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The arts of Bob Crewe

Perhaps the greatest week of Bob Crewe’s life was the one in 1975 when Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You”, which he had produced and co-composed with Kenny Nolan, fell from the No 1 position in the Billboard Hot 100 and was immediately replaced by Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade”, which he and Nolan had also written together.

Or perhaps it wasn’t. Maybe it was the one in 1994 when the first retrospective show of his paintings and mixed-media artworks opened at a gallery in West Hollywood, after he had left the music business behind and climbed out of the valley into which his addictions had led him.

Crewe must have had a lot of great weeks in his life, as the man whose credits as a co-writer and/or producer, running all the way from doo-wop to disco, included the Rays’ “Silhouettes”, Diane Renay’s “Navy Blue”, Freddy Cannon’s “Tallahassie Lassie”, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Jenny Take a Ride/See See Rider”, Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” and Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes’ “I Wanna Dance Wit’ Choo”. And, of course, towering above everything, that fabulous string of hits he produced and co-wrote with Bob Gaudio for the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli, including “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Rag Doll”, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Any More)”, “You’re Ready Now”, “The Proud One” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”.

Born in 1930 in Newark, New Jersey, Crewe was a blond Adonis in the Tab Hunter mould. He looked like a star, custom-built for American Bandstand, and he had a decent voice, as Jerry Wexler recognised when he persuaded him to record a solo album in Muscle Shoals in 1977. But the studio was where he expressed himself. He couldn’t read a note of music but he had well tuned ears and an instinct for a great hook, musical or lyrical, and he knew how to hire the best arrangers, men like Charlie Calello and Hutch Davie. The idiom didn’t matter. As Andrew Loog Oldham put it: “No one spoke more dialects of ‘hit’ than Bob Crewe.”

But there was another side to his talent, and it was one he seemed to have abandoned after ending his studies at the Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village after only a year. Mentored by two older gay men, Austin Avery Mitchell, who showed him the art galleries of New York, Paris and Rome, and the photographer Otto Fenn, an early Warhol collaborator, he had begun painting and had his first show in 1950. Soon, however, music took over and ruled his life for the next quarter of a century, first as a crooner and then as a writer-producer. But a love of the visual media was merely dormant, and after being knocked over by a car in Los Angeles in 1977 he began to rededicate himself to art.

Influenced by Jean Dubuffet, Antoni Tàpies, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, he made abstract pieces out of a variety of materials, characterised by a love of texture acquired from Dubuffet and a feeling for outline and repetition that may have come from Johns. Leafing through Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound, a new book about his artworks, it’s easy to respond to his instinct for shape and surface. Here’s one of his pieces, Excavation 8/3/96, juxtaposed with one of the hit singles for which he’s remembered:

I chose that painting because, like many of his pieces, it contains the motif of a perfect circle — in this case three of them, half-hidden within the complex surface markings inscribed on three wooden panels, 7ft tall by 9ft wide. Whether those circles reminded him of all the hits he’d helped to make, I have no idea. I’m not a psychologist. And I am not, of course, an art critic; that side of things is explored by the painter Peter Plagens in one of the book’s three essays. But I do like much of what I see here, and it would be interesting to be able to examine it in a gallery one day.

Crewe’s role in the Four Seasons story was brought back to public attention in Jersey Boys, the musical that opened its run on Broadway in 2005 before enjoying success around the world. He died in 2014, in the retirement home where he had lived after receiving serious injuries from a fall down a flight of stairs in the home of his younger brother Dan, who had been his business partner in the 1960s.

In the first of the book’s essays, Andrew Loog Oldham locates Crewe within the rapid evolution of post-war American popular culture, alongside such figures as Hugh Hefner, Lenny Bruce and James Dean. Oldham knew him in the hit-making days and watched him at work, making and selling his music in the days when he could start a song with lines like “Loneliness is the cloak you wear / A deep shade of blue is always there.” And, linking Crewe’s two artistic preoccupations, he observes: “He liked to think of music in terms of colour and challenged his musicians to think that way along with him.” Alone with his paints and his brushes and his palette knives, he challenged himself.

* Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound: Compositions in Art and Music, edited by Dan Crewe, is published in the US by Rizzoli Electa ($55). The photograph of Crewe in the studio in 1966 is from the book. The 45 is “Music to Watch Girls By” by the Bob Crewe Generation (DynoVoice, 1967).

