearing a charcoal mohair suit with a flared flap in the back, and a silky cream shirt. His boots are made of multicoloured patchwork leather. As has been his habit for many years, he designed them himself. Beside him, there’s a table. On it lie his packet of Gauloises, his cup of coffee, a red telephone which connects him with the producer in the control room, and his alto saxophone.

Every so often he makes quiet suggestions to Measham or goes over to the drum booth to discuss some point or other with Mike Frye, the LSO’s young percussionist, who is playing a part intended for Ed Blackwell. Frye has never heard of Blackwell, the brilliant drummer from New Orleans who played in the quartet with which Coleman set the jazz scene on its ear a dozen years ago. But he’s doing fine, particularly in view of the fact that what he’s being called upon to play bears only the most tenuous of explicit relationships to the patterns written for the rest of the orchestra.

“We need three conductors, really,” he remarks gravely to Ornette, who nods.

At one point, Ornette takes up the sticks to give Frye a practical demonstration of what he wants. He plays a couple of brief phrases on the snare and top tom-tom, and the immediate resemblance to Blackwell’s unique top-of-the-beat style is startling.

Seated around Coleman, Measham and Frye are 26 violins, 10 violas, eight cellos, six double basses, four flutes, four oboes, four bassoons, four clarinets, four trumpets, four trombones, four French horns, a tuba, a harp and a tympanist. It is, of course, the biggest ensemble Coleman has ever been involved with. This is a man who played on the chitlin’ circuit in his youth, honking out the simple phrases of rabble-rousing rhythm and blues, and who then became the most compelling figure to emerge from the avant-garde of the late ’50s, when his quartet made a series of recordings that seemed to embody both extreme complexity and a love of unfettered melody and irresistible rhythm, implying that perhaps sophistication and naturalness were not polar opposites but could co-exist within music. In the ’60s he also took his first steps into music written for chamber groups — which, on the rare occasions it was recorded or performed in concert, was generally received with a mixture of bafflement and disapproval.

As the orchestra struggles through another section, it’s hard to describe how the music sounds. There are broad melodies which seem never to repeat themselves, and fast staccato phrases which give the trumpets no end of trouble. But in the control booth, even in this rough state, the impression is hugely striking.

“It’s not meant to be a symphony orchestra playing,” Ornette explains, in his characteristically elliptical way, during a break. “Not that particular sound. It’s just supposed to be the way these instruments sound when they play together. In fact it’s not supposed to sound like particular instruments at all. It’s written so that you can’t tell who’s playing what. Listen to that high note. You can’t tell whether it’s the strings or the brass.”

In the booth, he talks about his attitude to melody. He prefers to work with instrumental melody because it allows a more open interpretation. Listeners have to put something of themselves into it in order to get something out. “It’s like this part, here. If you and I were singing it, we’d probably sing different notes, because it sounds different to each of us. You can’t do that with song form. I think that’s one reason why classical music is so unpopular. Working people don’t have the time to put themselves into this music.”

The orchestra returns. While some of the musicians tune up, others read books and magazines propped on their music stands. A few of them return to their reading matter even during eight-bar rests.

Next they’re going to tackle a section that begins with a small section of the strings and the woodwind, playing a long seamless line that wanders without retracing its steps. The spare voicing and muted timbre make it sound like something by Charles Ives — Central Park in the Dark, maybe. Gradually the rest of the orchestra joins in, building on the slow line in a lengthy and deliberate crescendo which has an air of wonderment and discovery. “Like a flower opening,” Ornette remarks.

They get a good take, and Ornette rushes up to the booth. “That part after the melody — where it’s reversed — does it sound too dark? It’s supposed to be like night, with the stars shining through.”

No, he’s told, it’s fine. Even Measham agrees, although he’s been constantly troubled by a conductor’s score that doesn’t tally with some of the individual parts. “It’s such a waste of time when that happens,” he says. “It costs a of money on a session this size. But Ornette is amazing. He knows every note of music on this score by memory. And there’s a lot of music in it.”

The digital clock flicks over to 13:00 and the session is at an end. The musicians pack up and head for the door. Ornette hooks his alto to his sling and walks around the emptying floor, playing a handful of lyrical phrases in that tone which prompted a participant in one of his early recording sessions, the drummer Shelly Manne, to say that “he sounds like a person laughing, and a person crying.”

He pauses and takes the horn from his mouth. “Hey,” he says. “We’re getting there, aren’t we? And we’ll do better tomorrow.”

