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Posts from the ‘World music’ Category

The Japanese for pathos

Sonny Clark F Wolff

The hip Sonny Clark album, as everyone knows, is Cool Struttin’, a quintet date from 1958 which has come to epitomise what we think of as the Blue Note style: relaxed but compact hard bop, rooted in a deep swing and with the blues never far away. Clark died of a heroin overdose in 1963, aged 31, with nothing to his name beyond his appearances on some exceptional recordings. He would no doubt be astonished to learn that his most celebrated album would sell over 200,000 copies between 1991 and 2009 — almost 180,000 of those copies in Japan, where Cool Struttin’ mysteriously became one of the biggest jazz albums of all time.

My favourite Clark album is something different: a trio session that didn’t see the light of day until its release in Japan more than three decades after the pianist’s death. Blues in the Night is a comparatively modest effort: only 26 minutes long, or 33 minutes if you count the alternate take of the title track. Presumably that’s why it wasn’t released at the time: simply not enough music to make a full 12-inch LP.

Clark was a fine composer, but Blues in the Night is all standards: “Can’t We Be Friends”, “I Cover the Waterfront”, “Somebody Loves Me”, “Dancing in the Dark”, “All of You”. It’s a supper-club set, with nothing to upset the horses. But it’s also, in its quiet and unassuming way, pure treasure. With the great Paul Chambers on bass and Wes Landers — otherwise unknown to me — on drums, Clark makes his way through these tunes at a variety of comfortable tempos with a wonderful touch perfectly highlighted by the simplicity of the setting. I can listen to it all the way through just concentrating on how he articulates a triad: putting down his fingers in a way that makes the chord far more than three notes being played at the same time, the minute unsynchronisations that make it human. And what he finds, I suppose, is a sweet spot between Bud Powell’s probing, restless single-note lines and the swinging, transparently joyful lyricism of Wynton Kelly. Which is a place I’m very happy to be.

I’m indebted for the Cool Struttin’ sales figure to an extraordinary chapter devoted to Clark in a book by Sam Stephenson called Gene Smith’s Sink, a kind of discursive biographical appendix to The Jazz Loft, an earlier book in which Stephenson gave a detailed history of the rackety loft apartment on New York City’s Sixth Avenue, in what used to be called the Flower District, where the great photographer W. Eugene Smith kept a kind of open house for beatniks and other outsiders, recording all their comings and goings on camera film and reel-to-reel tape. From 1957 to 1965 Smith’s loft was the location of an endless jam session featuring the likes of Thelonious Monk and Zoot Sims. Sara Fishko’s 2015 documentary film, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, is based on the book and is highly recommended.

Clark was a regular at the loft, and in Gene’s Sink the author recounts how Smith’s obsession with recording everything around him — even TV and radio news bulletins — extended to the sound of the pianist barely surviving another overdose. Stephenson himself fell in love with Clark’s playing when hearing another posthumous Blue Note release, Grant Green’s The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark. He writes about him with enormous sensitivity, piecing together the story of a life that began as the youngest of a family of children in a Pennsylvania town called Herminie No 2, named after the mineshaft that gave the place its reason for existence.

If you’re interested in Sonny Clark’s progress from Pennsylvania coal country via Southern California to the New York jazz scene of the late 1950s, Stephenson’s beautiful piece of writing is the thing to read. And it was while following in Gene Smith’s footsteps to Japan (where the photographer documented the horrendous effects of mercury poisoning on the people of the fishing village of Minamata in the 1970s) that the author came across the ideograms most commonly used by Japanese jazz critics in discussions of Clark’s playing: they can be translated as “sad and melancholy”, “sympathetic and touching”, “suppressed feelings”, and one which combines the symbols for “grieving”, “autumn” and “the heart” to suggest “a mysterious atmosphere of pathos and sorrow”.

That mood isn’t really reflected in my favourite Sonny Clark record. What I hear, funnily enough, is an expression of pleasure in being alive to play the music he loved and for which he had such a precocious talent. I’m guessing he sometimes felt like that, too.

* Sam Stephenson’s Gene’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2017. The Jazz Loft Project was published by Knopf Doubleday in 2012. The portrait of Sonny Clark is from Blue Note Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff, by Michael Cuscuna, Charlie Lourie and Oscar Schnider, published by Universe in 2000 (photo © Mosaic Images). Clark’s Blues in the Night was first released in Japan in 1979 and issued on CD in 1996. The tracks are also available on Clark’s Standards CD, released in 1998.

Trio Da Kali / Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet photographed in Berkeley, CA December 12, 2013©Jay BlakesbergIt’s been my experience that no time spent checking out the Kronos Quartet’s latest activity is ever wasted, and the group’s new album, Ladilikan, in which they accompany Mali’s Trio Da Kali, is a beauty. The meeting between the voice of Hawa Diabaté, the balafon of Lassana Diabaté and the bass ngoni of Mamadou Kouyaté and the violins of David Harrington and John Sherba, the viola of Hank Dutt and the cello of Sunny Yang turns out to sound like something that has always existed, somewhere in the universe.

The primary impression is one of rhythmic vitality, with the quartet locking naturally into the trio’s two instruments to create a thoroughly integrated sextet, providing a lovely setting for Hawa Diabaté’s graceful contralto. In between the vocal passages, the band vamps with delicate power and a groove that is at times almost delirious. Approaching the conclusion of the stunning “Lila Bambo”, they come together in a unison coda that sweeps you off your feet.

