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Collarless Beatles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020: the best bits

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

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

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

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

TV SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

NEW ALBUMS

1 Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)

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

3 The Necks: Three (RnR)

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

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

6 Maria Schneider: Data Lords (ArtistShare)

7 Sault: Untitled (Rise) (bandcamp)

8 Hedwig Mollestad: Ekhidna (Rune Grammofon)

9 Bruce Springsteen: Letter to You (Columbia)

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

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

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

13 The Henrys: Paydirt (Bandcamp)

14 Pete Judge: Piano 2 (PJM)

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

16 Lucia Cadotsch: Speak Low II (We Jazz)

17 Martin Pyne: Spirits of Absent Dancers (Discus)

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

19 Jasper Høiby: Planet B (Edition)

20 Matt Rollings: Mosaic (Dualtone)

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

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

23 Misha Mullov-Abbado: Dream Circus (Edition)

24 Diana Krall: This Dream of You (Verve)

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

ARCHIVE / REISSUE

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

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

3 Charles Mingus: Bremen 1964 & 1975 (Sunnyside)

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

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

6 King Crimson: The Complete 1969 Sessions (DGM)

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

8 Kenny Carter: Showdown (Kent)

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

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

MUSIC BOOKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OTHER NON-FICTION

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

FICTION

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

POETRY

Caroline Bird: The Air Year (Carcanet)

FILM

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

EXHIBITION

Charlotte Salomon (Jewish Museum, London)

‘The Monk Watches the Eagle’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a disco night (don’t stop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-reading Brian Eno’s diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The news from Keith Jarrett

Many people around the world will be profoundly saddened by the announcement, made today in an interview with the New York Times, that a pair of strokes in the early months of 2018 are likely to have ended Keith Jarrett’s career as a public performer. The journalist Nate Chinen elicited the information that, after the second of those attacks, Jarrett spent the period from July 2018 to May this year in a nursing facility.

The pianist is back home now but the use of his left arm and hand have been lost, perhaps permanently. Just learning to pick up a cup again is a challenge. There have been memory issues, too: while trying to play long-familiar bebop tunes with his right hand, he finds he has forgotten them. It seems likely that his solo concert at Carnegie Hall in February 2017, during which he spoke out against a newly elected US president, will turn out to have been his last.

This is not the first time Jarrett’s career has been interrupted by a serious health problem: a long bout of chronic fatigue syndrome put him out of action for much of the second half of the 1990s. Its effects were apparent in The Melody at Night, with You, a home-recorded solo recital of restrained and quietly luminous versions of familiar tunes that constitutes one of the most cherished items in his extensive discography. He told me about the illness and his return to activity in a Guardian interview preceding a London concert 20 years ago. From what he says now, his recent problems are unlikely to reach such a welcome resolution.

The famous Köln Concert of 1975 doesn’t have the place in my heart that it occupies in those of many others, and I’ve sometimes grown exasperated with his solo recordings (two listens to the 10 LPs of the Sun Bear Concerts, recorded in Tokyo in 1976 and released a couple of years later, felt like more than enough). His self-belief has sometimes felt overpowering. But I loved Facing You, the first of his solo albums, on its appearance in 1972, and the Standards Trio (as the group with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette became known) could perform miracles.

Coinciding with this week’s announcement is the release of a recording of the first date from his last European tour in the summer of 2016. The two-CD Budapest Concert presents 90 minutes of free improvisation (divided into 12 units) ranging from high-tension explorations of contemporary-classical techniques, pounding grooves, elegant extemporised balladry, refined but exuberant gospel-inflected outbursts, an astonishing two-part invention (Part VI) and, in the form of encores, romantic variations on two standards, “It’s A Lonesome Old Town” and “Answer Me, My Love”.

The repertoire strongly resembles that of Munich 2016, the set released last year, taken from the tour’s last concert. His devotees will want to explore the contrasts between the two, recorded a fortnight apart; for me, it’s a wholly satisfying summary of all the finest aspects of his playing.

