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Happy birthday, Mr Isley

Isley Bacharach 1

Ronald Isley is 79 today. Not a round number, but never mind. A happy birthday to him anyway. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a member of a group for his entire career that he isn’t generally mentioned in lists of the greatest male soul singers. For he certainly is one, up there with Sam, Smokey, Marvin, Otis, Levi, Al, Bobby, Philippé, Teddy, Luther and whoever else you want to include. Listen to the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Hello, It’s Me”, or “Harvest for the World”: no much doubt, is there? And if 3 + 3 isn’t in your collection, I beg you to do something about it.

My subject here, however, is an album I’ve been playing a lot in recent weeks: Ron Isley’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which dates from 2003 and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The circumstances of the recording were, by modern standards, exceptional. At the behest of DreamWorks Records’ John McClain, the two men prepared for sessions which took place over a handful of days in Capitol Records’ Hollywood studios: an orchestra of more than 40 pieces with Bacharach at the conductor’s podium and Isley at the microphone. Thirteen songs: 11 Bacharach and David classics plus two new Bacharach songs with lyrics by Tonio K.

And everything done live. On the spot. Rhythm section, string section, horns, and lead and backing singers. Together. Breathing the same air, feeling the same vibrations, responding to the same cues in real time. The way it used to be done. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some touch-ups, but the principle is the thing.)

From the moment strings and harp usher in the first words of “Alfie”, the opening track, you realise that something special is happening. The exquisite delicacy of the singer’s delivery at the dead-slow tempo and the exacting control of his emotions bring something new to what might very well be the greatest of all the Bacharach/David songs. It’s hard to spoil lines like “If only fools are kind, Alfie / Then I guess it is wise to be cruel,” but Isley brings them a new poignancy. Bacharach’s arrangement manages to be both majestic and somehow weightless.

And the set goes on from there, Bacharach constantly inventing new way of reinvigorating familiar songs — the flugelhorn figures introducing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “The Look of Love”, for example. (Flugel and trumpet, a Bacharach trademark in his heyday, are used throughout as a counterpoint to the lead voice.) And the latter track has a light bossa/funk groove that you might feel you’d like to have running through the rest of your life. A solo alto flute introduces “Anyone Who Had a Heart”. Alone at the piano, Bacharach sings the opening lines of “The Windows of the World” in his husky tones before giving way to Isley’s polished virtuosity, like a weathered hand sliding into a fine kid glove.

The inclusion of the new songs might have been a quid pro quo for Bacharach’s agreement to participate in the project, but they pull their weight. “Count on Me” benefits from a lovely melody and “Love’s (Still) the Answer” has the qualities of a very good Sondheim song.

Most of all, though, there’s “In Between the Heartaches”, a great song hidden away on Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am album in 1965. Isley, who once dated Warwick, requested its inclusion; its composer had forgotten all about it. Neil Stubenhaus’s softly purring bass-guitar reminds me of Marcus Miller’s contribution to Vandross’s “Second Time Around”: there’s no higher praise. And when, on “Here I Am” itself, Ronald Isley adds flourishes of melisma, it’s never gratuitous: this is how it should be done.

Of course you’re not going to experience again the shock and the thrill of hearing Bacharach’s melodies and arrangements for the first time in the ’60s: a twangy guitar in the middle of silken strings, a fusillade of boo-bams, a sudden chromatic twist, a song whose first 11 words are all on the same note. But all I can say is that they’ve never sounded more gorgeous than this.

* The photograph is by the late, great William Claxton. Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach is on the DreamWorks label. Several songs from a PBS Soundstage concert in July 2004 are up on YouTube, including “Close to You” and “Here I Am”. There’s also a promo — with slightly compromised sound quality — for “The Look of Love”

Music from a Welsh chapel

Capel y Graig

Toby Hay and David Ian Roberts are Welsh guitarists who occasionally play together. They’ve just released three tracks recorded in the Capel Y Graig, a deconsecrated chapel in Ceredigion now used as an art space, on Bandcamp. I think they’re marvellous.

I know Toby Hay’s work from a fine 2018 album called The Longest Day, and from the series of morning and evening guitar pieces he recorded and filmed outdoors and put on YouTube in the first week of April (search @tobyhaymusic). He’s the right-handed player on the right of the photograph. His work reminds me a little bit of what the late Sandy Bull, a true visionary, was up to in the late ’60s, and of John Fahey in his Yellow Princess period: a fingerpicker blending various forms of folk, blues and eastern musics.

