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Booker T’s tale

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Back in the 1980s, living in California, Booker T Jones was having so much trouble getting work as a musician that he and his wife took classes to become real-estate agents. Booker T Jones. That one. The one from Booker T and the MGs. The one who produced Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Willie Nelson’s Stardust. Whose Hammond B3 was a signature sound of ’60s R&B. Whose simple little 12-bar riff, titled “Green Onions”, still stands, 57 years later, as one of popular music’s moments of absolute perfection.

The tale about the real estate business is one of the surprises in Time Is Tight: My Life in Music, a new autobiography in which Booker T takes us on a pretty extraordinary journey. He tells the story — without the aid of a ghostwriter — in short chapters, sometimes shuffling the time sequence in a way that suggests he might have taken Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol 1 as an example. The mosaic effect is never intrusive: it works on the level of a man musing about his past and making connections that skip back and forth across time.

There’s an evocative portrait of his childhood as a multi-instrumental prodigy in Memphis, which included playing piano with Mahalia Jackson in church at the age of 12, making his first session at Stax Records on baritone saxophone behind Carla Thomas at 16 and playing organ behind William Bell on “You Don’t Miss Your Water” at 17. “Green Onions” arrived when he was 18, propelling him and his three fellow band members — Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg and Al Jackson Jr — to national prominence. But by then he could not be deflected from his plan to study music at the University of Indiana, which meant a 400-mile round trip to play sessions at weekends. It also put a dent in whatever touring plans the MGs might have had.

Tensions between Jones and the other band members simmer throughout the narrative, reaching one or two flashpoints as they go through various reunions and re-estrangements over the decades. The author seems to shy away from providing his deepest thoughts on his colleagues (including Duck Dunn, brought in by Cropper to replace Steinberg in 1964), and he provides no new information on the mysterious 1975 murder of Jackson, to whom he was close. There is a telling moment when, after spending a joyful time in Paris meeting beautiful women and writing the soundtrack to Jules Dassin’s 1968 movie Uptight, he re-records the theme tune, “Time Is Tight”, with the MGs for a single release. When it comes out, he discovers — “much to my dismay” — that the names of the other three have been added to the composer credits, as if this were just another session.

Jones has an enquiring mind and seemed to work out very early on that the deck was stacked against musicians when it came to royalties and song-publishing. He was on a salary at Stax, which paid minute royalties for the recordings and took complete ownership of his (very valuable) publishing rights. When the label was sold to the Gulf & Western corporation in 1969, prefacing its eventual collapse, he took it as his cue to move to Los Angeles, where he encountered a very different crowd from the one he had known in Memphis.

Before long he was befriending Leon Russell, playing bass-guitar on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and living with Priscilla Coolidge, the sister of Rita, whose solo hits he produced. The nightmare of his eventual 10-year marriage to the hard-partying, wrist-slashing Priscilla is recounted in detail, balanced by the subsequent description of his blissful family life with Nan Warhurst, who became his third wife in 1985 (and gave her name to a track on Potato Hole, his great instrumental album of 2009).

There are some passages of effective prose: “The hills of Malibu could be every bit as lonely as a cell-like room in Manhattan. At night, the hills became quiet and seemed to close in so tight on you that you’d swear you were going crazy. Just like the noise in New York. Especially if you were alone, or with the wrong person.” Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the whole book comes when Nan’s mother corners him at their wedding to tell him how disappointed she is that her daughter has married across the line of colour: “The unthinkable had happened in her family and she stood shaking, glaring into my eyes. No one noticed or knew what was going on.” If the last few pages contain sentimental passages on how well his kids have turned out, we can cut him some slack there.

As well as the absorbing descriptions of working with Nelson, Otis Redding, Neil Young and many others, and of playing for the Obamas at the White House, long-term admirers will enjoy the analysis of how a few of the MGs’ best known pieces were created, particularly in terms of their chord structures. Anyone who is currently listening to the recently released first volume of their collected singles and B-sides will find their enjoyment enhanced by reading his accounts of the making of “Green Onions” (its voicing inspired, it turns out, by Booker’s early lessons in Bachian counterpoint), “Soul Dressing”, “Booker-Loo” and others, including Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and Eddie Floyd’s extraordinary “Big Bird” (“We had moved into the Age of Aquarius”), as well as by that of later pieces such as “Hang ’em High” and “Melting Pot”.

