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A Mingus discovery

Mingus poster

While listening to Louis Moholo, Jason Yarde, John Edwards and Alex Hawkins come very close to taking the roof off Cafe Oto the other night, I started thinking about Charles Mingus. The ingredients of the music were so similar: the warmth, the drive, the spontaneity, the shouted cues, the sudden turns from brusque lyricism to maximum intensity, an extreme sophistication drenched in the blues at its most elemental, the way the past was metabolised into the present, the feeling that this summed up why jazz really is different from everything else.

Then, the next morning, an unexpected package dropped on to the mat: a five-CD box called Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden, a recording of a club gig by one of Mingus’s later quintets in February 1973, previously unheard and released with the approval of Sue Mingus, the great bassist’s widow and guardian of his legacy.

The recording was made by Roy Brooks, the fine drummer who was a member of the Mingus band during this period, while Dannie Richmond was off exploring the world of rock. A Detroit native who had replaced Louis Hayes in Horace Silver’s quintet in 1959, Brooks died in 2005; it is to his widow, Hermine, that we owe the discovery of the tapes.

Mingus went through something of a personal and artistic trough at the end of the ’60s. I saw him at the Village Gate one night in, I think, 1971, playing with a complete absence of fire and commitment — a devastatingly desolate experience for one who had grown up on the volcanic excitements of Blues and Roots and Oh Yeah. By 1973, however, he had recovered his appetite for battle and regained all his old characteristics, as we can hear in his Philharmonic Hall and Let My Children Hear Music recordings from the previous year.

Just about everything that was great about Mingus was on display at the Strata Concert Gallery at 46 Selden Street in Detroit’s Midtown. The band is superb: Joe Gardner on trumpet, big-toned and confident; John Stubblefield on tenor, bringing to mind the fluent bluesiness of Hank Mobley; the mercurial Don Pullen on piano, brilliantly spanning the eras as many of Mingus’s pianists (Jaki Byard, Roland Hanna) were expected to do; and Brooks himself, providing an unflagging, explosive drive.

The repertoire includes Mingus favourites such as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress (Then Blue Silk)”, and a handful of those compositions that demonstrate how beautifully he could structure and pace a fine melodic line: “Celia”. “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”, “Dizzy Profile” and “The Man Who Never Sleeps”. In that respect he was the peer of Benny Golson. And anyone who wants to hear a medium-up 4/4 walking bass that hustles without hurrying should listen to “Peggy’s”, where he gives a masterclass in that difficult art. And the slow blues called “Noddin’ Ya Head” is an after-hours symphony (complete with Brooks’s musical saw).

This was a club gig, so the atmosphere is relaxed and the customers’ voices are sometimes heard. But it was recorded for broadcast on a local radio station, WDET-FM, so the balance of informal atmosphere and undistorted instrumental sound is just about perfect. There’s also an interview with Brooks, and a soliloquy by the station’s jazz DJ, Bud Spangler.

As a representation of how Mingus sounded in a club, it would be hard to beat. One of the finds of the year, without a doubt.

* The box set is released in November on the Barely Breaking Even label. Mingus fans might like to note that the programme of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival includes an event called “Jazz Experiments: Exploring Jazz through the Music of Charles Mingus”, in which the excellent band Blues & Roots will encourage members of the audience to play with them before performing their own set. It’s in the South Bank’s Clore Ballroom on the afternoon of Sunday, November 18, and it’s free. If you want to play, apply via the website: efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk

Marc Ribot’s ‘Songs of Resistance’

My grandparents lost brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles in the Holocaust, and I’ve toured and have friends in Russia and Turkey; we recognise Trump, and it’s no mystery where we will wind up if we don’t push back.

Those are the words used by the guitarist Marc Ribot to introduce his new album, which seems to me to be one of the year’s most important releases. A series of protest songs aimed at our current discontents, Songs of Resistance is in the spirit of Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra album, back in 1968, in that it fuses music of the past with that of the present, adding historical perspective to the various struggles it depicts.