Halfway through the album they give us something that might well become a classic. At Harrington’s suggestion, Hawa Diabaté sings Mahalia Jackson’s “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away”, with the original organ accompaniment transcribed for the string quartet; the words are translated into Bambara, the first among more than 40 languages spoken by Mali’s various ethnic groups. The controlled ardour of the voice and the grain of the strings — which together recreate the slightly wheezy sound of a portable harmonium — are irresistible (you can hear a snatch of it in this short trailer).

Meticulously produced by Nick Gold and Lucy Duran for the former’s World Circuit label, Ladilikan could well end up being the album I give to friends and family this Christmas. It’s hard to imagine anyone not loving it.

* Trio Da Kali play at the Musicport Festival in Whitby on October 21, then at Opera North, Leeds (22), St Barnabas Church, Oxford (25) and the Old Church, Stoke Newington,  London N16 (26).

‘The Woman at the End of the World’

elza-soaresThe 79-year-old singer Elza Soares was in London last week, wearing a purple wig and a skintight leather dress as she sang from a golden throne on stage at the Barbican. I missed the gig, but I’ve been belatedly catching up with A Mulher do Fim do Mundo, the album she released this summer, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to end up very high on my best-of-the-year list.

“The Woman at the End of the World”: it sounds like a film by Pedro Almodóvar, and the music is not short of the kind of drama the Spanish director would relish. The project was conceived and produced in Rio de Janeiro, Soares’s home city, by Guilherme Kastrup, with the aid of Celso Sim, Romulo Fróes and a group of musicians and songwriters who collaborated to create a wonderfully modern setting for a voice that carries the marks of age but also an ageless energy.

Having begun with Soares singing a ballad called “Coraçoa do Mar” unaccompanied, the album ends with a minute and a half of silence interrupted by the distant sound of her singing to herself, as if you’d just left her house and, as you walked away, could hear her starting to get on with her daily tasks. In between comes music animated by some sort of special life-force, a mixture of samba and trip-hop and new wave and other stuff, brilliantly focused into something with great variety but a pungently identifiable character.

If I had to make a comparison, I’d say it mixes the elegant precision of Paula Morelenbaum’s great album Berimbaum, a 2004 updating of bossa nova, with some of the glorious anarchy of Os Mutantes: a rough poetry of wild guitars, horns anchored by a growling baritone saxophone, chattering (sometimes battering) percussion, songs very explicitly celebrating a raw need for sex (“Pra Fuder”), describing a police raid on a crack house (“Benedita”), and issuing threats to an abusive lover (“Maria da Vila Matilde”: “When the cops come, I’ll show them my black and blue arm / I’ll show them your cards, your game, your loaded dice…”). And a voice to break your heart. A magnificent piece of work, all told.

* The Woman at the End of the World is released on the Mais um Discos label. The photograph of Elza Soares is by Alexander Eca.

The Road to Jajouka

Scan 132760001The Master Musicians of Jajouka came to London’s Commonwealth Institute in September 1980 and, over the course of five nights, practically blew the place apart through the force of their sound. That was the initial shock: the sheer volume and energy produced by eight men playing rhaitas — a double-reed instrument — and five others playing side drums. It was the first chance most of us had been given to see and hear these Sufi musicians from a village in the Rif mountains, and they more than lived up to their legend. The use of circular breathing and layered rhythms was a revelation, as was their casual mode of presentation. “The musicians did not treat their work with undue reverence,” I wrote in The Times. “They shared jokes and exchanged winks with members of the audience, who were encouraged to participate in displays of come-as-you-are dancing.”

The short season was part of a tour arranged to raise funds to ensure the preservation of their ancient culture and way of life. Three decades later the struggle seems to be continuing, to judge by the appearance of a new CD, The Road to Jajouka, in which recordings of their music are blended — by way of sampling, remixing and juxtaposition — with that of various western musicians. “One hundred per cent of the net profits will go to the Jajouka Foundation,” the sleeve informs us.

The album is produced by Billy Martin, the drummer with Martin, Medeski and Wood, whose entire membership appears on the opening track, together with the guitarist Marc Ribot. Others who turn up on subsequent pieces include the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, drummer Mickey Hart, the bass guitarists Bill Laswell and Flea, the guitarist Lee Ranaldo, the Sirius Quartet and  the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Howard Shore, the Canadian composer who is credited as an executive producer of the album. Shore’s interest in this music probably has its origin in his collaboration with Coleman on the score for David Cronenberg’s 1991 film of William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, in which the Jajouka musicians were featured.

This is not the album to buy if you’re after a full-strength blast of the Boujeloud rite of the Jajouka musicians. In general, however, the mash-ups work well. I love the sound of Ribot’s squibbling guitar and the string quartet against the massed rhaitas on “Into the Rif”. Coleman’s alto improvisation against the layered rhaitas of Bachir Attar on “Jnuin” recalls the visit to Morocco that produced the track “Midnight Sunrise”, included on the album Dancing in Your Head, released in 1977, with a fragment repeated on the Naked Lunch soundtrack (if there ever was a western musician attuned to the vision of these Sufis, it’s surely Ornette).

Many of us know a great deal more about the sounds of the world than we did in 1968, when Brion Gysin took Brian Jones to Jajouka, or in 1980, when Jajouka came to London. Or, indeed, when Burroughs called them “the 4,000-year-old blues band” (we now know their music dates back a mere 1,300 years). The new CD is a reminder that increased familiarity hasn’t robbed this particular music of its power to astonish and mesmerise.

* The photograph of the Master Musicians of Jajouka is from the CD insert and was taken by Cherie Nutting. Jajoukafoundation.org is the relevant website for information and donations. There’s a fine chapter on Jajouka in Blues & Chaos, a collection of pieces by the late Robert Palmer, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and published by Scribner in 2009.