Booker T Jones is one of my musical heroes, and an hour spent in his company in 2009, for a Guardian interview, left me with the impression of a deeply thoughtful and naturally open-minded man. His autobiography tells me a great deal I didn’t know and makes me respect him even more.

* Booker T Jones’s Time Is Tight: My Life in Music is published in the USA by Little, Brown and in the UK by Omnibus Press. The Complete Stax Singles Vol 1 (1962-67) is out now on the Stax/Real Gone label.

Zoot Money at the Bull’s Head

Zoot Money

This being Christmas week, Zoot Money needed to call up some deps for last night’s gig at the Bull’s Head in Barnes. A whole band of deps, in fact. But what deps they were. The great Jim Mullen on guitar. John Altman and Bob Sydor on soprano and tenor saxophones respectively. Kenny Wilson on bass guitar and Mark Fletcher on drums. All they were getting, as one of them said, was a key and a count-in. And away they went.

It was rough around the edges, gorgeous in spots, and suffused throughout by the spirit of the music they share. “The Promised Land”. “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer”. “My Babe”. “Let the Good Times Roll”. Eight-bar blues, 12-bar blues, 16-bar blues. Zoot toggled between B3, Rhodes and acoustic piano sounds on his electronic keyboards.

The highlights included two duets at the start of the second set: Mullen with Zoot on a lovely “Please Stay” and Sydor doing the Fathead Newman thing on Ray Charles’s “Hard Times”. The pianist Kenny Clayton and his daughter, the singer Alex Clayton-Black, were invited up for a guest spot which included a delightful “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to”, with a sinuous obligato from Altman’s curved soprano.

Cues were hit, cues were missed, but a good time rolled for the musicians and their audience in the little back room. That’s what the common language can do.

Flutter and wow

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After several books in which he perceptively explored the place and meaning of sound in our lives — including Oceans of Sound, Exotica, Haunted Weather, Sinister Resonance and Into the Maelstrom — now David Toop tells us how he came by his deep love and remarkable understanding of music. Flutter Echo: Living Within Sound, first published two years ago in Japan, where he has a devoted following, is now available in an English edition, and will provide valuable reading for anyone interested in the breadth of Toop’s interests.

That certainly includes me. If Toop is interested in something, the chances are that I will be, too. As signposts to the journey he describes, he appends a list of stuff he liked at the time. The period 1967-70, for instance, when he was in his late teens, includes Junior Wells’s Hoodoo Man Blues, Nico’s The Marble Index, the SME’s Karyobin, and Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. Ten years later he was listening to Little Beaver’s “Party Down”, Cachao y su Descarga, Dr Alimentado’s “Ride on Brother”, Walt Dickerson’s Peace and Evelyn Champagne King’s “Shame”. And so on. Our kind of person, I think.

His book is the story of how a boy from London’s northern suburbs found the music that gave volume, depth and direction to his life. Because his story parallels the experience of so many, and because Toop writes equally well about epiphanies and tragedies, it invites and secures the reader’s empathy.

As a journalist, Toop wrote for many publications (The Face, The Wire and others) and was heavily involved in two magazines, Musics and Collusion, that — among other things — chronicled the activities in the 1970s and early ’80s of the “second generation” of British free improvisers, of whom he was a prominent member, along with his frequent collaborators Steve Beresford, Paul Burwell, Max Eastley, Peter Cusack and others.

Their work is featured in Further Perspectives and Distortions, an excellent three-CD box subtitled “An Encyclopedia of British Experimental and Avant-Garde Music 1976-1984”. Its time-frame means that it includes the wilder work of people associated with jazz-rooted free improvisation, contemporary classical, punk rock and post-punk, from AMM through Gavin Bryars and Alternative TV to This Heat, the Pop Group and Henry Cow. Other mavericks include the Roberts Wyatt and Fripp, Bob Cobbing, Ron Geesin, David Cunningham and Fred Frith.