The difference is that Ribot varies the musical approach from track to track, using guest singers and different instrumental groupings. So Tom Waits — with whom he has collaborated more more than 30 years — delivers a ballad called “Bella Ciao”, sung by the Italian partisans of the Second World War. Fay Victor fronts a irresistible funked-up “John Brown”, one of several tracks alluding to the civil rights movement. Steve Earle takes his turn on a Ribot tune about a Sikh immigrant murdered in Texas by a racist who mistook him for a Muslim (“A madman pulled the trigger / Donald Trump loaded the gun”), containing fragments of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” and “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”. Meshell Ndegeocello sings Ribot’s elegant “The Militant Ecologist”, based on another Italian song. The homespun “Knock That Statue Down”, attacking the resistance to the removal of memorials to the Confederacy, is delivered by Ribot himself. The last of the 11 tracks features Justin Vivian Bond singing “We’re Never Turning Back”, Ribot’s comment on gender politics.

Throughout his long career, the guitarist has been noted for the inclusiveness of his approach. Although the settings here reflect his diversity of musical interests, veering from folk songs and country music through go-go to free jazz, he succeeds in tying the whole sequence together through a unity of emotion, showing us how many shades of “stirring” there can be.

It’s a record that, in Ribot’s own phrase, chooses to fight the good fight. As such, it’s in a great and honourable tradition. And at this moment in history, it feels more necessary than ever.

* Songs of Resistance is out now on the Anti- label.

Forever Aretha

Aretha Lee F

Most of what I feel about the Queen of Soul went into the obituary I wrote for the Guardian. Here’s a little extra thing about the record of hers that I’d choose if I could only keep one.

Aretha Franklin made three passes at Van McCoy’s “Sweet Bitter Love”. It’s my guess that this means it was a song with a special significance for her, one she sang not just to her audience but to herself.

The first version came in 1965, during her unhappy time with Columbia Records. The producer was Clyde Otis, the song was given an off-the-peg string arrangement, and the outcome was mundane, even though her singing is lovely. The third was made in 1985, during her time with the Arista label. She produced that one herself, directing an ace band including Nat Adderley Jnr on keys, Steve Khan on guitar, Louis Johnson on bass and Yogi Horton on drums, adding Paul Riser’s arrangement for strings, brass and woodwind. Beneath the sumptuous surface, it dug a lot deeper. It would even serve as her definitive version of a fine song, but for . . .

. . . her second go, which stands for me as the most mesmerising and revelatory recording of her entire career. She taped it at the end of 1966, as part of a demo session immediately after signing with Atlantic Records, which explains the rough sound quality. Among other songs recorded that day, with Aretha at the piano supported by an anonymous double bassist and drummer, were try-outs of “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)” and “Dr Feelgood”, which became two of her classics. For me, however, “Sweet Bitter Love” is the one that seems to have cut deepest into her soul.

Sweet bitter love / The taste still lingers / Though through my helpless fingers / You slipped away / Sweet bitter love / What joy you taught me / What pain you brought me . . . 

Listen to it and then try telling me she isn’t singing to and about herself, drawing on everything she had already lived in her 25 years.

Oh my sweet bitter love / Why have you awakened /And then forsaken / A trusting heart like mine . . .

It’s also the perfect example of how her best work always came when she was sitting at the piano, providing her own accompaniment, establishing the groove and the flow. With that security she could explore her full range of phrasing and intonation: some of the single words here are enunciated and flighted with astonishing creativity, every scrap of decoration seeming absolutely essential. Over the whole piece, voice and keyboard ebb and flow together in great deep, dark surges of powerful emotion which she brings to an ending that is both elegant and brusque, as if everything has been said.

I love so many of her records. But if I had to keep just one, I’d tell myself that none of the others encapsulates the intimacy, the intensity, the superlative control, the sheer shattering open-hearted and heart-breaking Aretha-ness of her quite as rivetingly as this, which was never intended for public consumption but brings us as close to her as we could ever want to get.