Upper and lower Pharoah

In 1962, when the editors of Down Beat magazine received copies of John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, the first recorded evidence of the extended improvisational methods being explored by the saxophonist’s extraordinary quartet in front of jazz-club audiences, they broke from the standard practice by inviting not one but two reviewers to give their judgments. This was a recognition of the significance and the controversial nature of an album whose centrepiece was the track titled “Chasin’ the Trane”, a 16-minute manifesto for the new freedoms. Those editors must have been gratified by the response: one critic welcomed the sense of opening up fresh territory, while the other threw up his arms in horror.

Confronted by the latest recording to feature the distinctive tenor saxophone of Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane’s former colleague, I feel like slipping into both roles. Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra provokes two entirely different responses, perhaps of equal validity.

Floating Points is the name adopted by the DJ and electronic musician Sam Shepherd. The album consists of one Shepherd composition, 47 minutes long, divided into nine movements and created in collaboration with his featured soloist. It is, in effect, a concerto grosso for tenor saxophone, with Sanders drifting and out of the instrumental passages, and also — as has been his wont in the past — adding a brief wordless vocal to one passage.

The LSO’s equal billing is a little misleading. Their resources are used sparingly; nowhere is there the sense of an orchestral tutti, although the brief final movement, which feels like an epilogue, is for the string section alone. Shepherd’s various keyboards — synths, B3, celeste, piano, harpsichord — provide the basic palette, stating a basic seven-note motif that runs, with slight variations, through the first eight movements. If I were to reach for an easy description of the mostly subdued, mostly slow-moving sound he creates, I might say that it resembles like the result of an imaginary collaboration between Nils Frahm and Brian Eno’s generative music app, with the spirits of Terry Riley and Arvo Pärt smiling down on the proceedings. There’s a bit of Necks in there, too, particularly when the B3 takes over in the eighth movement.

And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Perhaps even more than fine. The sounds are carefully chosen and artfully deployed — I’m tempted to say “curated” — in order to fashion something a little more active than ambient music: the colours and densities shift regularly enough to retain the interest. Sanders adds the necessary individual voice, as Wayne Shorter did to Gil Evans’s “The Barbara Song”. Yet his unmistakeable tone arrives almost more like a benediction than as a full participant.

Which is the problem (if there is one, of course). Sanders comes from a musical idiom that emphasises collective interplay and creativity in the moment. There’s none of that here. He plays quite beautifully through the first two movements, filling the spaces between the keyboard leitmotif with finely grained and graded phrases, but even on the fifth and seventh movements, where he stretches out a little, he’s applying his figurations on to an essentially passive undercoat. It couldn’t really be further than the stuff he got up to on Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard Again! in 1966, when the point was to shock the listener into a heightened awareness rather than lull him or her into a beatific trance.

The younger man in me revolts against this. Of course I’m 50-odd years older now, and so is Sanders, who turned 80 last year, and the times are different. But stimulating new settings can be devised for even the freest improvisers of Sanders’s vintage. In 2004 Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack invited the saxophonist John Tchicai to respond to a series of electronic pieces and were rewarded with John Tchicai with Strings, a real classic. Alexander Hawkins drew a similar reaction from another distinguished saxophonist, Evan Parker, on the recent Togetherness Music.

On the other hand… Sanders was always looking for different trajectories to transcendence. Tauhid, the first of his recordings for the Impulse label, remains one of my favourite albums of the Sixties, not least for the gentle, blissful “Upper and Lower Egypt”, although it was created in real time with improvisers of the calibre of Sonny Sharrock, Dave Burrell, Henry Grimes, Roger Blank and Nat Bettis, all of whom were rising to meet a challenge. There’s no such challenge in Promises, if challenges are what you’re looking for in music. What is it, then? Is it a lower form of the art? As I discovered at the weekend, it’s perfect Sunday-morning music. And thus I remain divided, content to have bought it because I know I’ll play it again, with enjoyment. But I also know that while it’s on, I’ll be feeling that probably I ought to be listening to something that makes a few more demands.

* Promises is out on the Luaka Bop label.