The way I’ve listened to it is mostly to let each disc run — the tracks are sequenced alphabetically, by artist — and not to bother with checking the origin of each item. Sometimes I couldn’t help myself from wanting to know that a brilliant drum solo was from a Soft Machine track (John Marshall, presumably), or that an irresistible electro-groove was This Hear’s “24 Track Loop”. I enjoyed the 4min 28sec of silence halfway through the second disc, titled “(Extract from) The Compassion and Humanity of Margaret Thatcher” and credited to No Artist.

Those highlights aside (and there are, of course, others), the way I’ve chosen to listen means that the rustlings and bangings and jagged guitars and squeals and howls and pneumatic drilling and rantings and mutterings blend into each other like a mosaic-portrait of an edgy, difficult and often stimulating time, when almost everything was political. Maybe we’re heading that way again.

* The photograph of David Toop is by Fabio Lugaro, and is on the cover of Flutter Echo, which is published by Ecstatic Peace Library. The box set Further Perspectives and Distortions is on the Cherry Red label.

2019: The best bits

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It’s a source of lingering personal regret that I haven’t spent more time at the ballet. Over the years, rare outings to see the Nederlands Dans Theater performing Twice (Sock It to Me) to James Brown’s music at Sadler’s Wells in 1970, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland with American Ballet Theatre at the Coliseum in 1977, Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs at the Riverside Studios in 1994 and Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells in 1996 felt like journeys into a universe where the air was very different. This year’s adventure was another visit to Sadler’s Wells to see Natalia Osipova, the Bolshoi-trained principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, presenting Pure Dance, a programme of seven short pieces from different choreographers.

Among them was Six Years Later, created by Roy Assaf and danced by Osipova with Jason Kittelberger. Over the course of 22 minutes, it depicted the moods and responses of two people meeting after a lengthy estrangement: the range of gestures was considerable, from fond touches and entwinings to pushing, slapping and shoulder-barging. The first music was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, played straight but eventually treated (with great subtlety) by Deefly, twisting into a brief electronic episode that led to a big surprise: the strummed intro to “Reflections of My Life”, the 1969 hit by the Marmalade, the Scottish pop band who loitered successfully on the fringes of psychedelia. That in turn gave way to the final section and a third piece of music: Handel’s Dove Sei, Amato Bene? sung by Marilyn Horne. I found the emotional arc engrossing and the understated fluidity of the dancers’ movements compelling in their fluctuations between intimacy and distance. The real ballet critics were indifferent, so what do I know?

Beyond category

Amazing Grace: Aretha Franklin with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir (dir. Sidney Pollack & Alan Elliott)

Live performances

1 Rhiannon Giddens / The Ensemble (HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, Nov)

2 Royal Academy of Music alumni & soloists: Gil Evans’s Porgy & Bess (St John, Smith Square, Nov)

3 Binker Golding Quartet (Cockpit Theatre, Oct)

4 Nik Bärtsch / Sophie Clements (Barbican, Nov)

5 Soweto Kinch’s The Black Peril (Hackney EartH, Nov)

6 Bill Frisell + Harmony (Cadogan Hall, Oct)

7 Julia Hülsmann Quartet (Purcell Room, Nov)

8 Punkt.Vrt.Plastik (Vortex, Oct)

9 The Necks (Hackney EartH, May; St John, Bethnal Green, Oct)

10 Louis Moholo-Moholo’s Five Blokes (Cafe Oto, Aug)

11 Lucia Cadotsch’s Speak Low (Purcell Room, Nov)

12 Kim Myhr (Kilden, Oslo, Sept)

13 Zbigniew Namysłowski (JazzCafé POSK, Dec)

14 Thurston Moore (Kick Scene, Oslo, Sept)

15 Erland Apneseth Trio (Spice of Life, Nov)

New albums

1 Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science: Waiting Game (Motéma)