* The following evening, at the BBC TV Centre, I interviewed Ornette live on an edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test that also featured music by the Stooges, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and Linda Lewis. Two months later I heard him play The Skies of America with his quartet and the American Symphony Orchestra at Philharmonic Hall in New York, a world premiere coinciding with the album release. In 1988, before a London performance of a revised version with Prime Time and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Ornette told me about how the idea for the piece had come to him on a visit to a Native American reservation in Montana in the 1960s: “I participated in their sacred rites, and it made me think about the many different elements existing in America, in relation to its causes, purpose and destiny. For some reason, I got that feeling from the sky. I feel that everything that has ever happened in America, from way before the Europeans arrived, is still intact as far as the sky is concerned.”

A period of silence (2)

To my amazement, this blog is now 730 posts old. I’m grateful for the interest of those who’ve been reading it since the start in January 2013, or who’ve come in along the way. It’s nice to know that the pleasure I get from it is shared.

Four years ago I put it on hold for a few months in order to give myself the time I needed to finish a book. Now I’m doing it again, and once more the writing that’ll keep me occupied until mid-summer has nothing to do with music. It’s going to be hard to deny myself the opportunity to listen to as many albums and (circumstances permitting) go to as many gigs, but that’s how it has to be.

Meanwhile, a happy new year to one and all, and see you down the road apiece.

— Richard Williams

2021: The best bits

“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.” The older I get, the more profoundly those words resonate. They begin “Burnt Norton”, the opening poem of T. S Eliot’s Four Quartets sequence, first published together in 1943. When the initial lockdown began last year, the actor Ralph Fiennes had the idea of committing the poems to memory. Then he decided to present them on stage in a production that he would direct. A risky proposition, staging poetry. But the miraculous property of Fiennes’s monologue, which I saw at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London at the end of November, was that by acting the lines, and by using his body as well as his voice, he brought out meanings that might have escaped even the most assiduous silent reader. Hildegard Bechtler’s set, Christopher Shutt’s sound design and Tim Lutkin’s lighting helped Fiennes to guide us, over the course of 75 unforgettable minutes, through a great work in all its dimensions.

NEW ALBUMS

1 The Weather Station: Ignorance (Fat Possum)

2 Masabumi Kikuchi: Hanamichi (Red Hook)

3 Vijay Iyer / Linda May Han Oh / Tyshawn Sorey: Uneasy (ECM)

4 Anthony Joseph: The Rich Are Defeated Only When Running for Their Lives (Heavenly Sweetness)

5 Amir El Saffar / Rivers of Sound: The Other Shore (Out Note)

6 Peter Hammill: In Translation (Fie!)

7 Alexander Hawkins: Togetherness Music (Intakt)

8 James McMurtry: The Horses and the Hounds (New West)

9 Jason Moran: The Sound Will Tell You (Bandcamp)

10 Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo: El Arte del Bolero (Miel Music)

11 Sault: Nine (Forever Living Originals)

12 William Parker: Mayan Space Station (AUM Fidelity)

13 Johnathan Blake: Homeward Bound (Blue Note)

14 Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue: Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses (Pi)

15 Xhosa Cole: K(n)ow Them, K(n)ow Us (Stoney Lane)

16 Tom Rainey Obbligato: Untucked in Hannover (Intakt)

17 John Zorn: Parables (Tzadik)

18 Tomos Williams: Cwmwl Tystion (Ty Cerdd)

19 Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders: Promises (Luaka Bop)

20 Tom Challenger: Imasche (Bandcamp)

21 Hiss Golden Messenger: Quietly Blowing It (Merge)

22 Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra: Tales from the Jacquard (Whirlwind)

23 Tyshawn Sorey / Alarm Will Sound: For George Lewis / Autoschediasms (Cantaloupe)

24 Lana Del Rey: Chemtrails Over the Country Club (Universal)

25 The Memory Band: Colours (Hungry Hill)

ARCHIVE / REISSUE

1 Julius Hemphill: The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (New World)

2 John Coltrane: A Love Supreme Live in Seattle (Impulse)

3 The Band: Stage Fright / Live at the Albert Hall (Capitol)

4 Various: This Love Was Real: L. A. Vocal Groups 1959-1964 (Ace)

5 Splinters: Inclusivity (Jazz in Britain)

6 Alice Coltrane: Kirtan: Turiya Sings (Impulse)

7 Group Sounds Four & Five: Black and White Raga (Jazz in Britain)

8 Mose Allison: The Complete Atlantic & Elektra Albums 1962-1983 (Strawberry)

9 Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series Vol 16: Springtime in New York (Columbia)

