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Meeting Ma Rainey

As films depicting imaginary incidents from a real life go, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t cut it. A version of August Wilson’s 1982 stage play, it falls into just about every trap laid for those who attempt to translate theatre to cinema. Viola Davis, as Rainey, is sensationally good, and Chadwick Boseman, playing the last role of his life as an angry young cornet-player, scarcely less marvellous, but that’s really all there is to recommend it. Even the music, directed by Branford Marsalis, seems tame.

It did remind me, though, of encountering Ma Rainey as a major figure in the first book I ever read about jazz. Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets was first published in the US in 1946 and in the UK three years later. Towards the end of the next decade there was a copy in my school’s library, which I could read during lunch breaks and the free periods we were given for study. At that stage my knowledge of the music had moved beyond The Glenn Miller Story, but not all that far, particularly in terms of the music’s origins. So Shining Trumpets, subtitled “A History of Jazz”, was a revelation, despite being written by a man who considered the music of Duke Ellington to be “decadent” and saw Billie Holiday as “merely a smart entertainer”. By then I knew enough to question those views, while recognising the value of Blesh’s belief that jazz was a form of high art which owed pretty much everything to its African origins. In that sense he set a boy of 13 or 14 on the right track, although his path was straighter and narrower than mine would become.

Rather bracingly, his book began with a tabulated comparison between “African survivals” in jazz and what he called “Deformations”, illustrated by the contrast, for example, between Tendency to use any melody or harmonic pattern as a basis for free improvisation of melody (admirable) and Straight playing of melody (or) mere embellishment or rhapsody (deplorable). His ideal of “hot jazz” featured the use of intonation free of the fixed European scale, vocalised instrumental tones, displaced accents and polyrhythms, collective improvised antiphony and polyphony. He particularly disliked the infusion of influences from European classical music. He died in 1985, aged 86, and I have no idea what he made of Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, who restored those characteristics to jazz at a time when bebop, “progressive jazz” and the West Coast sound had taken the music into areas that would have earned his wholehearted disapproval. Or if he even heard them.

Nevertheless he was responsible for implanting in the mind of this listener the useful idea that the music came from West Africa via slave ships, cotton fields and chain gangs, and that there was a direct line from gospel singing and field hollers to whatever was on the cover of the latest issue of Down Beat. His arguments were backed up by musicology that was impressively diligent and open-minded. The book’s appendices include musical examples quoted in the text, carefully transcribed for Blesh by the modern classical composer Lou Harrison (a student of Schoenberg); another contemporary composer, Virgil Thompson, provided encouragement. And the author never for a moment attempts to divorce the music from its social and cultural contexts.

Shining Trumpets was where I first met the protagonist of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She was one of his heroes, representing to him a perfect example — like Jelly Roll Morton, Baby Dodds and King Oliver — of the application of great artistry to the raw materials of which he approved. “Ma Rainey’s singing, monumental and simple, is by no means primitive,” he wrote while discussing recordings such as “Shave ‘Em Dry Blues” and “See See Rider”. “It is extremely conscious in its use of her full expressive means, definitely classic in its purity of line and its rigid avoidance of the decorative. Such art as this must, of necessity, transcend the level of the spontaneous and purely instinctive. Thus her effects are carefully calculated and full of meaning; they are neither naïve nor spurious, sentimental nor falsely sophisticated. Rainey’s voice is sombre but never harsh, and its sad and mellow richness strikes to the heart.”

I hadn’t read the book for almost 60 years until I came across a second-hand copy last year and bought it for purely nostalgic reasons. I’d forgotten, if I ever realised it, how well Blesh wrote, and how hard he, an Ivy League graduate, tried to get to what he saw as the music’s essence. He could dismiss Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” as “an atmospheric bit of musical stuff too gauzy to hold a tragic content”, but he could also write this about what he heard while listening to the 78 of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”: “In the record grooves are frustrated loneliness, hungry poverty, fanatical devotion to heaven, and the ascetic waiting for it. He enunciates cruel and peremptory phrases in a voice harsh and burred; in one that is thick, rough and crooning, he answers with pathetic melodic downward turns that are like appeasements, conciliations, solaces, and pardons. Throughout, the guitar, sweet and ringing, weaves a polyphony with the singer. These are, by implication, the voices of many people.”