2 Matana Roberts: Coin Coin Chapter 4: Memphis (Constellation)

3 Tyshawn Sorey + Marilyn Crispell: The Adornment of Time (Pi)

4 SEED Ensemble: Driftglass (jazz:refreshed)

5 Christian Lillinger: Open Form for Society (Plaist Music)

6 Kronos Quartet / Terry Riley: Sun Rings (Nonesuch)

7 Solange: When I Get Home (Columbia)

8 Arve Henriksen: The Timeless Nowhere (Rune Grammofon)

9 Guillermo Klein & Los Guachos: Cristal (Sunnyside)

10 Isildurs Bane & Peter Hammill: In Amazonia (Ataraxia)

11 Michael Kiwanuka: Kiwanuka (Polydor)

12 Giovanni Guidi: Avec le temps (ECM)

13 P. P. Arnold: The New Adventures of P. P. Arnold (e*a*r)

14 Laura Jurd: Stepping Back, Jumping In (Edition)

15 Angélique Kidjo: Celia (Verve)

16 Art Ensemble of Chicago: We Are on the Edge (Pi)

17 Que Vola?: Que Vola? (Nø Førmat)

18 Beth Gibbons / Polish NRO / Penderecki: Górecki’s Symphony No 3 (Domino)

19 Allison Moorer: Blood (Autotelic)

20 Gebhard Ullmann’s Basement Research: Impromptus & Other Short Works (WhyPlayJazz)

21 Wadada Leo Smith: Rosa Parks / Pure Love (TUM)

22 Nérija: Blume (Domino)

23 Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise (International Anthem)

24 Lana Del Rey: NFR! (Interscope)

25 Corey Mwamba: Nth (Discus)

Archive & reissue albums

1 Various: This is Lowrider Soul (Kent)

2 John Coltrane: Blue World (Impulse)

3 Various: Further Perspectives & Distortions: An Encyclopedia of British Experimental and Avant-Garde Music 1976-84 (Cherry Red)

4 Wes Montgomery: Back on Indiana Avenue: The Carroll DeCamp Recordings (Resonance)

5 John Coltrane: Impressions / Graz 1962 (ezz-thetic)

6 Anne Briggs: Anne Briggs (Topic Treasures)

7 Jan Garbarek / Bobo Stenson Quartet: Witchi-Tai-To (ECM)

8 Various: Yesterday Has Gone: The Songs of Teddy Randazzo (Ace)

9 Bob Dylan: The Rolling Thunder Review / The 1975 Live Recordings (CBS Legacy)

10 Various: Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures Vol 5 (Kent)

11 Johnny Burch Octet: Jazz Beat (Rhythm and Blues)

12 Nat King Cole: Hittin’ the Ramp (Resonance)

13 Various: Sacred Sounds: Dave Hamilton’s Raw Detroit Gospel 1969-74 (Kent)

14 Bob Dylan: Travelin’ Thru 1967-69 (CBS Legacy)

15 Don Cherry / Ed Blackwell:  El Corazón (ECM)

Films

1 Varda by Agnès (dir. Agnès Varda)

2 The Image Book (dir. Jean Luc Godard)

3 The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Music documentaries

1 Country Music (dir. Ken Burns)

2 Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (dir. Stanley Nelson)

3 Hitsville: The Making of Motown (dir. Benjamin Turner & Gabe Turner)

Books about music

1 Booker T. Jones: Time Is Tight (Omnibus)

2 David Toop: Flutter Echo (Ecstatic Peace Library)

3 Emma John: Wayfaring Stranger (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

4 James Pettifer: Meet You in Atlantic City (Signal)

5= Will Birch: Cruel to Be Kind: The Life & Music of Nick Lowe (Constable)

5= Ian Penman: It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Exhibitions

1 Ivon Hitchens (Garden Museum, London & Pallant House, Chichester)

2 Lee Krasner: Living Colour (Barbican)

3 Natalie Daoust: Korean Dreams (Beecroft Gallery, Southend)

4 Ed Ruscha (Tate Modern)

5 Various: Another Me (South Bank Arts Centre)

Namysłoswki at Café POSK

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There was quite a stir when Zbigniew Namysłowski arrived in England with his quartet in 1964. He and his musicians were the first of their kind to come here from behind the Iron Curtain; they were young and adventurous, and made quite an impression with their performances at the the Marquee and other places around the country. The producer Mike Vernon took them into Decca’s studios to record an album titled Lola, which showed them to be capable of blending an interest in John Coltrane with a loyalty to the folk melodies of their native Poland. It was an early sign that European jazz could develop its own distinctive range of flavours, and it still sounds good today. Fifty years later Namysłowski’s career provided the inspiration for the male lead in Paweł Pawlikowski’s wonderful Oscar-winning film Ida.