10 Barney Wilen: La Note Bleue (Elemental)

11 Van Der Graaf Generator: The Charisma Years Box (Virgin)

12 Mike Taylor: Trio, Quartet & Composer Revisited (ezz-thetics)

13 Various: Separate Paths Together: An Anthology of British Male Singer-Songwriters 1965-75 (Grapefruit)

14 Hasaan Ibn Ali: Metaphysics (Omnivore)

15 Various: People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook (Kent)

16 Elton Dean Quartet: They All Be on This Old Road (Ogun)

17 Third Ear Band: Alchemy: The Albums 1969-72 (Esoteric)

18 Various: Lowrider Soul Vol 2 (Kent)

19 Graham Collier: British Connection (My Only Desire)

20 Stan Getz Quartet / Astrud Gilberto: Live at the Berlin Jazz Festival 1966 (The Lost Recordings)

LIVE

1 Patti Smith Group (Royal Albert Hall, October)

2 Vijay Iyer / Linda May Han Oh / Tyshawn Sorey (Queen Elizabeth Hall, November)

3 Nu Civilisation Orchestra’s What’s Going On (Queen Elizabeth Hall, November)

4 Xhosa Cole Trio (Cockpit Theatre, October)

5 Cécile McLorin Salvant (Cadogan Hall, November)

STREAM

Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom (Veeps.com)

FILMS

1 The Summer of Soul (dir. Ahmir Thompson)

2 David Byrne’s American Utopia (dir. Spike Lee)

3 The Velvet Underground (dir. Todd Haynes)

BOOKS

1 Patrick Modiano: Invisible Ink (Yale University Press)

2 Rickie Lee Jones: Last Chance Texaco (Grove Press)

3 Lenny Kaye: Lightning Striking (White Rabbit)

4 Horst Krüger: The Broken House (Bodley Head)

5 Richard Thompson: Beeswing (Faber & Faber)

6 Michael Holding: Why We Kneel, How We Rise (Simon & Schuster)

7 Andrew Humphreys: Raving upon Thames (Paradise Road)

8 Harvey & Kenneth Kubernik: Voodoo Child (Sterling)

9 Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger (Pushkin Press)

10 Lili Anolik: Hollywood’s Eve (Scribner)

Loud and quiet moments

The car, I find, is a good place to listen to music. Mine is old enough to have a CD player, and I hear lots of new stuff in what is a very satisfactory sound box. But a funny thing happened when I put on the new King Crimson album, a two-CD “official bootleg” of their return to touring in the US between July and September this year. As I drove along, listening to the music, there were noises that made me think something had happened to the car: maybe a piston had blown, or the rear suspension had collapsed.

Wrong. It was the clattering set up by the three drummers who currently make up almost half of the current King Crimson, and whose synchronous but sometimes fairly abstruse playing occasionally gives the impression of a complex machine making its own decisions.

Robert Fripp has form with this sort of thing. Mike Giles, his band’s original drummer, could make 4/4 sound like a study of the calculus of infinitesimals. Later on, the short-lived combination of Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford created a provocative blend of the obsessively precise and the utterly random. Nowadays, when King Crimson take the stage, it is with the three drummers — Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison — arrayed in front of the other four musicians.

The saxophonist/flautist Mel Collins, the guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, the bassist Tony Levin, and Fripp himself (seated, as always) take up their positions behind the battery of batterie. I don’t know why Fripp chose this configuration, but the music — recorded at two venues, the Anthem in Washington, DC and the Egg in Albany, NY — begins, after a short spoken introduction by the leader, with a thunderous percussion-only barrage that made me think of a 21st century Sandy Nelson, rendered in Warhol-style triplicate.

The rest of the two hours is devoted to King Crimson old and new, from “21st Century Schizoid Man”, “Epitaph” and “Islands” through “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless” “Red” and “Discipline” to a few examples of their more recent work, with which I am considerably less familiar. The respect shown to the greatest hits is absolute; the material is performed with technical excellence and fidelity to the originals but also a spirit that makes the clambering, juddering lines of something like “Level Five” — from 2003’s The Power to Believe — into more than mere exercises, while the rendering of “Starless” has a beguilingly eccentric grandeur that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. Jakszyk’s vocals recall those of Greg Lake and John Wetton, the washes of mellotron strings and flutes add an authentic period flavour, and Collins pops up occasionally to remind us what an exceptional and unjustly underappreciated player he has always been.