These three unnamed tracks are pure improvised duets, exploiting the special acoustics of the place. I love the quality of the sound, particularly in the first piece: glistening but raw, with a kind of chiming, pealing quality as the two players set off from a simple modal base on a seven-minute journey guaranteed to lift the spirits. If anyone were doing a remake of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, it would fit perfectly. Hay switches to piano for the second piece: an old and charmingly out-of-tune instrument whose overtones match the environment. The final track, another guitar duet, is more contemplative: there’s something of a worn music-box about the sound.

Capel Y Graig is a former Welsh Calvinist Methodist chapel, opened in 1765 and rebuilt in the mid-19th century. It’s in the hamlet of Furnace/Ffwrnais, between Aberystwyth and Machynllech, where iron ore was once smelted in a little rural works beside a waterfall on the River Einion. The chapel was in use until 2001, with living quarters in which to house the itinerant preachers so popular in Wales. It’s now an artspace operated by a small non-profit organisation.

“We let the space guide us as to what to play,” Hay says. “It’s an extraordinary place to play music. The building has a life of its own. One of the most unusual, and powerful natural reverbs I have ever heard. Listening to these recordings now reminds me how important it is to play music with friends.” For me, the whole set is something I’m happy to leave on infinite repeat, allowing it to define a mood in these lockdown days.

* For the month of May, all proceeds from the recording will go to Ty Hafan, the Welsh children’s hospice. If you want, you can explore and buy the music via this link: https://cambrianrecords.bandcamp.com/album/capel-y-graig-improvisations

A voice of sport (and other stuff)

Mike Ingham

When Mike Ingham put down his BBC microphone for the last time and walked quietly into retirement after the 2014 World Cup, English football lost its most lucid radio voice. Some readers of this blog might well be asking why that should matter to them. I can only respond by saying that when I picked up his autobiography for the first time, the first thing I saw when it fell open was a reference not to Kevin Keegan or David Beckham but to “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MGs. The paragraph in question also contains the sentence: “For me, the sound of ’60s was the Hammond organ.” No further justification necessary.

During the 20 years I spent covering sport for a living, Mike was someone I always looked forward to seeing. Judicious and unhysterical, he exemplified the best of the BBC well into the age of social media, for which football acted as a pathfinder towards a world devoid of nuance. “We want to know what you think,” the phone-in hosts began to tell their listeners. Well, I didn’t. I wanted to know what Mike thought.

Sports reporters — most of them, anyway — are human beings, too, and a fair number of them love music and like talking about it. Mike’s interest is made clear throughout After Extra Time and Penalties, from the moment, in his first year at grammar school in Derbyshire, he makes a new friend with life-changing information to impart: “Having acquainted you with Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, he would then suggest you lend an ear to Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson.” There are chapters headed “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Don’t Mess with Bill” and “Time Is on My Side”. Sometimes he’s able to combine these two interests, as in encounters with Ian Gillan of Deep Purple (rumoured to be taking over Reading FC) and Rod Stewart, who finds talking to Ingham about football a welcome respite from promoting his new album.

At the end of the book there are some lists — the best goals he described on air, his favourite stadiums and so on — and they include his most memorable concerts. These begin with Marty Wilde and the Wildcats at Bournemouth Pavilion in 1960 and conclude with Alabama 3 at the Looe Music Festival in 2016, by way of the Everly Brothers’ Albert Hall reunion in 1983 and Fun Lovin’ Criminals at the Viper Room in West Hollywood in 1999.

Of course the book is mostly about football and broadcasting, with a lot of insight into the characters among whom he lived and worked, from his days at Radio Derby in the mid-’70s onwards. He’s interesting on all the England managers he followed through successive World Cup campaigns, and of course the England manager who never was: Brian Clough, with whom he had a good relationship. It’s fascinating, too, to hear that he was taught the importance of breathing properly by Cliff Morgan, the great Wales fly-half who became a marvellous broadcaster. And there’s also a section, obligatory in the memoirs of former BBC employees, putting the latter-day corporation to rights — the regret, this being Ingham, voiced in the most civilised terms.

If you share any of these enthusiasms, and particularly if you miss the sound of Mike Ingham bringing a match to life without hype, without prejudice and without the help of pictures, then you can take this as a warm recommendation.

* After Extra Time and Penalties by Mike Ingham is out now in paperback, published by Book Guild.

