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Michael Mantler’s ‘Comment c’est’

Michael Mantler 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clapton movie

Eric Clapton film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017: the best bits

SLIDESHOW 4 -® Camille Blake - Berliner Festspiele-41

L to R: Kendrick Scott, Gerald Clayton, Ambrose Akinmusire, Dean Bowman (pic: Camille Blake)

Ambrose Akinmusire’s MaeMae

About a year ago I invited the trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire to listen to the four short blues songs sung in 1939 by Mattie Mae Thomas, an inmate of the women’s wing of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm. She sang them into a recording device set up by Herbert Halpert, a musicologist from the Library of Congress, in the prison’s sewing room, where the female inmates made uniforms and bags for collecting cotton. Unheard by the outside world until 1987, when they were released on a LP by the Rosetta label, these unaccompanied songs are just about as deep and powerful as any blues singing I know. (Here’s one of them: “Workhouse Blues”.) And they are all we know of Mattie Mae Thomas. No details of her life have survived. We don’t know where she came from, how old she was, why she was in prison, or what became of her. All we know is that voice, with its astonishing strength, self-confidence, and nuanced phrasing.

After listening to her, Ambrose accepted a commission to create a piece for the 2017 Berlin jazz festival, my last as artistic director. He told me that Mattie Mae’s voice reminded him of his grandmother, who came from a small Mississippi town called Drew, not far from Parchman Farm, singing in the kitchen when she visited them in Oakland during his childhood. His mother’s middle name, he told me, was also Mae. She had picked cotton as a girl and left Drew to move to California as soon as she could. When he suggested that they make a visit to her old home, she declined. She never wanted to go back there.

In the months between our meeting and his arrival at the festival in the first week of November, I didn’t ask Ambrose any questions about the nature of the piece. All I knew was that he would be bringing a specially assembled sextet including the guitarist Marvin Sewell, the pianist Gerald Clayton, the bassist Joe Sanders, the drummer Kendrick Scott, and the singer Dean Bowman. Once they were in Berlin, I didn’t even go to their rehearsal. I wanted to be surprised.

And I was. The 70-minute song cycle, called MaeMae, contained elements of all the rich sophistication that characterises Ambrose’s music, but dialled right down so that what emerged was a restrained, often sombre, blues-drenched meditation on the music and the culture of the Delta and its echoes in the present day. Samples from Mattie Mae Thomas’s recordings emerged like ghost fragments, lying against the music or integrated into it. Variations on her phrases were sung by Bowman, who sometimes shaped his tone to evoke the texture of voices heard on old shellac 78s and at others ululated to dramatic effect. In one section he explored other hallowed blues motifs (“Another man done gone…”).

The piece took a while to settle — this was a new band, and a new piece — but before long Kendrick Scott was exploring a deep rhythmic pocket, a master drummer of the 21st century channeling the Chicago blues backbeats of Sam Lay and Fred Below.  Marvin Sewell played a magnificently eerie unaccompanied bottleneck solo that paid homage to the masters of the Delta blues. Ambrose, the most eloquent of today’s trumpeters, announced the piece with an unaccompanied liquid fanfare but held back in his solos with a masterful sense of economy.

For me, MaeMae is a composition that involves itself in some of the deepest currents flowing through this period of history, a time in which old battles are suddenly needing to be refought. I hope its life is not confined to a single performance on November 3, 2017 in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, because it deserves a chance to evolve and deliver its message to the widest possible audience. And to make Mattie Mae Thomas live again.

Now here’s the rest of what I’ve particularly enjoyed this year.

Live performances

1. Vijay Iyer Sextet (Wigmore Hall, October)

2. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (Kings Place, November)

3. Paolo Conte (Royal Festival Hall, November)

4. Mary Halvorson Octet (New School, New York, January)

5. Caetano Veloso / Teresa Cristina (Barbican, April)

6. Art Ensemble of Chicago (Cafe Oto, October)

7. The Weather Station (Lexington, October)

8. Samora Pinderhughes’ The Transformation Suite (New School, New York, January)

9. Aarset / Bang / Henriksen: The Height of the Reeds (Humber Bridge, Hull, April)

10. Wanja Slavin’s Lotus Eaters (Tiyatrom, Berlin, January)

11. Catherine Christer Hennix (Silent Green, Berlin, March)

12. Steve Winwood (Hammersmith Apollo, July)

13. Giovanni Guidi Trio (Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery, May)

14. Han Bennink / John Coxon / Ashley Wales (Cafe Oto, August)

15. Vyamanikal + 2 (Kings Place, September)

New albums

1. Hedwig Mollestad, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, David Torn etc: Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal (Rune Grammofon)

2. Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)

3. Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (ECM)

4. Trio Da Kali / Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan (World Circuit)

5. The Weather Station: The Weather Station (Paradise of Bachelors)

6. Amir ElSaffar / Rivers of Sound: Not Two (New Amsterdam)

7. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (Top Dawg)

8. Tyshawn Sorey: Verisimilitude (Pi)

9. Little Steven: Soulfire (UMe)

10. Alexander Hawkins: Unit[e] (AH)

11. Bill Frisell / Thomas Morgan: Small Town (ECM)

12. Matt Wilson: Honey and Salt (Palmetto)

13. Binker and Golding: Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox)

14. Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die (IARC)

15. Ron Miles: I Am a Man (Yellowbird)

16. Yazz Ahmed: La Saboteuse (Nain)

17. Sharon Jones: Soul of a Woman (Dap-Tone)

18. Jimmy Scott: I Go Back Home (Eden River)

19. Gerald Clayton: Tributary Tales (Motéma)

20. Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway (Nonesuch)

Archive / reissue albums

1. Tony Williams Lifetime: Live in New York 1969 (HiHat)

2. The Transcendental Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (Luaka Bop)

3. Isaac Hayes: The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976 (Stax)

4. Chris Wood: Evening Blue (Hidden Masters)

5. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Lively Up Yourself (Wewantsounds)

6. Bobby Hutcherson & Harold Land: UCLA 27 September 1981 (Timeless)

7. Jon Hassell: Dream Theory in Malaya (Tak:til)

8. Mike Westbrook Concert Band: Marching Song (Turtle)

9. Gillian Hills: Zou Bisou Bisou (Ace)

10. Harry South: The Songbook (Rhythm and Blues)

Feature films

1. A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies)

2. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

3. Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

4. Land of Mine (dir. Martin Pieter Zandvliet)

5. Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas)

Documentary films

1. I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck)

2. Chasing Trane (dir. John Scheinfeld)

Books

1. Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin Classics)

2. Sam Shepard: The One Inside (Knopf)

3. Thomas Dilworth: David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (Jonathan Cape)

4. Timothy Snyder: On Tyranny (Bodley Head)

5. Jeremy Whittle: Ventoux (Simon & Schuster)

Music books

1. Peggy Seeger: First Time Ever (Faber & Faber)

2. Todd Mayfield w/ Travis Atria: Travelling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield (Chicago Review Press)

3. Bob Dylan: The Nobel Lecture (Simon & Schuster)

4. David Hepworth: Uncommon People (Bantam)

5. Trevor Barre: Convergences, Divergences & Affinities (Compass)

Exhibitions

1. Cy Twombly (Centre Pompidou, Paris)

2. Soul of the Nation (Tate Modern)

3. States of America (Nottingham Contemporary)

4. Cézanne portraits (National Portrait Gallery)

5. John Singer Sargent watercolours (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Otis Blue

Otis Blue 1Otis Redding died 50 years ago today, on December 10, 1967, when his light plane crashed into a lake near Madison, Wisconsin. Six others — the pilot, Otis’s valet, and four members of his band, the Bar-Kays — also lost their lives. A fifth musician, the trumpeter Ben Cauley, was the only survivor.

Two years earlier, one Saturday in the late autumn of 1965, I’d bought his album Otis Blue. It’s the same copy that you see in the picture above, and it came from Rediffusion Records in Nottingham, where I’d had a Saturday job the previous year. What I remember about that day is taking it out of its bag, throwing the bag away, and walking around town with the record under my arm, so that people could see what I’d bought. I was 18, and that sort of thing mattered. (Distressingly, perhaps it still does.)

You could argue, and I might agree, that his peak came the following year with the studio version of “Try a Little Tenderness”, an epic beyond compare, and that “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, completed only three days before his death and released posthumously, is a wholly original piece suggesting fresh directions his music might have followed had he not been taken at the age of 26.