Last night he returned to Britain with a quintet to play a concert divided between his own compositions and those of Krzysztof Komeda, with whom he played in the mid-’60s, mostly notably on the album Astigmatic, alongside the great trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. The venue was the Jazz Café POSK in the basement of the Polish cultural centre on King Street in Hammersmith, which ensured not only decent sound but a large, warm and attentive audience.

Playing alto and sopranino saxophones, Namysłowski was joined by his son Jacek on trombone, Łukasz Ojdana on piano, Andresz Święs on double bass and Patryk Dobosz on drums. The two horns played while seated throughout, which seemed less a concession to the leader’s age — he turned 80 in September — than a hint of the relaxed mood that pervaded the group’s beautifully controlled version of post-bop jazz.

Komeda’s tunes came first, including “Ballad for Bernt” from the soundtrack to Polanski’s Knife in the Water, “Svantetic” and “Kattorna” from Astigmatic, and the less familiar theme from Skolimowski’s Le Départ. By the time the interval arrived, it was clear that we were in the presence of a complete unit of first-rate improvisers: each musician had something to say every time they were called on, and all were so good that you wouldn’t want to single out any of them.

In the second half Namysłowski gave us a string of his own fine and strongly lyrical pieces, including “Jasmine Lady”, “Western Ballad” and “Kujaviak Goes Funky”, some of which re-emphasised his longstanding ability to make 5/4 and 7/4 swing effortlessly. His solos showed that while his tone may have lost some of its youthful tartness, he is in no danger of running short of ideas. In this unusual but highly effective alto-trombone front line (offhand, I can only think recall Mingus’s The Clown as a precedent), his son proved the ideal foil.

Finally, in response to ardent applause, they gave us an encore of Komeda’s gentle theme from Rosemary’s Baby: a gorgeous piece, exquisitely rearranged, demonstrating the effectiveness of short solos when deployed within an imaginative frame, and closing a thoroughly memorable evening.

Joe Pesci sings again

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In New Jersey sometime in the late 1950s, according to legend, Joe Pesci introduced his friend Frankie Valli to the young songwriter Bob Gaudio, a meeting that gave the Four Seasons their career. Pesci’s own singing career never reached such heights. His fame came from elsewhere, mostly from the terrifying “Do I amuse you?” scene with Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.

If you’ve seen The Irishman, you’ll know that Pesci, on his emergence from a 20-year screen hiatus, steals the film: he sets its temperature and provides its emotional core, without raising his voice once. He has also taken the opportunity to revive a recording career which hitherto produced only two albums: Little Joe Sure Can Sing! in 1968 and Vincent LaGuardia Gambino Sings Just For You — performing as his character from My Cousin Vinny — in 1998.

Pesci… Still Singing sees a return to his first love: singing ballads in the piercing, often anguished style of the late, great jazz-lounge maestro Jimmy Scott. Three years ago I wrote about Pesci’s appearance on two tracks of Scott’s posthumously released album, I Go Back Home. One of those duets, on “The Nearness of You”, reappears here. There are also two pleasant collaborations with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on a suave “My Cherie Amour” and the cha-cha groove of “Baby Girl”. Otherwise Pesci’s high, soulful voice is alone with a bunch of orchestral arrangements which are lavishly appointed but never to the extent that they turn the music into mush. Anyone with a fondness for the work of Nelson Riddle will appreciate the use of cor anglais on “Falling in Love Is Wonderful”, while space is made for fine trumpet, tenor and guitar solos, and the playing of the rhythm section is beautifully supportive. Only a melodramatic “Exodus” goes over the top.

I wish I could credit the arranger and the musicians properly, but the curse of streaming — the only way this album is currently available — is that you have to do without the sort of information that listeners of earlier generations depended on as we joined the dots in our quest for musical knowledge. Maybe eventually there’ll be a physical manifestation of Pesci… Still Singing, on which these mysteries will be solved and credit properly apportioned. (Since first posting this I’ve been told that the personnel — on some tracks, at least — includes the pianist Kenny Barron, the guitarists Pat Martino and Vinnie Corrao, the bassist Christian McBride and the drummer Lewis Nash, which explains a lot.)

