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‘The Philosophy of Modern Song’

The second photograph you see when you open Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song is one of the reasons I don’t entirely resent having paid the £35 the book costs. It shows a group of customers in a record shop, surrounded by boxes and displays of 78rpm discs. There’s no caption, but there’s a clue in a poster on the wall saying “Dolphin’s Hit Parade”, followed by a list of songs. So this is Dolphin’s of Hollywood, the record shop opened by the black entrepreneur John Dolphin in South Central Los Angeles in 1948. Its frontage was on Vernon Avenue, near the corner with Central Avenue – the main stem of black LA in that era, thanks to nearby night spots like the Club Alabam, the Turban Room, the Downbeat, Elks Hall and Jack’s Basket Room. Dolphin’s opening hours — 24 hours a day, including Sundays — were pioneering, as was a buy-one-get-one-free deal. The titles on the poster — deciphered with the aid of a magnifying glass — tell you that this is the spring of 1952, which is when “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by the Lloyd Price Orchestra was released on the Specialty label, along with “One Mint Julep” by the Clovers (Atlantic), “Night Train” by the saxophonist Jimmy Forrest (United) and “My Heart’s Desire” by the vocal duo Jimmie Lee and Artis with Jay Franks and his Rockets of Rhythm (Modern)*.

John Dolphin had originally tried to open a business in Hollywood, but was denied the opportunity on the grounds of his colour. So, locating instead in the heart of the black community, he gave the shop a semi-ironic title, soon adding a record label of his own, called Recorded in Hollywood, whose output included early recordings by the Hollywood Flames and Jesse Belvin. His business, and others in the neighborhood, were so successful that they began to attract white customers, which in turn brought threats from white competitors to such a degree that in 1954 he organised a protest against their campaign of intimidation. In 1958 he was shot dead in his office by a disappointed singer named Percy Ivy, in the presence of two soon-to-be-famous white teenagers, Sandy Nelson and Bruce Johnston, who had been trying to get him interested in their music. In the photograph, John Dolphin is the man in the dark suit under the picture of Billy Eckstine.

None of this information is to be found in the book, in which Dylan discusses 66 other songs. You’ve probably already read about it (I recommend Dwight Garner in the New York Times or Craig Brown in Private Eye), so I’m not going to try and review it properly. It’s easy to describe. Most of his choices get two chunks of prose: first, an outpouring of feelings and images provoked by the recording in question, followed by a historical note, all illustrated by a selection of images that range from the relevant to the tangential or allusive. Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”, for instance, gets a description of the boss class (“You’re the famous Chieftain, the enormous tight fisted penny pincher who treats all the workers like errand boys”) followed by a short description of Reed’s music (“You put him with Jimmie Rodgers and Thelonious Monk, two other musicians whose work never sounds crowded no matter how many players are there” and “He plays the harmonica through a neck rack. And you can’t do much with a harmonica in a neck rack” — really? Bob should go back and listen to his own live recordings from 1965 and ’66. Or maybe he’s putting us on). There are pictures of Reed, of Brando in The Godfather, and Elvis Presley — unmentioned in the text — with Colonel Tom Parker, who is pretending to play an acoustic 12-string guitar and is presumably there to represent boss men in general.

The criteria by which Dylan chose the songs are never made clear. Many are from his childhood in the pre-rock era. Others seem to have been plucked at random. As many have already pointed out, in some bafflement, only a tiny handful are by women. But the specifics don’t seem to be important: they are there to give Dylan the chance to vent. Where people with synaesthesia experience music as colour, Dylan seems to experience a song as a set of feelings that may or may not be triggered by anything explicit in the song itself, arising instead from his own imagination, his memories, fears, fantasies. Or perhaps that’s quite wrong. Perhaps he’s just making it up, and why not? At any rate, while working your way through one laboured exegesis after another, you may find yourself thinking that he’d be better employed fashioning them into songs of his own.

Soon after I started reading The Philosophy of Modern Song, I found I wasn’t enjoying it very much. It isn’t anywhere near the standard of his brilliant sleeve note for World Gone Wrong in 1993 or the considered thoughts on music expressed in several interviews in recent years. It didn’t seem to be telling me anything original or important. As for a “philosophy of modern song”, the closest he gets to that is his claim that a song’s true value resides in the listener’s response to it, which I guess is the book’s raison d’être, or at least its excuse. So I thought I’d try it from another angle. On the basis of having loved his Theme Time Radio Hour programmes largely because of the sound of his voice, I spent another few quid on the audiobook, only to discover that most of the reading is done by famous actors, from Jeff Bridges to Sissy Spacek. Why would I want to hear that? When Dylan does appear, his voice sounds weirdly remote, losing all the warmth and intimacy of the radio series. And there are times, to be blunt, when he sounds like he’s reading someone else’s research. So I’ve given up on that, too, at least for now.