Arriving in the same package was something very different: a box of eight CDs called Music for Quiet Moments, a compilation of the solo pieces Fripp recorded between 2004 and 2009 in many different venues around Europe and America and released individually as downloads between May 2020 and April 2021. This music proceeds from the experiments that began in the autumn on 1972, when Brian Eno invited me to his flat in Maida Vale to hear something he’d been up to, using two Revox tape machines to record and loop Fripp’s guitar, creating a slow-moving, unusually textured, quietly mesmerising sound that could function as foreground or background. Released the following year under the title (No Pussyfooting) on Island’s low-price HELP label, it was the beginning not just of Frippertronics and Fripp’s more recent Soundscapes but of Eno’s work with ambient and generative music.

These new Soundscapes range in length from a handful of minutes to three-quarters of an hour. Some of the pieces share titles that include “Elegy”, “Pastorale”, “Seascape” and “Evensong”, indicating the moods Fripp is painting with his guitar and its associated effects, often producing sounds resembling slow-moving clusters of violas and cellos. Miraculously, at least to my ears, the risk of passivity is avoided. Some tracks, like “Strong Quiet I and II” from Brussels in 2009, feature an improvised solo guitar line over the drifting clouds of sound: recognisably Fripp, completely lacking in ego-play, always worth following where they lead.

Is this background and/or foreground and/or something in between? Music for listening, or to accompany other activities, or to create a sense of nothingness? From Atlanta in 2006 come pieces titled “Affirmation” and “Aspiration”, a reminder of the names John Coltrane gave to the individual movements of A Love Supreme. And in interviews (such as the one in the December issue of Uncut magazine) Fripp is unafraid to use terms such as “devotional”, “sacred” and “meditative” to describe what’s going on. He isn’t more specific. But the music there to be used, in whatever way you feel appropriate.

* King Crimson’s Music Is Our Friend / Live in Washington and Albany 2021 and Robert Fripp’s Music for Quiet Moments are released on the Panegyric label (www.dgmlive.com). The photograph of Fripp was taken by Tony Levin in Chicago this year.

London Jazz Festival 1: The peak of their art

After an hour of Mike Westbrook’s autumnal musings at the Pizza Express’s piano on Sunday afternoon, in which the great composer, arranger and bandleader stitched together the memories of a life in music into a seamless reverie with a quiet intensity that held the room in thrall, the scene at the 2021 London Jazz Festival moved to the South Bank, where Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey stormed the Queen Elizabeth Hall with something belonging entirely to the here and now.

Sometimes you get lucky and witness something that makes you realise how high the standards can be. Doesn’t matter what it is. Tennis, poetry, carpentry. On Sunday night it was jazz. A pianist, a bassist and a drummer dropped in to examine the art of the possible, demonstrating over the course of two hours of high-density interplay what can happen when three like-minded virtuosi get it into their heads to create something in which 1+1+1 = infinity.

Basically, they played their way through their recent album, Uneasy. It’s one of the year’s finest releases, but here they stretched it, expanded it, tossed its elements around, and gave it a completely new existence. So many bases were covered — 21st century takes on bebop, Latino patterns, reggae, the circular rhythms of Tyner-Garrison-Jones — that the time passed very quickly.

Linda Oh is the least known of the three, but her bass playing was the heart of the group: slight build, total physical commitment, wonderful tone, great agility, an endless flow of ideas. Vijay Iyer is a cerebral pianist who nevertheless relishes any involvement with rhythm (one night at the Lido in Berlin a few years ago, he and his regular acoustic trio — completed by the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore — locked into an endless groove that any funk band would have envied). Tyshawn Sorey operates with complete comfort at the absolute extremities of the dynamic range, from whisper-quiet to shatteringly loud, plus every setting in between. On this occasion he made you wonder why anyone would ever need more than a small bass drum, a medium-sized snare, a single cymbal and a hi-hat, from each of which he drew an astonishing variety of tones and timbres.

Their music rattled, jolted, cruised, purred, broke apart, blended back, cantered, swung, faked a stumble, slowed to a sigh. The audacity made you gasp. Solos were taken, but were always part of the whole. Oh’s leaping grooves made you want to dance. Iyer’s upper-register filigree made your mind soar. Sorey’s sudden whipcracks straightened your back.