* The photographs of Aretha were taken by the great Lee Friedlander, during the time he was working on album covers for Atlantic Records in the 1960s. They’re in his book American Musicians, published in 1998 by D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. You’ll find links to the other two versions of the song on YouTube. I didn’t include them because I wanted to make sure that you listen to this one.

A period of silence . . .

 

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To all those who’ve read The Blue Moment over the past five and a half years, I’d like to say thank you for your interest and your comments. I started the blog out of a desire to recreate the pleasure I had in the days when I was fortunate enough to be able to choose the music I wrote about and the manner in which I did it. This time around I wasn’t really expecting much of an audience, so it’s been a pleasant surprise to discover how many people seem to enjoy these pieces.

It’s time, however, to take a break. A book project, not music-related, will be occupying me for the next few months. It’s something I’ve been carrying in my head for a long time, and I’m lucky enough to have a publisher who shares my enthusiasm. I want to give it priority, so I’m pressing “pause” on The Blue Moment until the book has been researched and written. And when normal service is resumed in this space, I’d be very pleased to find you still with me.

— Richard Williams

Pohjola/Kallio: ‘Animal Image’

Verneri Pohjola and Mikka Kallio credit Maarit Kytoharju

Four years ago, the gifted Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola made his debut on the Edition label with Bullhorn, a small-group album of exquisite modern jazz in the line of descent from Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and Manu Katché’s Neighbourhood, which is to say cool, clear, strongly lyrical but always alert post-bop music with attractive themes and thoughtful solos, handsomely veneered. Last year he followed it up with Pekka, a more rock-inflected but also beguiling set of interpretations of themes composed by his late father, Pekka Pohjola, who was the bassist with the excellent group Wigwam in the early ’70s and the leader of his own band until his death 10 years ago.

His new release, Animal Image, is a collaboration with the percussionist Mika Kallio, who also appeared on Pekka. It was recorded to accompany a film about the “infinite relationship” between man and animals, made in northern Finland by the visual artist Perttu Saksa, who approached the project from an unusual angle by showing Pohjola and Kallio his footage and then cutting the film to their improvisations — a reversal of the conventional method.

With Pohjola using electronics as well as trumpet and Kallio adding bells and gongs to his drums, the result is a restrained but ravishing set of sound pictures, a kind of Nordic response to Jon Hassell’s Fourth World recordings of the 1980s. This is the sound of snowfields and big skies, of glistening details and slow change, and of survival. Its sheer beauty (most immediately expressed in Pohjola’s glorious trumpet tone) and approachability makes Animal Image easy to recommend to people who wouldn’t normally go for something as apparently austere as a series of free improvisations for trumpet and percussion. And now I’d love to see the film.

* Animal Image is out now on the Edition label. The photograph of Verneri Pohjola and Mika Kallio is by Maarit Kytoharju.

Buell Neidlinger 1936-2018

Buell Neidlinger w CT at Newport 57

Buell Neidlinger (bass) and Cecil Taylor (piano) at Newport in 1957

What turned out to be Buell Neidlinger’s final contribution to this blog arrived on March 9, in response to a piece about Keith Jarrett’s latest release. Buell had seen the accompanying photograph of Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette relaxing on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall: “Thought I recognised the floor… worked there for three years,” he wrote. In 1967 he had joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he taught bass and chamber music and, with George Russell, established the first jazz department of a major music school.

It astonished me when Buell sent some words to this blog, commenting on something I’d written about Cecil Taylor. His participation in Cecil’s trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine” made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in the early ’60s. It remains a favourite, not least for the way Buell’s bass shadows Taylor’s piano inventions with such devotion and beautiful note-choice.

As a young cello prodigy, born in New York City and brought up in Connecticut, Buell studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and had lessons from Pablo Casals. After switching to double bass, he played with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, with Hot Lips Page and Herbie Nichols, with Igor Stravinsky and Leopold Stokowski, with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, with Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, with John Cage and George Crumb, with Duane Eddy and Roy Orbison, with Sir John Barbirolli’s Houston Symphony and Neville Marriner’s LA Chamber Orchestra, with the Beach Boys and Earth Wind & Fire, with Frank Zappa and the Eagles.