But Otis Blue is the goods, the work that defines him at his most immaculate. Naturally its 11 tracks contain examples of the transcendental fervour that inspired a thousand imitators, the songs that soaked his sharkskin suits with sweat on stage in clubs and concert halls. That’s what you get in “Respect”, “Shake” and his famously frantic cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.

But an unusual tone has already been set by the first track, a self-penned blues-ballad called “Ole Man Trouble”. It’s a strange way to start a soul album, although it fools you for a moment when it opens with two hits from Steve Cropper’s Fender Esquire and Al Jackson Jr’s snare drum that sound like the fanfare for a fast song. Instead there’s a half-beat pause before the guitar, Jackson’s bass drum and Duck Dunn’s bass guitar release the tension with the start of the backing to a slow song in which Redding mourns his problems and pleads for a change of luck. The arrival of the B3 organ (Isaac Hayes, I think) and the four-piece horn section emphasise the lifts built into the song as it works to its climax, but they do nothing to get in the way of a mood that is almost austere.

This carefully judged economy of means and approach is maintained in the album’s other outstanding slow songs: a version of “My Girl” that rivals the Temptations’ original; a deep-soul treatment of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”; the classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”; a conversation with Cropper on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” that shows what a bluesman he would have been, had soul music never been invented; and, maybe best of all, a reading of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” that gives us a second great version of one of the key songs of the civil rights era.

All the way through, he delivers his lines with a fine control of tone and phrasing as well as the expected commitment. There is no hint here of the stereotyped soul man — a caricature from which “The Dock of the Bay” promised, in vain, to deliver him. He is simply magnificent. And if you had to choose half a dozen great albums from the 1960s, Otis Blue would be one of them.

Bye bye, Johnny

Johnny Hallyday RIPOn this side of the English Channel, we spent decades laughing at Johnny Hallyday. He was the eternal proof that the French couldn’t do rock ‘n’ roll. At all. But if there was one quality that defined Johnny, apart from his obsession with American popular culture, it was persistence. And eventually I saw past the dreadful cover versions of US hits (“Viens danser le Twist”) and found myself starting to enjoy and even admire what he did.

The turning point was a composition by Michel Berger called “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, featured in Johnny’s 1985 album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Attitudes. It’s a beautiful song with really wonderful words, and it enabled Hallyday to find the perfect balance between his oft-thwarted desire to sing with the emotional abandon of an American rocker and his heritage in the more dignified cadences of French chanson. The ambiguity of the title — Berger was writing about Tennessee Williams, but since this is Johnny we’re listening to, there’s also an implicit hint of Memphis — helps to set up a genuinely great performance.

Five years ago, that song gave me an unforgettable moment. It was October 2012, and Johnny was playing the first proper UK concert of his entire career. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters, and I seemed to be one of only a very small number of English people present (remember that London — for the moment, at least — has a French population of somewhere around 300,000). It was a gig I really didn’t want to miss, for cultural as much as musical reasons.

Johnny did his thing in front of an excellent band, singing with a power and an energy astonishing in a man of his age and with his medical history. And when he delivered “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, the audience rose to join him, singing Berger’s tune and lyric with great feeling. So did I, and if I tell you it was like joining in with Springsteen when he does “Hungry Heart”, you’ll probably know what I mean. Both songs address a yearning for something beyond our ordinary little lives, and Johnny evoked that feeling as effectively as Bruce.

His death was announced today, at the age of 74. His country will be in mourning for a man who had his first hit in the month that Elvis was demobbed and half a year before John, Paul, George and Pete made their first trip to Hamburg. No more Paris-Match cover stories. No more buying the paper on holiday in France to check out the itinerary of his latest annual summer tour, with its sports stadiums and Roman amphitheatres. Adieu, Jean-Philippe Smet. Bye bye, Johnny.

A little afternoon music

Necks matinee 1This is the line of ticket-holders waiting to enter Cafe Oto for the Necks’ sold-out lunchtime concert today. It might have seemed an unusual time of day to experience the intensity of free collective improvisation, but the Australian trio’s music tends to work its unique magic at any time of day or night, in any location.