What I can tell you for certain is that Pesci sings with an exemplary attention to meaning, phrasing and tone. He treats some fine songs — “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “If I Should Lose You”, “Round Midnight”, “In My Solitude”, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and so on — with the necessary respect, and they repay his courtesy. This is an album made with love. And to those who don’t get the point: it’s entirely your loss.

* I streamed Pesci… Still Singing from Amazon Music, at a cost of £7.99. The photograph above is a still from The Irishman, with Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran.

Fantoni’s Sixties

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It’s fair to say that Barry Fantoni had a good Sixties. Now we can read all about it in A Whole Scene Going On, his memoir of the time when he wrote gags for Private Eye, appalled the Royal Academy with a pop-art painting of a Pope, a judge and a general, created the visual backdrops for Ready, Steady, Go!, had a girlfriend who shared a flat with Jane Asher, presented a TV youth programme of his own (from which his book adapts its title), had an abortive stab at becoming a pop star, became a brilliant cartoonist, and did all the other things that people did in that blessed time. He mentions finding an address book from 1966 that begins with Annie (Nightingale) and ends with Zoot (Money).

Others who passed through his life during that period, with varying degrees of intimacy, include Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, Ray Davies, Ralph Steadman, Peter Osgood, John Mayall, Terence Donovan, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page (and his mum), and Felicity Innes, who wore a mini-skirt before Mary Quant. There are great stories about all of them, and about the early Private Eye gang: Ingrams, Booker, Rushton, Cook, Wells and so on. I loved the affectionate evocations of the brilliant designer Robert Brownjohn, the journalist Penny Valentine, the Nova art director Harri Peccinotti, a bloke called Bob who invented Gonks, the art critic John Russell, and Keith Goodwin, Fantoni’s press agent.

Goodwin also looked after Paul and Barry Ryan, Donovan, Cat Stevens, the Temperance Seven and Dusty Springfield, the subject of a chilling vignette: “You needed to know Dusty offstage to get the real picture. To see the face beneath the heavy makeup, back-combed hair and black eyeliner. What I saw was a rather frightened and plain-looking girl from the London suburbs with a bad temper and a desperate need to be loved.” Among those also sideswiped along the way are Tariq Ali, Robert “Groovy Bob” Fraser, Jeff Beck and Gerald Scarfe. The grudges, as is usually the case, add significant value: his resentment of David Hockney’s success is nothing short of epic.

I met him at the very end of this period, when he was contributing cartoons to accompany the wonderful Melody Maker column in which Chris Welch chronicled the adventures of an imaginary pop star called Jiving K. Boots, who was usually either getting banned from the Speakeasy or getting it together in the country: it was Spinal Tap avant la lettre, with a dash of Beachcomber’s random whimsy. I remember greatly coveting the Fantoni portrait of Denis Law that another friend, Geoffrey Cannon, had on the wall of his house in Notting Dale. Apparently that’s now lost, like the large quantity of Barry’s early paintings — including the famously scandalous “The Duke of Edinburgh in His Underpants” — taken off in 1963 to be shown in Los Angeles and never returned. “I have no idea where my work is now,” Fantoni writes of that episode. “Covered in goose shit, I expect.”

This was the Sixties, so not all the detail of Fantoni’s recollections is 100 per cent accurate. But that doesn’t matter. He brings alive a world in which dinner would be at a King’s Road trattoria one night and the all-night Golden Egg on Oxford Street the next, and when making art and having fun seemed to be all that mattered.

* Barry Fantoni’s A Whole Scene Going On: My Inside Story of Private Eye, the Pop Revolution and Swinging Sixties London is published by Polygon. His painting of the Beatles, first exhibited in January 1963 and reproduced above from the book, is now owned by Paul McCartney.

Clive James 1939-2019

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At school I was in a folk group with two chaps called Ian Taylor and Jeff Minson. Ian had the looks and the voice, Jeff had a 12-string guitar, and I just tagged along. When was this? Well, one Saturday afternoon we paused our rehearsal at Jeff’s parents’ house to watch the transmission of the very first episode of Dr Who. (Another clue: the coffee bar we played at was called the Jules et Jim.) Eventually Ian went up to Cambridge, where he joined the Footlights. In 1970 he invited me to one of their performances at the Hampstead Theatre Club, and that’s where I met another member of the troupe, the singer-songwriter Pete Atkin, and his lyricist, a talkative Australian called Clive James.