The instrument he played on “This Nearly Was Mine” was the same one he used on “Hotel California”. Once owned by King George III, it had been played in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. “I sold it years ago to a girl in Hollywood for $15,000,” he told me during the course of our only conversation, on the telephone from his home in Washington State.

He also talked about his friendship with James Jamerson, whom he had met in a Hollywood studio. Buell had acquired his first bass guitar in 1953, but by the time he bumped into Jamerson on a Michael Jackson date he had become a first-choice double bassist in the studio orchestras. “Basically he was through already,” Buell said. “When Berry Gordy moved to LA, he basically signed the death warrants of a bunch of great musicians.”

Neidlinger remembered the Motown studio in Hollywood as the first place he worked where they had a transmitter. “You’d cut your shit,” he said, “and you’d go out to the car park and listen to it on the radio. If it didn’t sound good, you’d go back and do it again.”

He also remembered Jamerson’s addiction to alcohol. “He was living in a motel on Hollywood Boulevard. It was pretty ugly. After we had a meal on Santa Monica Boulevard, he invited me back. Whisky and gin bottles everywhere. He had a sliding closet. There weren’t many clothes in there, but there was his upright bass with no case. He played Fender bass on the Motown hits, of course, but really he was an upright bass player.”

Buell had strong views about everything, including bass players. He thought Paul Chambers was the greatest bass player who ever lived. He liked players who didn’t try to play the instrument as if it were a guitar, playing too many notes at the top of the instrument’s range. (This was a man whose first paying job in New York was as a dep for the ailing Walter Page, who had been the bassist in Count Basie’s pre-war band.) When Maurice White died, he sent a note to the blog saying that the EW&F man was the greatest drummer he’d ever recorded with.

In his later years Buell moved to Washington State, where he lived with his wife, Margaret Storer, another bassist. He had a group called Buellgrass, including the fiddler Richard Greene, which played his version of bluegrass music, and he and Margaret played baroque music with friends — he back on cello, she on violin.

Did I mention that he depped in Thelonious Monk’s quartet for a night at the Five Spot in 1957, alongside John Coltrane and Shadow Wilson? And for Charlie Haden in Ornette’s quartet in 1959, also at the Five Spot? And that his first No 1 was Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, on which he played in the string section? He seemed to have cherished every note, every encounter, every experience. I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone quite like him, or will be again.

Music for cellos, organ and gamelan

 

Tre Voci 3

The lights were already down as I fumbled my way into a back pew of the Union Chapel last night. Thirty seconds later, the performance began. I’d bought a ticket after seeing that Kit Downes would playing the chapel’s pipe organ in company with Tre Voci, a trio of cellists, and the Southbank Gamelan Players. It sounded like an intriguing combination but I didn’t have time to get any clearer idea of what they’d be doing, and I rushed to find a seat without picking up the A4 sheet giving details of the programme. So I was in a position to let the music come as a complete surprise, which is sometimes the best way.

As I’d hoped, the combination turned out to be a happy one, at its best when there was no real attempt to “blend” the ingredients. Juxtaposition was the most rewarding method. So, in the course of an unbroken hour-long open half, the gamelan ensemble played pieces of their music, the cello group played theirs, Downes played a solo piece, and they came together at various junctures.

It proved to be a rich experience. One piece for the cellos (Alexander, Torun Stavseng and Gregor Riddell) found them bowing phrases entirely in harmonics, skittering in three directions at once: very exhilarating. The four members of the gamelan group — Robert Campion, Helen Loth, Cathy Eastburn and Jonathan Roberts — produced the anticipated meditative sounds from their metallophones and gongs, gently striking and occasionally bowing the bars of their xylophone-like instruments. Downes played a piece I recognised, since it came from his new solo organ album, Obsidian. But it was when they came together that the music was at its most convincing, the players fitting the diverse layers of sound together with great sensitivity as they improvised (so I later learnt) on pieces by John Cage, Tre Voci’s Colin Alexander, and Beni Giles, a young graduate of the Royal Academy of Music’s masters course in composition.