In between a festival in Madeira and a concert in Helsinki, they were stopping in Dalston for this single show. As usual, they played two sets of approximately 45 minutes each, separated by a short break. And, again as usual, the two sets were contrasting in nature and effect. I wasn’t at all surprised when one confirmed admirer went into raptures about the first set, while another said the second set was the best he’d ever seen them play.

The three musicians themselves don’t talk about individual performances in terms of differing type or quality levels. Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck were there, doing what they do, exposing the process of creating music from scratch on the basis of three decades of shared experience. To them, in a sense, the existence of the Necks is one unbroken performance, divided for convenience into chunks that happen to be the length of an old-fashioned LP.

Necks matinee 3Abrahams began the first set with tentative piano figures, joined by Buck’s bass drum and, eventually, Swanton’s arco bass. The pianist tended to hold the initiative throughout, creating arpeggiated variations that slowly surged and receded, gradually building, with the aid of Buck’s thump and rattle and the keening of Swanton’s bow, to a roaring climax — including, from unspecified source among the three, a set of overtones that gave the illusion of the presence of a fourth musician — before tapering down to a perfectly poised landing.

After the interval it was Swanton’s turn to open up, his plucked octave leaps offered as an invitation to the others. This time Buck began with a stick on his open hi-hat and a mallet on his floor tom-tom, while Abrahams seemed to devote more time than usual to open single-note lines. At one point, about 10 minutes in, the pianist spent a few seconds picking out what sounded like a Moorish melody, but he declined to pursue its possibilities and after a brief pause moved on to something more like his familiar strumming and roiling techniques. About 20 minutes later, however, he returned to that melody, or something very like it, using it as the material from which to fashion his contribution to another supremely graceful conclusion.

What began in 1987 as a private experiment between three young Sydney-based musicians has evolved into an institution with a large and devoted worldwide audience. Somehow they manage to make it new every night, even when that night happens to be a Sunday lunchtime. They’ll be back at Cafe Oto next March.

Sounds of the square

Chorus 1As the shops started to close and the street-food vendors began to disperse, twilight was falling on Deptford High Street. Arriving an hour early for last night’s concert by Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra at the Albany Theatre, I heard a strange sound and walked towards it.

It was coming from half a dozen identical large tubular silver metal structures erected in Giffin Square, each of them a tripod about 15ft tall, all topped with horizontal arms that ended in a speaker horn at both ends. The arms rotated gently, like the horns in a Hammond B3’s Leslie speaker cabinet, while emitting soft sustained sounds that, in combination, made me think of Terry Riley’s all-night organ concerts of the 1970s and of Brian Eno’s Bloom, the generative-music software he invented a few years ago to turn your iPhone into a self-activating musical instrument.

Just my kind of thing, in fact, and even more so when the accumulated layers grew into the sort of sound you might expect if you made a loop of the bells of every village church in Tuscany and then re-recorded the results under water. You could wander between the metal structures, and many people did. As the last of the daylight faded, the little red lights on each horn glowed more distinctly, and the sound took on a magical quality.

This, it turned out, was Chorus, a piece by the award-winning sound artist and composer Ray Lee, who specialises in such installations. In its full iteration, Chorus features 14 of the tripods, but six was fine for the intimate space of Giffin Square. The piece had its premiere in Newbury in 2013 and has since been heard in many places, including WOMAD and festivals in Warsaw and Melbourne. I wish Lee would come and park it in my street for a week or two.

* Chorus is on again in Gifford Square, Deptford tomorrow (Saturday, September 30) at 1.30pm, 2.30pm and 3.30pm.

Doubling Downes

Vyamanikal 2

Vyamanikal + 2: Tom Challenger, Alex Bonney, Lucy Railton, Kit Downes

The profound sense of peace that descended over Hall 2 of Kings Place last night as the set by an expanded version of Vyamanikal glided towards its close was unlike anything I’ve encountered all year. The pianist Kit Downes and the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger, normally a duo in this guise, were joined on the stage by the cellist Lucy Railton and by Alex Bonney, who sat at a laptop. Bonney was processing the music and sounds recorded by Downes and Challenger in 2015 in the small churches of five Suffolk villages, collecting the sounds of organs in various states of repair for an album released last year, and feeding it into the live performance.