Hemphill bid’ness

The saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill was born in 1938 in Fort Worth, Texas, where he attended the same high school at Ornette Coleman, who was eight years his senior and said to be his cousin. By the time he reached his early twenties Hemphill was in St Louis, Missouri, where he joined the Black Artists Group. In 1972 he led a recording session that, when released first on his own small Mbari label and then more widely on Arista Freedom, made a lasting impression on many who heard it. On the initial album, called Dogon A.D., Hemphill seemed to have extended the possibilities of the union between the most basic blues and the avant-garde that was implicit in Coleman’s music.

A second album, which he gave the challenging title Coon Bid’ness, contained a track from that first session, titled “The Hard Blues”, in which Hamiet Bluiett’s baritone saxophone was added to Hemphill’s alto, Baikida Carroll’s trumpet, Abdul Wadud’s cello and Philip Wilson’s drums. It had an even more powerful impact on me. Hemphill seemed to have fused the harsh, elemental sound of John Lee Hooker, the warmth and colour of an Ellington small group and the collective exuberance of a Mingus ensemble into something that pointed a way to the future.

Hemphill moved to New York in the early ’70s and immersed himself in the loft scene. He was a busy man between those first recordings and his death in 1995, perhaps most notably with the World Saxophone Quartet, for which he wrote and arranged many pieces. His own albums ranged from solo saxophone recitals to a full big band. Many of them featured the cello of Wadud, with whom Hemphill had a special rapport: as close a relationship between two instrumentalists as any I can think of in jazz. He had a fondness for exposing the music’s overlooked roots, as when he sometimes adopted the name Roi Boyé, or M’Boyé, as a rubric for his projects, harking back to African kingdoms and southern minstrel shows.

The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony is the title of a new box of seven CDs compiled by one of his acolytes, the saxophonist Marty Erlich, from the contents of the Hemphill archive in the Fails Library at New York University. It’s an extraordinarily rich piece of musical archaeology which covers many aspects of Hemphill’s art at satisfying length.

Most of it is culled from live performance, from the 1978 quartet performance with Olu Dara on trumpet, Wadud and the drummer Warren Smith with which the set begins to a coruscating concert by Hemphill and Carroll with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums in a Woodstock club in 1979 with which it concludes. Other participants in the various small groups include the brothers Nels and Alex Cline on guitar and drums, John Carter on clarinet, the guitarist Jack Wilkins, the bass guitarist Jerome Harris and the drummer Michael Carvin. One disc features Hemphill playing with the poets K. Curtis Lyle and Malinké Elliott.

Throughout the listener is struck by how effectively Hemphill was able to blend free blowing with structured composition. Some of his themes have the intensity of bebop leavened with the humour of Monk, but with a down-home flavour that was Hemphill’s own. Whether on alto or soprano, he was a stunningly fluent improviser who took off from a space between Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and headed out into his own territory.

Vigorous and ceaselessly inventive, on alto and soprano he had a marvellously human tone that was most perfectly matched with the sound of Wadud’s cello. What Erlich, in his extensive notes, describes as the “Rosetta stone” of the set is an entire disc of duets recorded in Washington DC in 1989. Somehow Wadud finds a role that combines the functions of bass and guitar while retaining the cello’s own characteristics. He plucks, he bows, he plays double-stops and strums passing chords, while providing a source of energy to match Hemphill’s own. Some of the music is certainly composed, but everything retains the spontaneous urgency of improvisation. On the last of the six pieces, “Downstairs”, which turns out to be a variation on the “Hi-Heel Sneakers”/”Can I Get a Witness” riff, the two men return to the basics they explored on “The Hard Blues” and “Dogon A.D.”.

More unexpected is the inclusion of the arrangements of three Mingus compositions — “Nostalgia in Times Square”, “Alice’s Wonderland” and “Better Git It in Your Soul” — for strings, recorded by the Daedalus String Quartet, Hemphill infusing the ardour characteristic of the composer’s music with an astringency of his own. Recorded at the same Boston concert devoted to Hemphill’s music in 2007 was “Parchment”, a piece for solo piano written for and performed by the pianist Ursula Oppens, his partner in his later years. Two untitled extended pieces for a wind quintet made up of Erlich, the reeds player John Purcell, the bassoonist Janet Grice, the trumpeter Bruce Purse and the trombonist Ray Anderson, recorded in 1981, further demonstrate Hemphill’s interest in classical chamber music and his ability to range between idioms.