If I found the second half, devoted to the world premiere of a new composition by Bryn Harrison titled “To Shadow”, less compelling, it may have been because the ensemble played together almost all the time in this through-composed hour-long piece. The contrasts of the first half were lost, and with them went the dramatic shifts of timbre and texture. But the evening ended in a moment of great beauty, with Laura Moody — invisible in the gallery above and behind the audience — tapping the body of her cello to provide percussive accompaniment as she intoned Cage’s “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs”, her treatment of the short song pitched somewhere between those of Cathy Berberian and Joey Ramone.

But I left with my head still in the first half, when the music had held not just greater contrast but, perhaps paradoxically, something of the seductive qualities of Terry Riley’s all-night keyboard concerts and La Monte Young’s Dream House. In this, the surroundings certainly helped. The instrumentation suited the chapel’s acoustic, with lighting that enhanced the meditative atmosphere — particularly when a semi-abstract mandala pattern was projected on to the rose window above the organ chamber. And on the way out I bought Tre Voci’s EP of transcriptions for three cellos of medieval choral works by Ockeghem, Dunstable and Byrd, which turned out to be a perfect souvenir.

* Kit Downes’s Obsidian, recorded on organs at the Union Chapel and in two small churches in Suffolk, is released on the ECM label. To hear recordings of Tre Voci, go to  http://trevocicelloensemble.com/media/ And here’s a larger grouping of the Southbank Gamelan Players at David Byrne’s Meltdown a couple of years ago: https://youtu.be/99B-CrJYG9I

Nubya Garcia takes off

Nubya Garcia

I was planning to write about Nubya Garcia anyway, but today seems particularly appropriate, this being the centenary of the bill that gave women the right to vote in Britain. In 2018, one in three MPs in the House of Commons is now a woman, and I’d say that we’re getting close to that kind of gender split at the creative end of jazz. Garcia, a young tenor saxophonist and composer who came through Tomorrow’s Warriors and the Royal Academy of Music’s junior programme, is an example of a trend also exemplified by the likes of Matana Roberts, Eve Risser, Linda Oh, Kaja Draksler, Sarah Tandy, Mary Halvorson, Anna Lena Schnabel, Susana Santos Silva, Alice Zawadzki, Jaimie Branch, Ingrid Laubrock, Lucia Cadotsch, Tomeka Reid, Shirley Tetteh, Sylvie Courvoisier, Lucy Railton and many, many others.

I’m at the point now that when I go to see a band made up entirely of male musicians, it feels like there’s something wrong, something out of balance, something old-fashioned going on. And there certainly aren’t many bands that wouldn’t be improved by Garcia’s presence.

Nubya’s 5ive is her first album, and it’s a scorching debut. She’s riding the wave of a new interest in young British jazz musicians, exposed in a recent feature by Giovanni Russonello in the New York Times, and her disc is useful evidence — along with two of last year’s best albums, Shabaka and the Ancestors’ Wisdom of Elders and Binker & Moses’ Journey to the Mountain of Forever — that this is no hype. Here we have a version of smart modern jazz that knows what’s going on around it but also knows better than to deal in fashionable tricks and artificial grafts.

One thing I like about Garcia is that she doesn’t sound like Coltrane or Shorter. She has a commanding tone, pliable, fibrous and full of power, and she digs hard into the grooves established here by her excellent band on tunes that are strong and memorable. Each of the individuals takes an opportunity to stand out: Daniel Casimir with a compelling solo introduction to “Lost Kingdoms”, Joe Armon Jones with a boiling acoustic piano solo on “Contemplation”, the hugely promising Theon Cross with a tuba improvisation on “Hold”, Sheila Maurice Gray with a bold trumpet solo on “Red Sun”, and Moses Boyd with a display of thrillingly flexible drumming all the way through (joined on a couple of tracks by Femi Koloeso).