Clive died on Sunday. He and I once joked that we should start a club for people who had voluntarily stepped down from presenting a BBC television series; the two of us would be the only eligible members. But a couple of years later he returned to the small screen and went on to a fame far beyond that which he earned from his wonderful weekly TV reviews in the Observer.

He did a lot of stuff, and sometimes he overdid it, but what will last for me are some of his more serious poems — such “Japanese Maple”, the one in which, writing in 2014, he foresaw his own death — and a handful of his lyrics. The latter could be archly funny, like “The Only Wristwatch for a Drummer”:

The Omega Incabloc Oyster Acutron ’72 / Without this timepiece there’d have been no bebop to begin with. / Bird and Diz were tricky men to sit in with / Max Roach still wears the watch he wore when bop was new. / Elvin Jones has two and Buddy Rich wears three, / One on the right wrist and one on the left / And the third one around his knee.

A number of his lyrics were about musicians, always informed by his huge reservoir of knowledge and an understanding of the condition of, for instance, a session man or a pianist accompanying a torch singer. Above all, he knew how to draw popular culture into the art songs he and Pete wrote together. For me, their magnum opus was the title song of the 1971 album Driving Through Mythical America, in which James imagined the four students shot dead by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University the previous year hurtling to their tragic destiny through the landscape of the American imagination: Baby Face and Rosebud, Moose Molloy and Herman Kahn, Norman Rockwell and FDR, Jersey Joe and the Kansas City Seven. Being Clive James, he even chose their cars with precision: a Studebaker Golden Hawk and a Nash Ambassador.

James and Atkin took a high-risk approach to singer-songwriter music in the early ’70s. The combination of music, lyrics and voice didn’t always work. But it was a risk worth taking, and it still has an audience.

* The photograph is taken from Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin by Ian Shircore, published in 2016 by RedDoor.

‘Porgy and Bess’ revisited

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As he surveyed the ranks of musicians preparing to play Gil Evans’s score for Porgy and Bess at St John’s, Smith Square last night, Nick Smart knew that he had everything he needed: a 21-piece orchestra including the correct complement of French horns (three), bass clarinets (three), flutes of various sizes (four, when necessary), and a quartet of wonderful trumpeters — Henry Lowther, Martin Shaw, Steve Fishwick and Freddie Gavita — prepared to hand around the role of soloist. Since that soloist was, of course, Miles Davis, the task facing the four men was not without its challenge.

Smart also had the benefit of dealing with Evans’s actual score. As John Billett, the concert’s promoter, pointed out in his introduction, even the best intentioned reproductions of Evans’s pieces for Davis have been forced to make do with transcribed versions which inevitably miss some of the infinite subtlety of the original orchestrations. Thanks to the Evans family’s generosity, last night’s orchestra — consisting of alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, where Smart is in charge of the jazz programme — were able to work from the notes as Gil wrote them.

Of the three much loved albums Davis and Evans recorded together between 1957 and 1960, Porgy and Bess may be the most ambitious and fully realised, the pinnacle of the highly original approach to large-ensemble music that the arranger had been developing since his days with the Claude Thornhill band in the 1940s. Sixty years later, the richness and variety of gesture Evans applied to George Gershwin’s show tunes remain a source of wonder. And it can only be said that, under Smart’s direction, last night’s ensemble did the score complete justice in both execution and spirit.

To watch and listen as the ensemble brought Evans’s unorthodox instrumental deployments and love of dynamic contrast to life was a delight, from the whispered accompaniment of the French horns behind the trumpet solo on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the sudden brassy flares of “Prayer”. To hear each trumpet soloist pay the proper homage to Davis without forfeiting his own character was enormously impressive (and I’m not going to compare them: they were all outstanding). To admire the way Jeremy Brown coped with the bass lines written for Paul Chambers and the restrained panache with which Ed Richardson attacked the drum parts played in the studio by Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb was hugely impressive. Nor can one forget the trumpeter who didn’t solo: George Hogg, who played Ernie Royal’s lead parts with perfectly judged power and precision.

