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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”

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/