Next to the Hemphill/Wadud duets, however, the set’s most valuable disc is the concert with Carroll, Holland and DeJohnette, a decade after the bassist and drummer had first played together, with Miles Davis and then Stan Getz. Throughout three long pieces, Hemphill’s themes trigger ferociously intense playing. The opener, “Mirrors”, contains perhaps the most violent playing I’ve ever heard from DeJohnette, a bold barrage of free creative commentary — particularly under the leader’s long and impassioned improvisation — that culminates in a densely packed solo. Holland emerges in “Dung” with a stunning solo of his own. The final piece, “Would Boogie”, a humorous two-beat exercise in the vein of Mingus’s “My Jelly Roll Soul”, gives DeJohnette an opportunity to take out his melodica, on which he improvises over a noble walking bass.

At $111.93 or £84.99 (see below), this box set isn’t cheap. But its musical and historical value, and the knowledge and care with which it was put together, justify every cent. Julius Hemphill was an important figure in jazz at a time when it was fighting for its identity and its future. His was a voice that reminded us of the enduring potential of the music’s core truths and values, paving the way for the likes of Matana Roberts and Ambrose Akinmusire, and this is a most handsome memorial.

* The photograph of Julius Hemphill was taken by John Begansky Jeffoto in 1980 and is from the booklet accompanying The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony, which is available from New World Records at http://www.newworldrecords.org and from Proper Music in the UK: https://www.propermusic.com/nw80825-the-boye-national-crusade-for-harmony-7cd.html

ICP in Friesland

Back in the 1970s it was an exquisite shock to hear musicians associated with Instant Composers Pool, the Amsterdam-based collective of free improvisers, playing a dance-band version of “Our Day Will Come”, the old Ruby and the Romantics hit, with no outward signs of irony. It was post-modern, in a way, but it wasn’t arch or condescending. It was just the way they saw things. And that was one of their contributions to the jazz of the last half-century.

Founded in 1967 by the pianist Misha Mengelberg, the saxophonist Willem Breuker and the drummer Han Bennink, ICP is still going strong, despite losing its state funding last year, and its members are still playing dance-band tunes, as you can hear in the clip above, where they perform “De Linkerschoen, de Rechterschoen”, a delightful tune by their bassist, Ernst Glerum, in best palais-glide style. It’s the first of two versions of the tune included in the latest album on their own label: Komen & Gaan by the ICP Septet + Joris Roelofs, Terrie Ex and Mara’s Pianola, which shows the ICP bunch to be as full of irreverent life as ever.

Recorded live at Le Brocope, a jazz and theatre café in Oldeberkoop, a village in Friesland, in north of the Netherlands, it represents an interesting response to the problems presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. To celebrate the venue’s 10th anniversary last October, the musicians were invited to spend a weekend there, eating and drinking and socialising and playing. I don’t know what the lockdown deal was in the Netherlands at the time, but the clip shows the congenial atmosphere they created.

I like this quote in the sleeve note by Mara Eijsbouts, the proprietor of Le Brocope: “As a painting chef, who also happens to be an interior designer, or a designing music lover who loves to cook, a mother of two beautiful daughters, and a historian who likes to write about matters that touch upon the future, entrepreneur, scatterbrain, and hostess in a house with walls that are made of musical energy, and as a jazz lover, I adhere to the adage of jazz: Just play what you like, as long as it fits.”

Throughout the album there are other fragments of the musical history in snatches of “The Sound of Music” and “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, thrown into the mix with the now familiar Dutch mixture of skill and irreverence. But there’s also a lot of free improvisation — sometimes unruly, sometimes exquisite — from the likes of Ab Baars on reeds and shakuhachi, Mary Oliver on violin and viola, Wolter Wierbos on trombone, the pianist Guus Janssen, Michael Moore on alto and clarinet, the great Bennink, the last survivor of the original founding trio, whose inimitable artwork is to be found on the album’s cover, and the two guests, the guitarist Terrie Ex and the bass clarinetist Joris Roelofs.