The nave of St John’s was packed for the occasion. The sessions for the original album took place in Columbia Records’ studio on East 30th Street in New York City, in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church whose dimensions created a famously perfect natural reverberation. Apart from a hum that briefly emerged late in the set, the amplified sound in the former Anglican church in Westminster, built in 1728, severely damaged in the war and then restored as a concert hall, was equally sumptuous, revealing all the fine detail of the scoring.

This was the last night of the EFG London Jazz Festival, and earlier in the evening the pianist Chris Ingham had led a sextet through downscaled versions of pieces from Miles Ahead, the first of the three Davis/Evans albums. They included “Blues for Pablo”, “New Rhumba”, “Maids of Cadiz”, and a rearrangement of “The Duke” on which the combo managed to sound like a big band, and there was also a lively account of “Boplicity”, an earlier Evans arrangement for Davis’s 1948 Birth of the Cool nonet. Paul Higgs played the Miles parts on trumpet and flugelhorn with great finesse, flanked by two outstanding saxophonists, Jamie O’Donnell on alto and Colin Watling on tenor.

A long relationship with the music that Gil Evans and Miles Davis made together a lifetime ago tends to create an unusually strong emotional bond. Probably the greatest tribute that can be paid to the evening at St John’s is that the listener emerged with that bond not only confirmed but strengthened. Congratulations, then, to everyone involved in a sublime experience.

 

Soweto Kinch’s ‘The Black Peril’

Soweto Black Peril 2

Soweto Kinch doesn’t really do unambitious. That’s certainly true of The Black Peril, his 70-minute work for 18-piece band, string quartet, narration/rap, back-projected film and four dancers, which received its world premiere at the EartH arts centre in Dalston last night. The piece is a commission from the University of Hull, the EFG London Jazz Festival and the London Symphony Orchestra, all of whom could feel satisfied as their judgement was endorsed by the prolonged applause from a near-capacity crowd.

It was an absorbing, multi-faceted and often exhilarating experience as Kinch created a portrayal of the condition of people of African origin arriving on alien shores and attempting to make new lives in the early years of the 20th century. So many narrative strands were going on at once — visual, musical, verbal — that it was hard to disentangle and make sense of them on first exposure, particularly when so little of Kinch’s extended raps and the occasional audio clip of a voice from history was as audible as he would surely have intended. This morning I’ve been listening to the CD, which is just out and makes it possible to appreciate more clearly the historical connections he is making.

I suppose I went along for the music, first of all, and was amply rewarded by richly detailed writing that spanned the jazz spectrum from ragtime to no-time with a fluency and empathy that prevented the occasional bursts of wah-wah brass, chinking banjo, fruity tuba and New Orleans-style clarinet from feeling like mere pastiche. Kinch’s own alto saxophone playing burst through to brilliant effect from time to time, switching at will between his normal modernist voice and an early-jazz timbre. The distinguished orchestra also included Byron Wallen (trumpet), Rosie Turton (trombone), Giacomo Smith (clarinet) and Xhosa Cole (tenor), supported by the superlative rhythm section of Robert Mitchell (piano), Sonia Konate (guitar, banjo), Junius Paul (bass), Makaya McCraven (drums) and Yaheal Onono (congas and other percussion). The writing for the string quartet — whose members were drawn from the ranks of the LSO — was beautifully integrated.

And then there were the dancers: four of them, one woman and three men, dressed in period clothes acting out narratives in which the most minimal props — some chairs, a few sacks, a Union Jack — were used to echo and amplify the scenes from old newsreel film projected onto big screen at the rear of the stage: scenes of disembarkation, of street life, of troops marching off to war, of children dancing for coins in the street, and of dancers demonstrating the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Jade Hackett’s choreography, superbly executed, was a highlight of the evening.

At the end I had an unexpected feeling: I’d like to have sat through it alongside Charles Mingus. Within the teeming universe of this work, Kinch mirrors so many of the emotions and strategies that Mingus explored in his work, from miniatures like “My Jelly Roll Soul” through “Fables of Faubus” to the larger scale of “Epitaph”, while moving them forward into a new century through a subtle infusion of contemporary rhythms and attitudes. Mingus, too, had huge ambitions, often frustrated more by circumstances — a black jazz musician of his generation wasn’t encouraged to venture outside a circumscribed world — than by his volcanic temperament. Would he have admired The Black Peril? I’m sure of it.