This is a snapshot of a scene that is currently humming with excitement, giving London a kind of vibe it hasn’t had since the Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes broke through in the mid-’80s. Most important of all, it seems to be finding a new audience, attracted by its energy and its inclusiveness. Not all of it is going to be ground-breaking, but it’s here and now and it needs to be noticed.

* Nubya’s 5ive is released on the Jazz:Refreshed label.

Michael Mantler’s ‘Comment c’est’

Michael Mantler 1

What sort of music do we most need in these disturbed times? Something to soothe and console, certainly. Something to help us dance our way through the gloom, of course. Something to ensure, as well, that the finer instincts of the human mind remain open to stimulus. But perhaps most of all just now we need music that observes and warns. That’s the task of Comment c’est, a new extended work from the trumpeter-composer Michael Mantler which seems likely, at least to me, to be one of the most significant recordings of the year.

Born in Vienna in 1943, Mantler is probably still best known for what happened after he moved to New York in 1961 and teamed up with Carla Bley, with whom he founded the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association. His compositions for large ensemble were heard on the JCO’s first album in 1968, a series of bold compositions designed for soloists such as Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri and Pharoah Sanders, all of whom were known at the time for their work with small groups. Since then his many recordings have included a symphony, an opera, and settings of the words of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Paul Auster and others, often featuring a regular cast of collaborators including Jack Bruce and Robert Wyatt. With Bley, he was also a member of the first edition of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

Comme c’est is an agitprop song cycle in 10 parts, written for the voice of Himiko Paganotti, Mantler’s own trumpet, and the Max Brand Ensemble, a 12-piece chamber group, augmented by the piano of David Helbock and conducted by Christoph Cech. Its subject is the hell we are in the process of creating: a 21st century hell, but with immemorial echoes.

The lyrics are in French — perhaps because that’s the language in which Beckett, a long-time inspiration for Mantler’s work, chose to write. (Beckett wrote a novel in 1961 called Comment c’est. The English translation is called How It Is, which is also Mantler’s subtitle. The two works are not otherwise related, as far as I can tell, although Mantler quoted some paragraphs from the Beckett in the booklet that came with the JCO album.) Here’s how the first song begins, in the English translation provided in the album’s booklet: “Today / like everyday / facing the news / ignorance, intolerance, chauvinism, bigotry, nationalism, dictatorships, hostilities, assaults, invasions, wars, methodical violence, ethnic cleansing, genocide, hatred, the horror / and again, and again, and again, again…”

So humanity repeats its follies, from which Mantler doesn’t flinch. The lyrics deal with fear of the other, the military-industrial complex, the spread of hatred, the return of torture (if it ever went away), and other currently relevant concerns. There is definitely a kind of bleak poetry here, in the mostly unadorned language which cuts from the eye of an all-seeing observer to the first-person testimony of a nameless participant, witness, or victim, and back again.

These are art songs, making use of Mantler’s command of both contemporary classical music and jazz to create an idiom perfectly suited to the through-composed structures. The voice of Ms Paganotti, a member of Magma for the last few years, is grave and poised, avoiding melodrama even in its most impassioned moments (such as on the song called “Sans fin”), matching its poignancy to the sober textures drawn from the ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn, tuba, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and vibraphone/marimba. The rhythms, although sometimes making use of a tuned-percussion ostinato, are usually episodic or rubato.

The prevailing mood is inevitably sombre but never gratuitously austere. Although restrained, the music is suffused with humanity. There are melodies here, if not necessarily the kind you sing along with, and Mantler’s concise solos — the music’s only improvised element, often responding to Ms Paganotti’s lines — stick in the mind. On a journey from Mike Westbrook’s Marching Song through Liberation Music Orchestra’s Not In Our Name, this could be seen as the next stop. Every minute of the album, all the way to its bleak ending, rewards concentrated attention. It would be wonderful to hear it performed live; it would be even better if, somehow, it could help to change the world.

* Comment c’est is released on the ECM label. The photograph of Michael Mantler is by Rainer Rygalyk.