It’s hard to imagine a more gleefully anarchic piece of music being released in 2021 than the variations on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor perpetrated on this album by Janssen and Ex. While Janssen fractures and reorganises Bach’s notes at a ridiculous speed, Ex strafes his efforts with skittering bottleneck noise before the two musicians accelerate together into a grandiose finale that includes a few seconds in which they sound as if they’re falling over each other’s feet. Ending with a pratfall thud, it’s a typical piece of ICP surrealism, being simultaneously funny and rather beautiful.

* Komen & Gaan is available, like other ICP albums and publications, from http://www.icporchestra.com

The Weather Station live from Toronto

A year to the day since I was last able to see musicians performing in person, the Weather Station’s livestreamed concert from Toronto on Thursday provided a reminder of what’s been missing. Tamara Lindeman and her musicians were performing the 10 songs from her new album, Ignorance, shuffled in order but retaining the enigmatic allure that I wrote about in the March issue of Uncut.

I won’t repeat what I said in that review, except to note that the arrival of Marcus Paquin as Lindeman’s co-producer has brought a new perspective to her songs, which are now driven less — not at all, in fact — by strummed or finger-picked acoustic guitars and more by drums and bass, and decorated by subtle use of keyboards, electronics and wind instruments (and, on the album, a string trio). The new songs confront loss, both intimate and global: the departure of a lover, the disappearance of a species. These concerns, with their very different time-scales, are like messages lightly inscribed on two transparent sheets. They slide over each other, clarifying or converging, a pair of palimpsests coming in and out of focus over the band’s momentum.

It was a treat to be able to watch her and the band tackling this fascinating material. The live performance — in Toronto’s Revolution Recording Studios — turned out to emphasise the similarities rather than the differences between the songs, making the whole thing feel satisfyingly coherent. I was particularly struck by the restless swells of “Loss”, Christine Bourgie’s fine guitar solo on “Subdivisions”, the spellbound poise of “Trust”, the galloping rhythm of “Heart”, and the closing free-ish jam between Brodie West’s alto saxophone and Lindeman’s piano on “Robber”, where Ben Whiteley’s bass guitar and Kieran Adams’s drums conjured something like an alt-rock version of one of Norman Whitfield’s Temptations epics. (Here’s the album version of “Robbery”, in case you haven’t heard it.) The other musicians were Johnny Spence (piano), Will Kidman (guitar, keyboards), Ryan Driver (flute), Philippe Melanson and Evan Cartwright (percussion) and Felicity Williams, whose voice shadowed Lindman’s to particularly good effect on “Heart”.

Perfect sound (by Brenndan McGuire) and a restrained approach to lighting (Louise Simpson) and camerawork (Lulu Wei) ensured that the qualities which make the Weather Station so special were allowed to speak. In a little prologue, a just-recognisable Lindeman lay on a pebble beach under a sheet, reading a book, while a dancer wheeled and turned in the distance. We were taken back to that setting at half-time, just where you’d be turning over a vinyl album, and again at the very end, for Lindeman to read short verses by the American poet Ed Roberson. Nicely done, but the real pleasure was in witnessing her own poetry brought to life by musicians, with masks but no headphones or baffles, playing together in real time, so beautifully.

Bearing witness

It was by concidence, or so I imagine, that a CD titled Cwmwl Tystion dropped through my letterbox on St David’s Day, which falls on March 1. Cwmwl Tystion — whose English title is Witness — happens to be an album of new jazz by Welsh musicians, devoted to themes of Welsh culture and nationhood.

The literal translation of “cwmwl tystion” is “cloud of witnesses”, a phrase taken from a translation (by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury) of a poem called “What is Man?” by Waldo Williams (1904-1971), a celebrated Welsh poet, nationalist and peace activist:

What is it to be a people? A gift
lodged in the heart’s deep folds.
What is love of country? Keeping house
among a cloud of witnesses.

Six of the seven pieces on the album were written by the trumpeter Tomos Williams (the exception is the traditional “Glyn Tawe”) and performed by him with Francesca Simmons (violin and saw), Rhodri Davies (harp and electronics), Huw Warren (piano), Huw V. Williams (bass), and Mark O’Connor (drums). The titles make reference to Paul Robeson’s historic performance at the miners’ eisteddfod in Porthcawl in 1957; to the Blue Books of 1847, in which the teaching of the Welsh language was officially discouraged; and to the infamous obliteration of an entire North Wales village in 1965 in order to create a reservoir to provide water for the people of Liverpool.