Another side of the multi-dimensional Sorey is on view in For George Lewis / Autoschediasms, a two-CD set in which his compositions are performed by Alarm Will Sound, a New York-based 16-piece chamber orchestra here made up of brass, woodwind, strings and percussion, tuned and untuned. “For George Lewis”, a 50-minute piece dedication to his mentor and fellow composer, conducted by Alan Pierson, bears the imprint of Sorey’s interest in the music of Morton Feldman: fully composed, based on a process of accretion and subtraction of single held notes, it moves with mesmerising deliberation through austere and refined layers of sound, creating the musical equivalent of colour-field painting.

“Autoschediasms” is Sorey’s name for his version of the approach to creating real-time music with large ensembles pioneered by Butch Morris (who called it “conduction”) and Anthony Braxton. In these two performances, recorded in St Louis in May 2019 and in various US cities via internet video chat in October 2020, Sorey takes the rostrum, giving the musicians prompts via gestures and prepared cue-cards. “The method can involve the use of up to four batons simultaneously by the conductor,” he writes in his informative notes, and anyone who has seen him at a drum kit will know that this is a challenge well within his scope. The result is a much more obviously active ensemble music, its details and densities sometimes clashing or overlapping, but with an emerging coherence and, like a master of action painting, an excellent sense of drama.

* Uneasy by Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey is on ECM. For George Lewis / Autoschediasms by Tyshawn Sorey and Alarm Will Sound is on Cantaloupe Music (www.cantaloupemusic.com).

Songs of the earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Lowe in Covent Garden

Nick Lowe liked the “mischief and mayhem” of the punk-rock era, into which he was drawn through his budding talents as a producer of things like the Damned, Wreckless Eric and Elvis Costello. But he also remembered a collateral phenomenon: there were musicians, he said last night, “who’d been playing Stephen Stills songs the week before and were suddenly pretending they couldn’t play.”

His dry wit was in evidence at an event organised to tie in with the paperback edition of Will Birch’s biography, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe. A large audience had assembled at the Seven Dials Club in Covent Garden to hear the two of them in conversation — or perhaps I should say reassembled, since we looked very much like the people that would have turned up to hear his band at Dingwalls or the Hope & Anchor, now 40 years further down the line.

Talking about his career, he said he’d changed his approach to recording in the mid-’80s when he realised that his days as a pop star were over and a new direction was required. He wanted other people to cover his songs, and he figured that if he recorded his own versions like demos, other artists would hear them and conclude they could do better.

If they simply followed what he’d done, he said, he felt disappointed. What he really liked was when someone approached one of his songs in a complete different and surprising way. Asked for examples, he mentioned Johnny Cash’s “The Beast in Me”, from the first volume of the American Recordings series, produced by Rick Rubin. Cash, his former stepfather-in-law, had been the most charismatic man he’d ever met, rivalled only by Solomon Burke. Oh, and there was a version of “I Live on a Battlefield”, which he’d written with Paul Carrack, given the full treatment by Diana Ross — “Turn that kitchen sink up a little louder!”

He talked about moving to Nashville to write songs with people he’d never met. How they’d start a conversation by asking how you’d got there, which airline, which hotel you were at, whether you’d had a good first night’s sleep, and you’d say, well, the people in the next room seemed to be having a party all night, and they’d say, oh, what room were they in? And you’d say, um, 706, I think… and they’d start writing straight away and there was the song: “There’s party in room 706…”

My favourite moment came after he was asked whether he’d like to produce a record with Cliff Richard. No, he said. Maybe once. Not now. Then he mentioned one project that never came off. “I had the idea to take Peters and Lee,” he said, “and get them to do ‘At the Dark End of the Street’. Can you imagine that? It would be heartbreaking, wouldn’t it?”

Then he made everybody happy by picking up an acoustic guitar and singing “Cruel to Be Kind”, not just the title number from the biography of the same name but a truly great pop song.

* Will Birch’s Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Work of Nick Lowe is published by Constable.

Another side of Charlie Watts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mose in middle age

I’d bought my first Mose Allison record in about 1962. It was an EP on the Esquire label, licensed from Prestige, and it contained all 10 atmospheric piano-trio miniatures making up Back Country Suite, the title of his first album, recorded five years earlier. Allison was clearly aware of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, but he was also steeped in the country blues that he’d heard growing up small-town Mississippi before studying English and philosophy at Louisiana State University. The result was was strong but fine-boned music, light on its feet, sultry as a southern night but as open as a big sky.