In the absence of a church organ, Downes alternated between a piano and a small hand-pumped harmonium. For the better part of an hour the musicians wove tapestries of sound in which individual elements blended seamlessly. There were certainly gorgeous details, but they fade in the memory next to the overall impression of a glowing organic whole.

If there was a kind of English pastoral vibe in the air, it was implicit rather than declarative, and never suffocating. I suppose the most obvious precedent might be some of John Surman’s recordings, from Westering Home onwards, but really this music seemed to stand alone, without need for comparison. As they neared the end, the three instrumentalists stopped playing but the music continued, thanks to Bonney, in a many-layered drone which seemed to distill everything that had been played in the previous 50 minutes. And then came a few moments of silence in which we could find our own way out of the trance.

The first half of the evening had featured Tricko, the duo in which Railton and Downes perform a kind of sui generis cello-and-piano chamber music that manages to be intricate without inducing strain and immediately attractive without becoming winsome. “I’m aware that this music is cripplingly quiet,” Downes said at one point. “If I were listening, I’d probably be asleep by now.” That might indeed be the initial impression. But the longer you listen to them, the more awake you feel.

* Vyamanikal’s album is on the Slip Imprint label. Downes’s solo organ album, Obsidian, will be released by ECM early next year.

Terje Rypdal at 70

Terje Rypdal 1If you were to draw a straight line connecting Hank B. Marvin to Jimi Hendrix and then extend it a bit further, the next point on the line would be Terje Rypdal, the Norwegian guitarist and composer who celebrated his 70th birthday this weekend with a couple of concerts at Oslo’s Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene, an old cinema converted into a 300-capacity theatre for improvised music. I went to the first of the concerts, in which Rypdal was joined by the trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and the drummer Pål Thowsen. It was an unforgettable evening, and a reminder of his singular importance.

When I first heard Rypdal, in Berlin in 1970, I had no idea that he would become one of the most interesting and influential musicians of my lifetime. Not long after that, however, I wrote a piece in which I ventured the opinion that if Miles Davis were looking for a really interesting new accomplice, he need look no further than a young guitarist who seemed to have a wholly original approach to things — and to tone and texture in particular. Perhaps attempting to give Miles Davis advice was not the smartest idea, but I still think it would have led him in a rewarding direction. After John McLaughlin, Rypdal would have brought something different to Miles’s world.

The son of a classical composer, Rypdal spent his teenage years with a successful Norwegian beat group called the Vanguards. In 1968 he became a member of George Russell’s European band, and in 1971 he released his first album on ECM, the label with which he has spent his entire career as a leader. (Mikkelborg, who is five years his elder, was featured on several of those recordings.) Some of those albums featured a variety of small groups, while others included compositions for orchestras and choirs. In 1995 a couple of Rypdal’s more noir-ish pieces were borrowed by Michael Mann for the soundtrack to his great thriller, Heat. Some years ago Rypdal endured a period of poor health, but he came through it and, although he does not move around so easily, his playing is unimpaired.

The Victoria was built as a cinema in 1915 and, apart from the swap of a stage for a screen, appears little changed. On Friday night it was packed to hear Storløkken begin the set with one of Rypdal’s ethereal tone-poems, manipulating his Hammond B3 to produce piercing textures. With the exception of a delightful duet by Rypdal and Mikkelborg (on flugelhorn) on “Stranger in Paradise”, a melody by Borodin borrowed for the 1953 musical Kismet, the programme explored Rypdal’s themes, which alternated between ecstatic skycaps and outbreaks of wonderfully thunderous hooliganism. The guitarist, manipulating the sound of his Fender Stratocaster via effects units and his volume pedal, and sometimes using a bottleneck, found the perfect ally in the organist, whose bass lines, played on a small keyboard, made the building shudder.

If you were to extend the line that starts with Hank B. Marvin beyond Rypdal, you would find people like David Torn, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke, Hedvig Mollestad, Reine Fiske, Even Helte Hermansen, Raoul Björkenheim and Hans Magnus Ryan. All of those are involved in a new album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal, released on the Oslo-based Rune Grammofon label. Again, Rypdal’s themes provide the basis. Frisell opens with a lovely meditation on “Ørnen”, Cline creates a lyrical meditation on “What Comes After” with the cellist Erik Friedlander, and Torn displays his extended techniques to fine effect on “Avskjed”.