This would be all very well and good, but perhaps pleasing primarily to Welsh hearts, were it not that the music produced by Tomos Williams and his colleagues is of the very highest class. Supported by Ty Cerdd (Music Centre Wales), on whose label the CD was released this month, The Cwmwl Tystion Suite was given five concert performances — with live visuals by Simon Proffitt — in 2019, from which these recordings were taken.

What Tomos Williams has done is subtly infiltrate contemporary jazz practices with textures drawn from the music of his native land, but in a very non-literal way. So while the sound of Rhodri Davies’ harp is a reminder of traditional Welsh music, it also carries an echo of Alice Coltrane: the spirituality shared by both infuses the music without dominating it. Davies’s use of electronics adds different colours and dimensions to the music, as an equal voice with the acoustic instruments or as a soundwash. The unusual instrumentation is thoughtfully deployed — as in the trumpet/violin statement of the opening “Mynyddoedd Cymru (Mountains of Wales)” — and shrewdly rotated to maximise its possibilities and its freshness.

All the soloists bring character to their improvisations. Tomos Williams plays as Wadada Leo Smith might do, had he been born in Aberystwyth: a different kind of blues. Francesca Simmons finds interesting ways of applying lyricism to these often astringent textures, and her rich tone is spotlit on “Glyn Tawe”. Huw V. Williams is a powerful force on bass, taking the spotlight on the tribute to Robeson, and Huw Warren’s glistening solo on the closing track, “What is Man?”, mines the creative space between Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. Mark O’Connor’s drumming is beautifully sensitive and exquisitely detailed, radiating light and swing.

Jazz is an African American music generous enough to allow others to inhabit its spirit and to shape it to their own ends. Django Reinhardt proved that, as have Tomasz Stanko, Dudu Pukwana, Han Bennink, Don Drummond, Giorgio Gaslini, John Surman, Masabumi Kikuchi, Gato Barbieri, and many others. If the music can “belong” to Sinti, Poles, South Africans, Dutch, Jamaicans, Italians, English, Japanese and Argentinians, then it can belong to the Welsh, too.

Small country, big heart — a heart that beats firmly throughout this excellent album, a showcase for skill, imagination, soul and originality. Even without a spasm of hiraeth — the Welsh yearning for the homeland — I’d be disposed to recommend it very highly indeed.

* The photograph was taken at Aberystwyth Arts Centre by Keith Morris. Further information: http://www.tycerdd.org or http://www.tycerddshop.com

(Not) leaving on a jet plane

Lynda Laurence, Jimmy Webb, Mary Wilson, Jean Terrell (photo:Jim Britt)

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard the album the Supremes made with the songwriter and producer Jimmy Webb for Motown in 1972. The 26th of their 29 studio albums, the collaboration represented a pretty lateral move for the group. Commercially, it wasn’t a success. Its leaden title — The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb — was a bit of a charisma-killer. Only one single was issued: its A-side was the one track on the album in which Webb had no hand. “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”, a nondescript cover of a song from the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, produced by Motown regulars Sherlie Matthews and Deke Richards, made it to No. 85 on the Billboard Hot 100: a long way from their long run of chart-toppers in the mid-’60s.

It was in 1965 that the Supremes first sang a Jimmy Webb song. That was “My Christmas Tree”, produced by Harvey Fuqua for the group’s Christmas album. Webb was 18 years old and had signed his first publishing deal with the Motown-affiliated Jobete Music, and this was the first of his songs to be recorded by a major artist. By the time he joined the group in the studio seven years later, his track record included “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Up, Up and Away”, “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. With the Fifth Dimension’s Magic Garden, he’d shown that his songs and arrangements could shape the sound of a sophisticated vocal group.

At no point does the Supremes’ Jimmy Webb album sound like a Motown production. No Funk Brothers, that’s for sure. It’s a typical product of early-’70s Hollywood, applying standard-issue studio polish to modish concerns represented by the presence of a Joni Mitchell song (“All I Want” from Blue) and Webb’s own “When Can Brown Begin?”, which he wrote after hearing Sammy Davis Jr use that phrase. There’s not much inspiration to be found in “Silent Voices”, a pleasant cover of Mina’s “La Voce del Silenzio”, and any comparison between this version of Harry Nilsson’s “Paradise” and the Ronettes’ original provides only irrefutable evidence of Phil Spector’s genius.