Whatever the contentious origins of its component parts, Chronicles Vol 1 was a proper book, the product of craft and concentration. Which The Philosophy of Modern Song definitely isn’t. It’s inessential, a coffee-table book to be given as a Christmas present. Clearly he didn’t fancy writing Chronicles Vol 2 — perhaps, who can tell, because he knows that’s what we want.

* Correction: In the original post, “My Heart’s Desire” was credited to the Wheels, whose recording was not released until 1956. The recording by Jimmie Lee and Artis was released on the LA-based Modern label in early 1952.

* Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song is published by Simon & Schuster. The audio version is available from audible.co.uk. The copyright in the photograph above is owned by the Michael Ochs Archive via Getty Images.

Bringing it all back home

Last night I was on my way to see Bob Dylan in concert in my home town for the first time, at a venue a few hundred yards from where, almost 60 years earlier, my girlfriend and I had listened to Freewheelin’ all the way through, squeezed together in a record-shop listening booth, before buying it, taking it to her parents’ house, and listening to it all the way through again. And then again.

Walking through Nottingham to reach the Motorpoint Arena, as the refurbished ice stadium is now known, I saw a chip shop in the Lace Market, formerly a coffee bar called the Jules et Jim, where three schoolfriends — Ian Taylor, Jeff Minson and I, a sort of Peter, Paul and Peter — had sung “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963. On Stanford Street I passed the site of Dungeon Club, the basement where — at the height of Bobmania in early 1965 — the harmonica player of the R&B group I was then in performed a solo mini-set of Dylan songs that attracted a lot more enthusiasm than our normal Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf repertoire.

It was also in the spring of 1965 that I first saw Dylan in person, at Sheffield’s City Hall on the first date of what would turn out to be his last solo acoustic tour. Since then I’ve seen him as often as I can — many times in London but also in Birmingham, Paris, Rome, New York and Philadelphia. Precious memories include a heart-stopping “It’s Alright, Ma” in Sheffield, a staggering “Like a Rolling Stone” at Earls Court, a blistering thrash-metal “Barbara Allen” at the NEC, a sweet duet on “Dark Eyes” with Patti Smith in Philly, and a gorgeous “Forgetful Heart” at the Albert Hall. In the week leading up the Nottingham concert I saw him twice at the Palladium, giving the first show a five-star review in the Guardian and then enjoying the second one even more.

But when I say that last night in Nottingham felt like the best concert I’ve ever seen from him, I’d ask you to accept that hometown nostalgia had nothing to do with it. Until a surprise right at the end, he played the set I’d heard twice at the Palladium. But in a place at least three times larger, with none of the inherent warmth and intimacy of the historic London theatre, he sang the same songs — nine from Rough and Rowdy Ways, seven older compositions of his own and “That Old Black Magic” — with an intensity and verve that gave them a different kind of life.

His singing was good in London, but in Nottingham it was astounding. Every line was nailed with phrasing that was always adventurous but never eccentric. I don’t think it was a change of emphasis in the sound mix: it was all in the vigour and projection of his delivery. As a result, songs like “Black Rider”, “My Own Version of You”, “Key West” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” had a new confidence and richness, with a heightened sense of tension and release. The arrangements took on a different life, too. The Arlen/Mercer standard was brought off with a crisp panache. The twin surf guitar interludes on “Gotta Serve Somebody” were hair-raising. The three-movement version of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” — first out of tempo, then Latin, then barrelhouse — was a delight. The rearrangements of “To Be Alone With You” and “Every Grain of Sand” glistened.

His piano-playing also seemed better integrated. The upright he’s using on this tour is adjusted to sound high and bright, almost like a tack piano, with a tone so close to that of the two guitars of Doug Lancio and Bob Britt that they’re sometimes indistinguishable. But during both Palladium shows there were moments when he crossed the line from playful to wilful, as if he were trying to lead the songs astray, occasionally sticking a major-key note into a minor-key song, or doing that thing he sometimes used to do on electric guitar of working out a short symmetrical phrase and then stubbornly repeating it over and over again with the chords changing under him. It crossed my mind that he might be trying to turn himself into the Thelonious Monk of folk-rock piano, looking for the notes in the cracks, the notes between the notes. But in Nottingham, with the exception of “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way”, there was little of that; instead everything he played was directly relevant to what the band was doing and where the song was heading.