These are all wonderful. But it is the group performances that steal the show. Supported by Storløkken, the bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the drummer Gard Nilsen, the guitar squadron of Mollestad, Fiske, Kaiser, Hermansen, Bjorkenheim and Ryan — in various combinations, but mostly all at once — attack such pieces as “Silver Bird Heads for the Sun”, “Chaser” and a dramatic medley of “Tough Enough” and “Rolling Stone” with verve and devotion. My favourite track also carries the most appropriate title: “Warning: Electric Guitars”. The result is heavier, in every sense, than the heaviest metal, while being enormously creative and totally exhilarating.

The album was conceived by Kaiser in collaboration with Rune Kristoffersen, the founder of Rune Grammofon. I can’t recommend it too highly, particularly to anyone who has previously been touched by Rypdal’s work — or, more generally, to anyone with an interest in guitar music.

Han Bennink at Cafe Oto

Han Bennink

Cafe Oto, 12 August 2017: John Coxon, Han Bennink and Ashley Wales

The great Dutch drummer Han Bennink is famous for his anarchic humour and his resistance to orthodoxy: he’s known for using the heel of his boot to alter the tone of his drums on the fly, and for finding the music in the scenery of a club — if there are pillars or heating pipes in the vicinity, he is likely to start playing them. He has an unparalleled gift for terminating a collective improvisation with a slap of two pieces of metal or the sort of rimshot that brooks no negotiation. What’s sometimes overlooked is his ability to swing in the traditional meaning of the term. Of all the European drummers to emerge in the modern era, maybe only Phil Seaman commanded the same deep sense of swing.

But he’s always been a hard man to pin down. I first heard him with the German tenorist Peter Brötzmann in Berlin in 1969, playing the most uncompromisingly loud and violent free jazz you could imagine. Maybe 20 years later I heard him in Paris with a band led by the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, playing the music of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, and you could tell that here was a man with a profound understanding of what Baby Dodds had been up to.

On Saturday, Han ended a three-night Cafe Oto residency in celebration of his 75th birthday with a series of collaborations in which his partners were the two men, the guitarist John Coxon and the electronics exponent Ashley Wales, together known as Spring Heel Jack; two guests from Amsterdam, the American violinist Mary Oliver and the Dutch guitarist Terrie Hessels, also known as Terrie Ex; and the pianist Steve Beresford. Amid the swirling anarchy, there were many moments when you could detect traces of the drummer who served a conventional rhythm-section apprenticeship with such visiting American giants as Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon and Wes Montgomery.

Since then Han’s career has taken him through countless collaborations. He first appeared with Coxon and Wales on Amassed, an early Spring Heel Jack studio album, in 2002. The following year they took him on a short Contemporary Music Network tour of Britain, along with the saxophonist Evan Parker, the pianist Matthew Shipp, the bassist William Parker and the guitarist J. Spaceman (Jason Pierce, with whom Coxon played in the band Spritualized). I saw that fascinating line-up give an epic performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall — particularly in the second half, which began with a hyperactive duet between drums and bass and reached its climax in a long passage of richly textured improvisation over a mesmerising sequence of slowly descending piano chords that seemed, like an Escher staircase, to have no end. An album titled Live was assembled from the tour’s concerts in Bath and Brighton, and contains a version of that second half.

On Saturday, Han began with a trio set but soon left Beresford and Oliver to their own devices, listening from a chair at the side of the stage as they created a graceful two-part invention. Then the drummer was joined by Spring Heel Jack, creating a very different type of trio, the music constantly changing colours and momentum, restless but intensely satisfying (I loved a passage in which Coxon suddenly started running close-voiced jazz chords on his cherry-red Guild Starfire). Eventually Hessels, a member of the Dutch band the Ex, joined in, energetically lunging and retreating as he added jagged bursts of post-Hendrix noise.

After a third set in which the musicians joined in one by one until all six were together on stage, Han closed the evening with a short unaccompanied piece: brusque, urgent, very physical, unmistakably him but also unmistakably in the lineage of solo pieces by Dodds, Papa Jo Jones and Max Roach. This is a musician who stretched the vocabulary of his instrument, even changed it, while honouring and preserving the music’s essence.