But there are two memorable moments. One is Webb’s “I Keep It Hid”, the only track on which the excellent Jean Terrell doesn’t take the lead. This one is sung by Mary Wilson, and it was her recent death that made me go back and listen to it again. The Supremes’ greatest team player — the only one who was there from start to finish — had a lovely voice, if not a wildly distinctive one. Here she handles a very nice pop ballad with poise and confidence.

The other moment is one I’d put up alongside any of Webb’s early classics. It’s called “5:30 Plane” and it’s one of those marvellous songs in which he captured all the subtleties and nuances of an entire relationship through snatches of thought and circumstantial detail. The singer is in the throes of a break-up. Both parties have been unfaithful and things have become desperate. “I don’t want to know about the whole affair,” she sings, “and you don’t want to know about his pretty hair.” So she’s decided to go. She doesn’t want any more talking. She’s bought a ticket to another town. But here she still is.

What makes you want to play this mid-tempo song over and over again is the glorious melody over beautiful changes, with a hook in the chorus that represents Webb at his best as a pop-music craftsman. But what makes it a great song is the detail of the flight time. “I didn’t want to be here, baby, when you got home, sitting alone,” Terrell sings, her voice soaring and swelling with sadness over the supporting choir, “but the 5:30 plane has already gone.” You’re in the room with her as she sits there, thinking of that plane heading through the evening sky towards Houston or Phoenix or Albuquerque, waiting for what comes next.

Bunny Wailer 1947-2021

In 1966 I bought two Wailers singles, issued in the UK on the Island label. The first, WI-268, was the beautiful original up-tempo take of “Put It On”, b/w “Love Won’t Be Mine”. It would be five or six years before I knew that the song and the preaching vocal on the A-side were by a man called Bob Marley. The second, WI-3001, was even better. “Sunday Morning” was the B-side to “He Who Feels It Knows It” but it is one of the loveliest ballads of that whole decade. It was written and sung by Neville Livingston, who became better known as Bunny Wailer.

Marley wasn’t even on this record. It was cut during his time away in the United States, working at factory jobs in Wilmington, Delaware, where his mother had gone to live. His replacement at the session, joining Peter Tosh as one of the harmony voices supporting Bunny’s gentle lead, was Constantine “Vision” Walker, a cousin of Rita Marley, Bob’s wife.

For me, the Wailers were always Bob, Bunny and Tosh. It was obvious why Bob turned into the focal point and became one of the most famous and charismatic singers on the planet. But that leaderless era, from 1962-1973, produced some wonderful music, none of it better than “Sunday Morning”, made by a bunch of Jamaican teenagers and standing alongside the Impressions’ “I Made a Mistake”, “I’ve Been Trying” and “I’m So Proud” as a classic of mid-’60s soul balladry.

History says that Bunny harboured a bitterness about what happened to the group he had helped to form. There are rights and wrongs about that, things to be said on both sides, and no doubt they’ll be analysed in the obituaries that will follow today’s announcement of his death at the age of 73, following a stroke last year. But at the moment I’d rather listen to these three minutes of concentrated, unspoilt, imperishable beauty.

* If you want another dose of Bunny’s exquisite singing from that era, try the Wailers’ version of the Moonglows’ “Ten Commandments of Love”.

Music for Black Pigeons

Jorge Rossy, Jakob Bro, Arve Henriksen (photo: Andreas Koefoed/ECM Records

To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t think of a headline for this piece. So I used the title of a composition from Jakob Bro’s new album, which features the Danish guitarist with the Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen and the Spanish drummer Jorge Rossy. I just liked the sound of it. Or maybe I liked the idea of what sort of music might appeal to black pigeons. And if you’re asking yourself, as I did, whether there actually are black pigeons, the answer is that the black imperial pigeon, Ducula melanochroa, also known as the Bismarck imperial pigeon, is native to the Bismarck Archipelago, a group of islands off the north-east coast of New Guinea.