You don’t get the sense that, unlike some of his contemporaries, Blesh wanted to freeze the music at the point he loved it best. He was keen for it to continue its development, as long as it adhered to the standards he upheld. Inevitably he sometimes patronised the musicians of whom he wrote, committing the error of wanting them to do things his way rather than theirs. He believed he had seen the truth of their condition, and was prepared to advise them on how best to express it in their art. Although he adored Louis Armstrong’s early work, he claimed that the trumpeter failed to understand the responsibility of accepting the baton handed on in turn by Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard and King Oliver: “Had Armstrong understood his responsibility as clearly as he perceived his own growing artistic power — had his individual genius been as deeply integrated into that of the music, and thus ultimately with his destiny, of his race — designated leadership would have been just.” Sadly, he felt, Armstrong had been diverted by the tides of commerce, as exemplified by his recordings with the big bands which did away with the principle of collective improvisation birthed in New Orleans. Blesh’s conclusion: “Jazz itself is revolutionary: Armstrong’s act was that of counter-revolution.”

At this distance, the offence is more picturesque than distasteful, but it does make me think of the best line in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “White folks don’t understand about the blues,” Rainey says. “They hear how it comes out, but they don’t know how it got there.” No matter how deeply one loves the music, how closely one studies its history and how genuinely one admires its creators, that’s always something to reckon with.

* Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix. Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets was published by Alfred A. Knopf in the US and by Cassell & Co in the UK.

** Due to authorial carelessness, the original version of this post gave the name of the actress playing Ma Rainey as “Viola Wills”. The film was also mischaracterised as a “biopic”. Both these errors, pointed out by readers, have been corrected.

Mingus in Germany

“When I was young, nobody told me that Duke Ellington made any money. I turned on the radio and heard something that I loved, and I followed it until I found out where it was.” Charles Mingus said that to me in the summer of 1972, at a pavement table outside in restaurant in Shepherd Market, London, during the course of a sometimes bemusing but always fascinating interview.

Two years earlier I’d gone to hear him in person for the first time at the Top of the Gate in Greenwich Village. He was torpid, listless, uninterested, all reflected in the music of his quintet. It was one of the most depressing musical experiences of my life. Ten years or so after falling in love with the turbulent sound of Blues & Roots, I was foolish enough to write a review suggesting that this giant of the music was washed up.

It was a judgement I soon came to regret. Within two years he had rediscovered much of his physical and spiritual vigour, and was once again leading bands that boiled with an energy that had its source in the leader’s soul. I was lucky enough to be present at Philharmonic Hall to hear him play an epic blues with the great tenorist Gene Ammons and then to hear several nights of a fine season at Ronnie Scott’s.

Did anyone incarnate the spirit of jazz more effectively than Mingus? The life-enhancing combination of high skill and wild spontaneity, of the most finely tuned sensibility and the deepest roots, of romantic beauty and unapologetic political commitment? All that is present throughout a four-CD set titled @Bremen 1964-75, divided between tours 11 years apart with two marvellous groups, recorded and preserved by Radio Bremen and now — although the earlier concert has been much bootlegged — officially released for the first time.

The 1964 band featured Johnny Coles on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on alto, bass clarinet and flute, Clifford Jordan on tenor, Jaki Byard on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums. Nine weeks later Dolphy would be dead, his diabetic coma misdiagnosed in a Berlin hospital; here we can listen to him in full flight. On “Parkeriana”, notes shoot out of his alto at unexpected angles like beams of light refracting in a hall of mirrors while Mingus uses his bass to push the beat in the way he did at certain medium-fast tempos. On “Fables of Faubus”, an eventful 33-minute performance that prefigures a lot of what the Art Ensemble of Chicago would later get up to, Dolphy’s bass clarinet makes useful interventions behind Coles’s long, characteristically plaintive solo before leading the piece to its climax with an extended solo of such hair-raising audacity that you can’t believe it happened almost 60 years ago. Other highlights include Byard’s introductory piano soliloquy, a typical history lesson including chunks of ragtime and stride, and Mingus’s restless exploration of “Sophisticated Lady”.

The 1975 band — with Mingus and Richmond joined by Jack Walrath (trumpet), George Adams (tenor) and Don Pullen (piano) — is the one that, six months earlier, had recorded the two-volume Changes for Atlantic, and the set list contains several pieces from those albums: “Remember Rockefeller at Attica”, “Sue’s Changes”, “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”, “Free Cell Block F, Tis Nazi USA”, Walrath’s “Black Beans and Poles” and Sy Johnson’s “For Harry Carney”. If this quintet isn’t as lairy as some of Mingus’s small combos, it produces high-level creativity at every turn, true to the leader’s vision of a music once collective in nature and a vehicle for individual character — perhaps the most important lesson that he took from his adoration of Ellington.

Walrath fires out bright-toned multi-noted lines that sound relaxed and assured even at the most demanding tempos, artfully varying his trajectory. Adams shows himself to be among the most emotionally generous of the tenorists who emerged in the wake of John Coltrane, the unaccompanied section of his solo on “Sue’s Changes” quoting exquisitely from Ornette Coleman’s “Beauty Is a Rare Thing” and demonstrating (as had Dolphy) that although Mingus often said disobliging things about the avant-garde, he was happy to incorporate the movement’s innovations when they came from musicians who’d satisfied him that they had real chops and a proper grounding.