Once can only wish Jarrett, who is now 75, the best of luck with his health, in the hope that his powers return — for his own sake, rather than for the benefit of an audience to whom he has already given the fruit of a lifetime’s work, and then some.

* Keith Jarrett’s Budapest Concert is released on the ECM label. The photograph, from the sleeve, is by Daniela Yohannes.

Music for absent dancers

In normal times, the vibraphonist, drummer and percussionist Martin Pyne is involved in collaborations with dancers. When the Covid-19 lockdown began, he compensated for the enforced halt in that activity by spending part of May and June in his home studio, recording music for imaginary choreography. The result is Spirit of Absent Dancers, an album of 19 short solo pieces ranging from Tibetan prayer bowls to a standard drum kit.

In terms of percussion improvisation, try to imagine something that runs from the Zen sound-painting of Frank Perry to the light swing of Billy Higgins. There’s nothing loud, nothing showy, nothing esoteric. Just a delight in the deft touch of a stick, a mallet, a finger or a wire brush on metal, skin or wood, and in the process of transforming sound into a sense of movement.

When he’d finished recording, he sent the results to Yorke Dance Project, a contemporary dance company based in south-west London. Here’s a clip of what the dancer and choreographer Laurel Dalley Smith did with a solo vibraphone piece called “Enchantment”. And here’s a piece for drum kit called “Eidolon”, interpreted by Abigail Attard Montalto. And another, titled “Banshee”, danced by Jordan Ajadi.

We’ve needed a lot of protest music this year, for obvious reasons. But during a period of general anxiety, there has also been a place for music offering a diversion into reflective tranquillity. Spirits of Absent Dancers takes its place among a group of recent albums — others include Pete Judge’s Piano 2, Mino Cinelu and Nils Petter Molvaer’s SullaMadiana, and Stillefelt, by Percy Pursglove, Thomas Seminar Ford and Chris Mapp — that I’ve found particularly valuable in that respect.

* Martin Pyne’s album is on the Discus label. He took the photograph while on tour with Images Ballet Company in 2019. His recordings with his various jazz groups can be found at martinpyne.bandcamp.com

Gary Peacock 1935-2020

Where did they come from, those jazz bassists who appeared in the 1960s, transforming not only the way the instrument was played but also its role in the music? They were the children of Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers, and they were legion: Reggie Workman, Richard Davis, Jimmy Garrison, Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Henry Grimes, Chuck Israels, Steve Swallow… and Gary Peacock, whose death at the age of 85 was announced today.

I suppose the first time I heard his playing was on Don Ellis’s Essence and Prince Lasha’s The Cry, both recorded in Los Angeles in 1962, then Tony Williams’s Life Time in 1964 and Albert Ayler’s epochal Spiritual Unity in 1965, followed by a host of albums — not least with the pianists Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Marilyn Crispell and Marc Copeland, and in Keith Jarrett’s long-lived Standards Trio — that secured his place in the music.

To a superlatively agile technique, an almost voice-like tone, a gift for phrases that sang in the ear and an adventurous spirit he added a subtly poetic sensibility intensified by a spell in Japan that began in the late ’60s and lasted two and a half years. During that time he became a student of Zen Buddhism and a sense of meditative calm began to suffuse his playing, even when it was at its most active.

He made a few albums while he was in Japan, and one of them has long been my favourite of all his recordings. Titled Silver World, it was made in 1970 under the leadership of Hōzan Yamamoto, the great shakuhachi player and teacher, with Masabumi Kikuchi on piano and Hiroshi Murakami on drums. Somehow a copy found its way to me soon after its release, and it was one of those recordings that made me aware how jazz could be open to collaborations with all kinds of music from all over the world.

As far as I know, it has never been released outside Japan. But here it is. If you have the time, listen to the 12-minute title track, and marvel at the delicacy with which intense emotions are conveyed — and, of course, at Gary Peacock’s genius for finding the right notes, the right weight, the right attack all the time. And for understanding the value of silence.