Chris Barber turns 90

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Chicago, 1959: Muddy Waters, St Louis Jimmy Oden, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson

Chris Barber is 90 today. Few people have had a more profound impact on the course of my generation’s musical tastes in the six and a half decades since he encouraged his banjoist/guitarist, Lonnie Donegan, to continue the habit — started when they were both members of Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen — of breaking up an evening of New Orleans music with a skiffle turn in the intervals, thus leading directly to “Rock Island Line” and all else that followed.

That was no fluke. Barber had broad taste and was a lifelong proselytiser for great music and great musicians. He loved the blues, and in the late ’50s he brought Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters to Britain. The legend goes that purists turned up to hear Muddy sing the “authentic” Delta blues on an acoustic guitar and were scandalised when he plugged in his Telecaster and let rip with the electrified Chicago version. Luckily, at least as far as history goes, the purists were in the minority. Barber also brought over Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, thus helping to shape the tastes of a generation who would soon become Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Blues Breakers and thousands more.

Barber’s own ensembles veered gently away from the strict New Orleans format, adding an electric guitarist and extra horns (including saxophones, anathema to traddies). Later Paul Jones was often the featured singer with the Big Chris Barber Band, which I last saw playing in the park in central Baden-Baden on a sunny summer afternoon during the 2006 World Cup. On that occasion the bandshell was only 100 yards or so from the five-star hotel where the wives and girlfriends of the England team were staying, staked out by Fleet Street’s paparazzi, but I don’t recall any of them leaving their poolside loungers to listen.

Last year Chris announced his retirement. On his 90th birthday, I’d like to thank him for all he did, directly and indirectly, to guide so many of us towards the music that changed our lives. And, of course, to wish him many happy returns.

In memoriam

Cefalu 1

Manu Dibango. Cristina. Wallace Roney. Ellis Marsalis. Bucky Pizzarelli. Adam Schlesinger. Bill Withers*. Hal Willner. John Prine. The list will lengthen in the coming days, and one or two people have inquired very kindly about the possibility of Blue Moment tributes to some of these victims of the Covid-19 virus. At the moment I feel disinclined to deal with it in that way. I don’t want to turn this site into a parade of obituaries. I do, however, want to think about them.

Take John Prine. To be honest, I never followed his career closely, but he did provide me with one electrifying moment. It’s on Bonnie Raitt’s live recording of his great “Angel from Montgomery”. Raitt has set the scene when the guy who wrote the song comes in to sing the second verse. His voice is a dried-out husk. “When I was a young girl, I had me a cowboy / Weren’t much to look at, just a free ramblin’ man / But that was a long time, and no matter how I try / The years just flow by, like a broken-down dam.” Does something to me, anyway. Every time. You might feel the same.

* I should add that Bill Withers didn’t die of the coronavirus. But it seemed wrong to omit him.

Piano music

PJ piano St Georges 1

Most of the time, Pete Judge is a trumpeter. He’s based in Bristol and plays in three interesting bands: the quartet Get the Blessing, the trio Three Cane Whale and the duo Eyebrow, whose records I’m particularly fond of. He’s just released his second album of solo piano pieces, Piano 2. Here’s what he said in the brief liner note to its predecessor, a couple of years ago:

I come from a long line of piano players, though I’m not really one myself, having rebelled at an early age and inexplicably chosen the trumpet instead, but my favourite piece of furniture in my grandmother’s house was always the old upright piano in the front room, which later became my mum’s piano, and lived with her on the North Kent coast. Now it’s in Bristol, and these tunes were all composed on it, with the soft pedal permanently applied (initially for neighbourly reasons, and now just because that’s the sound that suits them). So this is a ‘piano’ album in both senses of the term.

Piano and Piano 2 were both recorded in St George’s, Bristol, a deconsecrated 1820s church reopened a few years ago as a concert space. I liked the first volume, but the second one I love.

It consists of 16 pieces, ranging in length between one and five minutes. Titles include “Darkening Hills”, “Wheatfield With Crows” and “Gurney’s Oak”. If you took that to suggest a rather literal English pastoralism, you’d be wrong. The music is non-generic — it’s not jazz, it’s not classical. It’s sturdy but also delicate. It’s melodic and austere at the same time. It’s inviting but not ingratiating. It takes its time. It’s not virtuosic at all, although Judge has a lovely touch. It’s satisfyingly well proportioned but not predictable. It’s quietly but firmly unsentimental. It has lots of things inside it — hymns, folk songs — but they’re metabolised so completely that the components aren’t visible.