Pullen, like Byard before him and successors such as Roland Hanna and John Foster, had the technique and the imagination to pursue a pan-stylistic vision of jazz piano. His relaxed improvisation on “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” is the epitome of chilled-out “inside” improvising at a long-legged medium-slow tempo; when he extends the approach deep into the realms of abstraction, as in the dense conclusion to his “Sue’s Changes” solo, it’s clearly with the leader’s approval.

Whether in 1964 or 1975, Mingus and Richmond keep the fire burning, raising and lowering the flame at will, switching metre and tempo with wonderful understanding, developing the unique brand of swing they created together when they first joined forces in 1957. Here they can stretch out with like-minded companions in front of two sets of enthusiastic listeners, their work preserved in a set that belongs in even the most comprehensive Mingus collection.

* Charles Mingus’s @Bremen 1964 & 1975 is released on the Sunnyside label, in partnership with Radio Bremen. The terrific photograph of Mingus was taken at Montreux by the late, great David Redfern.

2020: the best bits

A still from Lovers Rock, part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series

The end of a year that left a lot of holes: so many gone, to be mourned only at a distance. People I loved, people I worked for and alongside, people whose artistry — whether expressed in one 45rpm disc or across the entire arc of a long career — affected my life. Musicians including Keith Tippett, whom I knew for 50 years, and Little Richard and Gary Peacock, to whom I’d been listening for even longer. Ennio Morricone. Juliette Gréco. McCoy Tyner. Lee Konitz. Andy Gill. Betty Wright. Henry Grimes. Florian Schneider. Jimmy Cobb. Tommy DeVito. Roy Head. Hux Brown. And on, and on.

Between the start of 2020 and the onset of the pandemic in mid-March I saw a handful of memorable gigs: Craig Taborn at the Royal Academy of Music, an extremely on-form Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall and a riotous benefit for Louis Moholo Moholo at the Vortex. And that was it for the live experience. Thank goodness for streaming, which gave many musicians a route to their audience and made unanticipated introductions — in my case to the Welsh guitarist Toby Hay, whose series of improvised outdoor morning and evening ragas lifted the spirits during the spring lockdown.

There was special gratitude, too, to the people who make high-quality television programmes, a near-universal balm this year. So let’s start with them.

TV SERIES

1 Normal People (BBC) I watched it week by week, rationing myself, wanting to extend the experience of this perfectly written, designed, filmed and acted adaptation for as long as possible. Afterwards I read Sally Rooney’s novel for the first time and discovered that Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal were inhabiting the characters on the page: a reciprocal benefit.

2 Call My Agent (Netflix) High comedy of great wit and style, with a parade of mostly female French stars — Juliette Binoche, Béatrice Dalle, Nathalie Baye, Françoise Fabian, the Isabelles Huppert and Adjani — lining up to take the piss out of themselves. The regular cast — Camille Cottin, Thibaut de Montalembert, Liliane Rovère, Grégory Montel and the rest — were equally magnificent.

3 Small Axe (BBC) For me, the highlight of Steve McQueen’s sequence of five feature-length films was Lovers Rock, in which lighting, camera movement, editing, diagetic music and Mica Levi’s score largely took the place of dialogue as a superb cast — including Michael Ward, Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling and Shaniqua Okwok — established a mood that seemed to hang around for days.

4 The Bureau (Amazon Prime) A story in The Times recently quoted a French military chief’s complaint that the external branch of his country’s secret service — the DGSE — habitually screws everything up. That would come as no surprise to fans of The Bureau and its magnificent cast, not just Mathieu Kassovitz but particularly Florence Loiret-Caille and Jean-Pierre Darroussin. I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t tell me how it ends.

5 Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC) An exemplary reconstruction of the Bush/Blair intervention, at its most harrowingly effective when allowing the Iraqis to tell their own stories. The interviews with American military personnel are all the evidence anyone might need that no lessons at all were absorbed from the experience of Vietnam.