Another of his Japanese albums, the almost equally wonderful Eastward, with Kikuchi and Murakami, included a sleeve note in which he wrote:

“No art form can be unaffected by the environment it lives in. The spiritual, social, political, scientific, technological Renaissance of today, exrpessing itself on all levels and in all societies, has been and continues to be the dominant theme in much of today’s music. The increasing use of electronic devices, accentuation of loud raucous sounds, lyrics suggesting a spiritual Utopia in one case, or denouncing war, government, tradition, show this influence. It is at the same time a testimony of the inseparabilities of music and environment. They are dependent one upon the other. They are expressing one another. They are one.

The music on this album does not claim immunity to such environmental influences. It does however lack a certain degree of aggression, violence, or a special message. It was not conceived with the purpose of making a strong spiritual, social, scientific or musical statement. It was, on the contrary, conceived with no specific purpose in mind. Therefore it may lack some ‘excitement’ for the listener, but perhaps they can sense a certain spirit of joy and humour which we had in producing it.”

I think I understand what he meant: in a sense, in this instance, “purposelessness” is the highest state the creative mind can achieve. Not at all times and on all occasions, of course. A sense of purpose can be the driving force of the greatest art. But the Zen mind lets go and allows it to happen. And when the mind was that of Gary Peacock, what happened needed no other justification.

* Hōzan Yamamoto’s Silver World was released on the Philips label in Japan in 1971. Eastward was released on Japanese CBS in 1970. The photograph of Gary Peacock was taken by Bob Gwynne and is from the cover of Peacock’s December Poems album (ECM, 1977).

In Underground London

Underground London 2

I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in recent days from listening to Underground London, a three-CD set that attempts to recreate, through a mosaic of recordings, the feeling of being a certain kind of person in London in the first half of the 1960s, someone either growing out of, or who had been a little too young for, the full beatnik experience in the 1950s, but looking for similar sensations in a changing time: free speech, free jazz, free verse, free love.

The first disc starts with Ornette Coleman’s “W.R.U.”, ends with Jimmy Smith’s “Autumn Leaves”, and includes Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading “Dog”, Allen Ginsberg reading “America”, a track from Red Bird, the jazz-and-poetry EP Christopher Logue made with Tony Kinsey, and György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères”. The second opens with Jimmy Giuffre’s “Jesus Maria”, ends with Albert Ayler’s “Moanin'”, and includes Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Jog”, Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody, and the Dudley Moore Trio playing the theme from Beyond the Fringe. The third opens with Cecil Taylor’s “Love for Sale”, ends with Thelonious Monk’s “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” and includes Davy Graham and Alexis Korner playing “3/4 AD”, Aldous Huxley reading from The Visionary Experience, the MJQ playing “Lonely Woman”, Luciano Berio manipulating Cathy Berberian’s voice in “Visage”, and “A Rose for Booker” by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with Charles Lloyd.

Add in Stockhausen, Don Cherry and John Coltrane, Annie Ross, John Cage and David Tudor, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy and Joe Harriott, and you get the idea. And to set up the mood for the sort of extended listening session the set deserves, I’d suggest candles in Chianti bottles, something vaguely cubist on the wall, the Tibetan Book of the Dead on the coffee table, and a black polo-neck sweater, or perhaps a chocolate-brown corduroy jacket. And if the party is going well, maybe a Beatle or two, in an adventurous mood, will drop by on the way home from Abbey Road.

But it’s not really a joke, or a caricature. There’s a lot of completely wonderful stuff here, some of it revealing new qualities when isolated from the context of its original full-album setting (an underrated virtue of anthologies or compilations). And practically everything is on the edge of something, some new discovery, some unexplored territory worth taking a risk to reach. How exciting was that?

* The photograph of Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall was taken in 1965 by John Hopkins and was used in the poster for the International Poetry Incarnation held on June 11 that year. It’s included in the booklet accompanying Underground London: Art Music and Free Jazz in the Swinging Sixties, which is on él records, via Cherry Red. 

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”