I haven’t felt so close to a solo piano record since Keith Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, With You, the one he made when he was recovering from illness and wasn’t afraid to show his vulnerability. Piano 2 has a similar honesty. It’s not trying to wig you out or teach you something. It’s just there, like a friend. And at the moment it feels like the perfect music for the times we’re living through.

* The photograph of Pete Judge recording at St George’s is by Tim Allen. You can find Piano 2 on Bandcamp: https://petejudge.bandcamp.com/

Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’

A combination of chopped-up newsreel and fever dream, “Murder Most Foul” is Bob Dylan’s most striking piece of work in years. This is the author of “Desolation Row” populating a 17-minute song with a lifetime of remembered cultural fragments, zooming out and panning back and forth from the single pivotal event of the Kennedy assassination, plucking references out of the heavy air.

The voice is sombre, the mood subdued, occasionally lit by flashes of the absurd. Images like frames from the Zapruder film — date, time, location, automobile, wound, wife — are gradually eased aside to make room for mordant couplets: “Hush little children, you’ll understand / The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand”, “I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age / Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage”, “Tommy, can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen / I’m riding in long black Lincoln limousine”, “What is the truth, where did it go? / Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know.”

A mosaic of references emerges. “Wake up, Little Susie”. Ride the Pink Horse. Terry Malloy. Patsy Cline. It Happened One Night. Dealey Plaza. “Lucille”. Deep Ellum. Nightmare on Elm Street. “Take It To the Limit”. “Goin’ Down Slow”. Air Force One and Love Field. What’s New, Pussycat?.

Eventually Dylan calls on Wolfman Jack, the great radio DJ of the Sixties, to play one record after another: John Lee Hooker, Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back”, Dicky Betts, Stevie Nicks, even “Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and all that junk / All of that junk and all of that jazz / Play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz.” “Play ‘Misty’ for me and ‘That Old Devil Moon’ / Play ‘Anything Goes’, and ‘Memphis in June’. ” “Play me that ‘Only the Good Die Young’ / Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung.” “Play it for the reverend, play it for the pastor / Play it for the dog that’s got no master.”

Its template is “‘Cross the Green Mountain”, the eight-minute song Dylan wrote for the soundtrack of the 2003 movie Gods and Generals, in which he put himself inside the mind of a dying Confederate soldier. In turn, that song followed the pattern of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, verse succeeding verse like gentle waves seemingly without end. “Murder Most Foul” is a tempo-less ballad: its instrumental accompaniment — I’m guessing viola, acoustic piano, semi-submerged harmonium and bowed double bass — follows the cadences of Dylan’s speech, a slow rubato weave and ripple of sound almost imperceptibly shifting in intensity, joined after two minutes by a drummer playing freely with great subtlety.

Here’s how it ends: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell / Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’, play ‘Murder Most Foul’.” Well.

Punkt postponed

Punkt 1

The news that this week’s Punkt festival in Birmingham has been postponed is no surprise. Live music of any sort in a public setting is going to be unavailable to most people for some time to come, but the loss of this two-day event will be keenly felt. As I discovered at its Norwegian home in Kristiansand last year, Punkt is a very special event, conceived by Jan Bang and Erik Honoré as a vehicle for the exploration of the possibilities of live remixing.

Among those due to perform in Birmingham were the trumpeter/singer Arve Henriksen, the guitarist Eivind Aarset, the singer Maja S. K. Ratkje, the saxophonist Trish Clowes and the drummer Mark Sanders. Also on the schedule was a live remix of The Height of the Reeds, the piece specially commissioned to accompany walks across the Humber Bridge during Hull’s year as Europe’s city of culture in 2017.

I can think of only one direct way of making up for the loss of the festival, and that’s by listening to new albums by some of the Punkt’s principal figures. Snow Catches on Her Eyelashes finds Aarset and Bang creating a series of beguiling soundscapes that feature contributions from the singer Sidsel Endresen, the trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, the pianist Hilde Norbakken, the percussionist Anders Engen and the bassist Audun Erlien, with Honoré making an appearance on synthesiser. Bang and Aarset specialise in making electronic music that never forfeits its humanity to science. “Before the Wedding”, featuring Norbakken, has a lyrical simplicity that is as lovely as anything you’ll hear this year.