By the time I finally got to see him, during one of his many appearances at the Pizza Express in London in the 1980s, he’d moved on. He still sang the songs that had entranced the likes of Georgie Fame and Pete Townshend in the ’60s — his own “Parchman Farm”, Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind” and Mercy Dee’s “One Room Country Shack”. But his piano-playing had taken a wild left turn into a territory located somewhere between those staked out by Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor. A couple of time during a set he would suddenly rage up and down the keyboard, creating a torrent of two-fisted sound from waves of chromatic runs. Seems unlikely? If it was the antithesis of his early minimalism, it was certainly thrilling. Anyone turning up to hear the back-porch philosopher who sang “Well a young man ain’t nothin’ in the world these days” with such laconic resignation was in for a shock. I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to hear him many more times before his death in 2016, aged 89.

The young Mose could be heard on a 3-CD box set released on Fresh Sound in 2014, a compilation of the six albums he recorded for Prestige between 1957 and 1959: Back Country Suite, Local Color, Young Man Mose, Ramblin’ with Mose Allison, Creek Bank and Autumn Song. They formed the basis of the reputation that persuaded Nesuhi Ertegun to sign him to Atlantic in 1964 and to record 10 albums with him over the next dozen years. Those albums — I Don’t Worry About a Thing, Swingin’ Machine, The Word from Mose, Wild Man on the Loose, Mose Alive!, I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’, Hello There Universe, Western Man, Mose in Your Ear and Your Mind is on Vacation — have now been coupled with two subsequent recordings for Elektra, Middle Class White Boy and Lessons in Living, in a new 6-CD box.

Seven of the 10 Atlantic albums stay with the trio format, featuring such fine musicians as the drummers Osie Johnson and Paul Motian and the bassists Earl May and Red Mitchell. Two of those trio sets were recorded live, one at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1965 and the other at In Your Ear in Palo Alto five or six years later. The latter album, Mose in Your Ear, contains a track called “Powerhouse”, almost nine minutes long, which perfectly exemplifies the kind of pianistic eruption I mentioned earlier, ranging across almost all significant approaches to jazz pianism — stride, boogie-woogie, barrelhouse, bebop, Monk-to-Cecil angularity — while somehow retaining Allison’s signature.

The same album also has perhaps his best recorded version of Jimmie Davis’s “You Are My Sunshine”, one of the standards he loved to examine over and over again, nudging the tune’s melodic planes until he has reshaped it into something completely his own, an almost total reinvention.

Of the three Atlantic albums in which horns are added to the trio, the 1976 set called Your Mind Is on Vacation is the most interesting and fully realised. With Al Porcino on trumpet, David Sanborn on alto and Joe Farrell on tenor, Allison takes chances with his arrangements. “One of These Days” is a slow altered blues played in the style of a Mingus small band imitating the late-’50s Ray Charles outfit, with enigmatically stretched silences at odd moments. “Fires of Spring” is a sophisticated cabaret song, the sort of thing Fran Landesman used to write, with a brilliant rubato treatment and a conversation-stopper of an ending.

Lessons in Living, recorded live at the Montreux Festival in 1982, is the more interesting of the two Elektra albums, with Jack Bruce on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, both commendably concerned to accompany rather than draw attention to themselves, and there are guest spots from Eric Gale on guitar and Lou Donaldson on alto. A wild up-tempo version of Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son” — another old favourite — flirts with a wonderful chaos in the piano interlude, and there’s a perfectly weighted treatment of “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”, in which he dispenses cosmic truth with that wry fatalism.

A lot of Mose, then, but certainly not too much, because he was a true original who work deserves to be brought to the attention of new generations of listeners. After the reissue producer Jordi Puyol’s fine work on the Prestige/Fresh Sound collection, Bob Fisher’s compilation and annotation of this Atlantic/Elektra set is immaculate, as is the stylish package design and artwork by Michael Robson. Now all we need is for someone to compile the eight albums for Blue Note and one for Verve, mostly produced by Ben Sidran, and one for Anti-, supervised by Joe Henry, that represent the balance of his recording career, spanning 1987 to 2010. Not too much to ask, I hope.

* Mose Allison: The Complete Atlantic/Elektra Albums 1962-1983 is on Cherry Red’s Strawberry label.