The Clapton movie

Eric Clapton film

Quite the most striking thing about Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is its chronicling of the evolution of the guitarist’s hairstyle throughout his life, and the way its constant revision so accurately mirrors the changing modes of popular culture: a perfect early mod cut growing out into a bubble perm and then an early-70s stoner straggle and through countless other stages until reaching the present-day elderly rockandroller look, of which there were many versions in the audience at the Richmond Odeon last night.

Whatever you think of Clapton’s music (and I was never a fan of that style of blues-rock guitar playing), he always had great hair — and he knew it. It’s unsurprising that a strikingly emotional moment in Lili Fini Zanuck’s film occurs when, on a visit to his estranged mother and her husband on a Canadian army base in Germany in his mid-teens, he is forced to have it cut short. No man of roughly Clapton’s generation who lived through a similar ordeal in his own adolescence will fail to recognise that excruciating, almost life-threatening humiliation.

The walk to the cinema took me past the site of the old Railway Hotel opposite Richmond station, a key location in the history of the Thames Delta. It was in the back room of those premises that the Yardbirds made their first impression on the public, succeeding the Rolling Stones as the resident band at Giorgio Gomelsky’s Crawdaddy Club and allowing Clapton’s extraordinary magnetism to emerge.

The voice of the Yardbirds’ Chris Dreja is one of many heard in the documentary. Another from that period is the late sculptor Ben Palmer, the pianist in the Roosters, Clapton’s first band, and clearly a powerful influence on the sensibility of a young man who, during his year at Kingston Art College, was reading Baudelaire and Steinbeck while discovering the music of Blind Blake and Big Bill Broonzy. Clapton’s mother, his sister and his grandmother (who brought him up as her son) are also heard.

But it’s the years of superstardom and addiction that are the film’s real priority, and where it becomes repetitive to the point of tedium. We hear from some of the principal figures of Clapton’s life in the ’70s and ’80s — notably Bobby Whitlock, his keyboard player, and Pattie Boyd, his muse — at what seems like inordinate length, accompanied by endlessly repeated home-movie clips and stills. These are deployed with only the most cack-handed grasp of the lessons taught by the innovative documentarist Ken Burns to a generation of directors in the creative use of the combination of a rostrum camera and limited visual material. In terms of Clapton’s musical history and the influences that reshaped it, the complete absence of any mention of Music from Big Pink, J. J. Cale, the Delaney and Bonnie tour of 1969 or the Pete Townshend-directed Rainbow comeback concert of 1973 seems a bit strange.

Nevertheless there are many affecting sequences. They include a brief clip of Clapton crossing a London street and getting into his Mercedes 600 in the company of his then fiancée and fellow junkie, the ill-fated Alice Ormsby-Gore, vividly evoking the darker side of the lives of the jeunesse dorée of the late ’60s, and the reconstruction of the death of his four-year-old son in a fall from the 53rd-floor window of a New York hotel in 1991. His dreadful racist outburst on stage in Birmingham in 1976, after brandy and wine had taken over from heroin, is not glossed over; others may disagree, but to me it seems consistent with what we know about the radically distorting effect of an immense alcohol consumption on his personality at the time (Boyd is eloquent on that subject).

It’s good that Clapton is living through the golden sunset of a settled family life and the fine work done by his Crossroads charity to rescue others from addiction. As far as the film goes, however, I’d have been happier staying at home and listening to the only two records of his that I ever play: the sublimely sentimental “Wonderful Tonight”, a song that absolutely hits its chosen spot, and, more seriously, the Unplugged version of “Old Love”, where in both his voice and his playing you can hear echoes of the sensitive, troubled boy whose instinctive love of the blues earned him a ride on a roller-coaster that he was lucky to survive.

* Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is in cinemas from January 12. The Richmond Odeon screening was supposed to include the live transmission of a Q&A between Jools Holland and Clapton taking place on stage at the South Bank; some technical problem blacked it out, but neither explanation nor refund was offered.