Arve Henriksen’s The Timeless Nowhere is a box containing four vinyl LPs, each in its own sleeve, each recorded under different circumstances. Towards Language was recorded live at Kick Scene in Kristiansand during Punkt in 2017 with the basic quartet complete by Bang, Aarset and Honoré. Acousmograph is a series of overdubbed solo explorations for trumpet, vocal, keyboards and field recordings. The rapt tone poems of Captured Under Mountainsides make it a close cousin to Henriksen’s classic Places of Worship. And Cryosphere involves Bang in exquisite remixes of pieces from earlier projects.

There are many different strategies here. Henriksen’s music can morph from stateliness to pathos, from reflection to disquiet, sometimes layering contradictory states. But it feels all of a piece: a tapestry of beautiful moments woven together by a unique controlling sensibility of superlative aesthetic instincts.

Meanwhile, the chaos around us at the moment prompts all sorts of thoughts. One is that musicians are going to suffer badly from this enforced hiatus, and a way of continuing to support them is to buy their physical records. Another is this: what happens to music that was never played?

* Snow Catches on Her Eyelashes is on Jazzland Records. The Timeless Nowhere is on Rune Grammofon. The photograph — taken in Kristiansand’s cathedral, the Domkirken, last year — shows (from left) Jan Bang, Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset and Erik Honoré.

A happy birthday

Steve Beresford 1

The pianist Steve Beresford is celebrating his 70th birthday this weekend with three shows at Cafe Oto, mixing and matching friends and colleagues each night under the rubric PIANO TOYS MUSIC NOISE. The bill is a fine reflection of the generosity of spirit that has made Steve a key figure in the London scene for four and a half decades, whether as a collaborator with Derek Bailey, the Flying Lizards, John Zorn, Tristan Honsinger, Evan Parker, the Dedication Orchestra and countless others or in his role as a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster.

Last night I particularly enjoyed a half-hour set by a quartet of musicians (pictured above) who hadn’t played as a unit before. Douglas Benford played various instruments, including bowls and a miniature harmonium; Hyelim Kim played a taegum, a big-bore bamboo flute from Korea; Martin Vishnik played an acoustic guitar; and Crystabel Riley played a drum kit with no cymbals and two bass-drum pedals. It was the sort of collaboration that gives free improvisation a good name: all four musicians listening hard, giving each other space, alert to signs, not afraid to gives cues of their own. The playing was exquisite, making effective use of the silence, the breathy sounds and the bell tones that this music has absorbed from Far Eastern idioms (most obviously Buddhist rituals), grounded in Riley’s truly extraordinary contribution: an underscore of rumbling and tapping, permanently in movement without seeming restless or overbearing, always alert to shifts in the music’s density and trajectory and ready to orchestrate, with Vishnik’s help, a truly gorgeous ending.

Steve himself played first with the violinist Satoku Fukuda and later with David Toop and Peter Cusack, his old colleagues from Alterations. Tonight and tomorrow the programmes will include a performance of John Cage’s “Indeterminacy”, Steve’s duo with the violinist Mandhira De Saram, and the pianist Pat Thomas playing Ellington. Not a bad birthday party, all told.

* Details of tonight’s and tomorrow’s programmes on the venue’s website: http://www.cafeoto.co.uk/events/

Lyle Mays, soundpainter

As Falls Wichita

This September it will be 40 years since Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny went into a studio with the producer Manfred Eicher to piece together the 20-minute work that gave its name to an album: “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”. A sidebar to their work together as members of the Pat Metheny Group, it soon became recognised as a remarkable free-standing piece of work.

Crudely put, it functions as the soundtrack to an imaginary film: starting with the babble of voices — a sports crowd? a street market? a political demonstration? — and the thrumming of a bass guitar, evolving into gorgeous tunes built sometimes simply of chords, sometimes of melodies whistled or played on a berimbau (a heartbreaking twang). All sorts of soundscapes are evoked, and all sorts of weather, through textures that are constantly shifting and blending. The sound of Metheny’s various guitars and Mays’s keyboards and synths is of its time, but timeless, too. The berimbau is played by Nana Vasconcelos, who also contributes percussion and is the only other musician present.

It’s a beautiful American tone poem, epic in its sweep but also intimate in its approach to the listener. Later in the decade Metheny’s group would record the great “Last Train Home”, which felt then, and still feels, like a coda to the longer piece.

Lyle Mays died on February 10, aged 66, after a long illness. “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” is likely to live as long as people are still listening to the recorded music of the twentieth century.

* The album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls was released in 1981 on the ECM label. The photograph, taken by Klaus Frahm (father of Nils), is from the cover.