The album is titled Uma Elmo and is a good example of the procedure developed by the producer Manfred Eicher early in the life of his label, ECM Records. He assembles a group of musicians from among his repertory company, puts them in a sympathetic recording environment and sees what happens. In this case the three musicians receive equal billing, displayed on the sleeve in alphabetical order, although the fact that all eight compositions are by Bro suggests that he is in some sense the leader of the session, or at least the agenda-setter.

I love Bro’s playing and the records he makes. He has an understated take on modern guitar-playing, more painterly than most. Thought goes into every note, which is why in the past he’s worked so well with the bassist Thomas Morgan, who appeared on Bro’s first four ECM albums. Morgan isn’t here this time, but Henriksen and Rossy (who is probably best known for his long tenure with the trio of Brad Mehldau) have a similar sense of economy and of the need to play only the right notes.

The pieces on this album are tone poems, more abstract than Bro’s usual creations. Each one floats in its own pool of texture, subtle in effect and gradual in momentum, but employing a surprisingly wide dynamic and emotional range. Exquisite but never effete, they invite the musicians to explore their individual instrumental vocabularies as part of a collective creation. Solos are not the point here. But all of them play at the top of their form: Bro making fascinating use of loops, Henriksen producing his most lyrical flights, and Rossy proving himself to be a master colourist in this largely tempo-free music.

Highly recommended, then, and not just to Bismarck imperial pigeons. Ducula melanochroa is not, I’m pleased to report, an endangered species. They flourish, just like these three exceptional modern musicians.

* Here’s a link to the promo clip for Uma Elmo: https://youtu.be/UZQZNF4qwwo

Just like Elvin, Art, Max…

All the way through the ’60s, starting at the age of 13, I’d buy a copy of Down Beat every fortnight from a newsagent that stocked foreign publications. Thirty five cents in the US, it cost half a crown in the UK — a lot of money when I was still at school. Of course I wanted to read interviews with people like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and to absorb the wisdom of critics and columnists such as Pete Welding, Don DeMichael, John A. Tynan and LeRoi Jones. But I also wanted to gaze at the full-page ads for Gretsch drums.

Other manufacturers also used famous players as their pitchmen: Shelly Manne used Leedy drums, we were told, while Buddy Rich played Rogers, Rufus Jones played Slingerland, and Joe Morello had a Ludwig kit. But the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Co. of Brooklyn, NY… well, as you can see above, they had Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and the teenaged prodigy Tony Williams, all of them drummers I worshipped, and most issues of Down Beat included an ad showing one of them with the kit he favoured. That was enough to give me a lifelong yearning to own a set of Gretsch drums: a jazz kit with an 18-inch bass drum and 12- and 14-inch toms, all in that nice black finish that Tony used with Miles, and a five-inch chrome-shelled snare drum. Since you’re asking.

I know it’s stupid to fetishise makers of percussion instruments; after all, one of the most effective drums kits in music history — the one in Motown’s main studio throughout the ’60s, played by Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Uriel Jones on countless classic hits — was a hotch-potch bearing the logos of Ludwig, Slingerland, Rogers and Gretsch. And how great did that sound?

Still, we can dream, and my particular yearning was partially satisfied a few years ago when I was asked what I wanted for Christmas and the only thing I could think of, within sensible limits, was a Gretsch snare drum. So now I have one, just to keep my wrists in shape, although a fear of annoying the neighbours leads me to muffle it with a thick duster, which removes a fair amount of the fun. (The kid across the street who started playing a full kit from scratch a year ago has no such compunction, but at least he’s got a future and I can hear him improving by the month.)

And the point of this, you’re asking? It’s that next month there’s an online auction of equipment from the Gretsch factory, with the proceeds apparently going to the company’s charitable foundation, whose activities include organising drum circles for child refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Here’s a link. You’ll see that among the offerings are not just drums and some of the guitars for which the company also became famous — including the Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy models — but an intriguing miscellany of items including “vintage guitar neck patterns, a rolling rack with ten drawers of saw blades, metal clamps with a large wooden hand drill, an antique cabinet, body forms, wrenches, a sanding table, vintage four-wheel open carts and more…”

I won’t be bidding. I’ve got my drum with a Gretsch badge on it. Just like Elvin, Art, Max, Philly Joe and Tony, right?