Where the concert was heading was towards the unforgettable moment, after the band had taken their bow, when they returned for the only encore of the tour so far. “I don’t know if many of you know, but Jerry Lee has gone,” Dylan said, “and we’re gonna play this song, one of his. Jerry Lee will live for ever, we all know that.” The song, an exquisite choice, was “I Can’t Seem to Say Goodbye”, a country ballad by Don Robertson, recorded by Lewis in 1963. After one chorus, delivered with quiet elegance, they were gone. But what a memory they left. Maybe even the best of all.

Thirty years of Later…

There must be a lot of people out there who had their first encounter with a favourite artist through seeing them on Later…with Jools Holland. On Saturday night the programme celebrated its 30th anniversary by beginning its latest series on BBC2 with a typical bill: a guitar-based popular rhythm combo from Sheffield (the 1975, pictured above), a cutting-edge female performer from Rotherham (Self-Esteem), a rediscovered 82-year-old soul singer and his fine band from Portland, Oregon (Ural Thomas and the Pain), a Spanish-American solo singer-songwriter (Victoria Canal) and a deeply unclassifiable London-based trio playing challenging and highly contemporary instrumental music (The Comet Is Coming). Each of them will have attracted new admirers as a result of this brisk 50-minute programme filmed in the round on the floor of the Alexandra Palace Theatre.

When Later… first appeared, I felt straight away that it was almost exactly the show I’d always wanted The Old Grey Whistle Test to be during my year as its first presenter, and which it only occasionally became (examples: the performance of Curtis Mayfield and his band, John Martyn’s first solo appearance, and the 10 minutes when Dr John sat at an upright piano and ran through the history of New Orleans piano). It was about musicians of varying backgrounds and styles playing live — and even better, in the Later… format, listening to each other’s performances while waiting for their own turn. It was also my strong feeling that such a show needed a more extrovert presenter, and in Jools Holland it found one — and one who, moreover, could sit down at the piano and occasionally accompany a guest, as he did last night when Ural Thomas sang “Stand By Me”.

He isn’t to everyone’s taste — the “Hootenanny!” thing on his New Year’s Eve specials has been known to drive me from the room — but the show wouldn’t have survived through three decades without his ebullient personality to sell it. He was chosen back in 1992 by Mark Cooper, the programme’s founding producer and presiding spirit, whose broad but discriminating taste in music has probably been the single most important factor in the maintenance of the show’s quality. Over the years the production has become more polished, at the expense of a certain spontaneity, but last night’s line-up showed a continuing desire to present the experimental and adventurous alongside the familiar and safe.

Now Cooper — who began his career as a music journalist in the pages of Record Mirror, Q and Mojo and was BBC Studios’ Head of Music from 1999 to 2019 — has written a book about the show chronicling, as its subtitle promises, “30 years of music, magic and mayhem”. It’s a 400-page narrative rich in anecdotes and interspersed with reflections contributed by some of those who made memorable appearances, including Alicia Keyes, Richard Thompson, Ed Sheeran, St Vincent, Nick Cave and Baaba Maal. Thompson is particularly good value on being able to listen to Al Green from a distance of about 10 feet, on being able to tell Little Jimmy Scott how much he loved his music, and on backing Norma Waterson on a band including Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Danny Thompson and Dave Mattacks. Keyes describes her first appearance in 2001, soon after the release of her debut album, as one of the great musical moments of her life: “The circle raises your game. You walk into the studio different, knowing you’re going to be among musicians who are being themselves and not trying to do what somebody else is doing.”

Open the book almost anywhere and you’ll get a good story, or even just a line reminding you that a single episode in 2008 could incorporate Solange, Stereophonics, Eli Paperboy Reed and a chat with Ray Davies. The section on Lou Reed’s appearances in 2000, 2003 and 2011 is beautifully remembered and observed; the author had first attended one of Reed’s concerts in 1972 and interviewed him for a magazine in 1992, which can’t have harmed his ability to provide the artist with a comfortable setting and a sympathetic atmosphere. He was less prepared for the arrival of Solomon Burke in the Later… studio in 2002, never having seen him live. Burke turned up in a wheelchair before settling his enormous bulk into a golden throne and proceeding, with the help of Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, to wreck the house.

Later… is about respecting the elders, giving a platform to the new, and having fun with music. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” Baaba Maal says, and he may be right. Mark Cooper’s book — in which he properly shares credit with the many other people, such as his co-producer Alison Howe and the director Janet Fraser-Crook — is an entertaining and instructive guide to how it happened and to the small miracle of its survival.

* Mark Cooper’s Later… with Jools Holland is published by William Collins.

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.