NEW ALBUMS

1 Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)

2 Ambrose Akinmusire: On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note)

3 The Necks: Three (RnR)

4 Irreversible Entanglements: Who Sent You? (International Anthem)

5 Keith Tippett: The Monk Watches the Eagle (Discus)

6 Maria Schneider: Data Lords (ArtistShare)

7 Sault: Untitled (Rise) (bandcamp)

8 Hedwig Mollestad: Ekhidna (Rune Grammofon)

9 Bruce Springsteen: Letter to You (Columbia)

10 Matana Roberts / Pat Thomas: The Truth (Otoroku)

11 Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl: Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12)

12 Eyvind Aarset / Jan Bang: Snow Catches on Her Eyelashes (Jazzland)

13 The Henrys: Paydirt (Bandcamp)

14 Pete Judge: Piano 2 (PJM)

15 Robert Cray Band: That’s What I Heard (Thirty Tigers)

16 Lucia Cadotsch: Speak Low II (We Jazz)

17 Martin Pyne: Spirits of Absent Dancers (Discus)

18 Carla Bley / Andy Sheppard / Steve Swallow: Life Goes On (ECM)

19 Jasper Høiby: Planet B (Edition)

20 Matt Rollings: Mosaic (Dualtone)

21 Dave Alvin: From an Old Guitar (Yep Roc)

22 Soft Machine: Live at the Baked Potato (Moonjune)

23 Misha Mullov-Abbado: Dream Circus (Edition)

24 Diana Krall: This Dream of You (Verve)

25 Hailu Mergia: Yene Mircha (Awesome Tapes from Africa)

ARCHIVE / REISSUE

1 Richard & Linda Thompson: Hard Luck Stories (Universal)

2 Mike Westbrook: Love and Understanding (My Only Desire)

3 Charles Mingus: Bremen 1964 & 1975 (Sunnyside)

4 Roberta Flack: First Take (50th anniversary edition) (SoulMusic)

5 Solomon Burke: The King of Rock ’n’ Soul (SoulMusic)

6 King Crimson: The Complete 1969 Sessions (DGM)

7 Bryan Ferry: Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974 (BMG)

8 Kenny Carter: Showdown (Kent)

9 Carla Thomas: Let Me Be Good to You (SoulMusic)

10 Jon Hassell / Farafina: Flash of the Spirit (tak:til)

MUSIC BOOKS

1 Aaron Cohen: Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power (Chicago University Press)

2 Andy Neill: Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here (Universal)

3 Magdalena Grzebałkowska: Komeda: A Private Life in Jazz (Equinox)

4 Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (4th Estate)

5 Luc Sante: Maybe the People Would Be the Times (Verse Chorus Press)

6 Philip Nanton: Riff: The Shake Keane Story (Papillote Press)

7 Edwin Prévost: An Uncommon Music for the Common Man (Copula)

8 Duncan Heining: Stratusphunk: George Russell, His Life in Music (Jazz International)

9 Ian Preece: Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels (Omnibus)

10 Maureen Mahon: Black Diamond Queens (Duke University Press)

OTHER NON-FICTION

Ed Caesar: The Moth and the Mountain (Penguin Viking)

FICTION

David Diop: At Night All Blood Is Black (Pushkin Press)

POETRY

Caroline Bird: The Air Year (Carcanet)

FILM

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma)

EXHIBITION

Charlotte Salomon (Jewish Museum, London)

‘The Monk Watches the Eagle’

My last memory of Keith Tippett comes from a night in Berlin in 2015, when he brought his octet to play a new suite, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. He was always edgy before a performance, and this concert was no exception. There was a fine new 9ft Steinway for him to play, tuned twice during the day — once before the afternoon soundcheck, once after. An hour before the start of the concert, however, he went back to the piano, played a few notes, and came to me with an urgent request that it be retuned.

At that point the only thing a festival director can do is keep the artist happy. The piano tuner had gone home hours before. But his home number was found, and he was summoned in time to give the instrument another going-over. (After completing the task, he muttered to me that it had remained perfectly in tune.) Keith and his musicians proceeded to play a glorious set that delighted the audience, who were transfixed when Julie Tippetts, Keith’s wife, materialised next to the piano towards the end to sing “The Dance of Her Returning”. It was a triumph, one of many in his long career.

Keith was a wonderful man and one of the finest British composers of his generation. Following his death n June 2020, the first posthumously released Tippett recording is a piece of which he was specially proud: The Monk Watches the Eagle, a cantata for two saxophone quartets, the BBC Singers, and his wife, Julie, who provided a libretto evoking the last earthly thoughts of a holy man on his deathbed.

The recording is of its first and only performance, performed in 2004 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which had commissioned it, and recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in Norwich Cathedral. Dedicated to his late father, the nature of the work and the setting of the performance remind us that Keith’s early musical experience included spells as a chorister and church organist in his native Bristol.

His whole career showed us that he was comfortable in many idioms, from his astonishing solo piano improvisations to his appearance with King Crimson on Top of the Pops and his marshalling of the extraordinary 50-piece Centipede. The Monk Watches the Eagle finds him flying free of genre, blending the gestures of contemporary classical choral music with perfectly integrated saxophone improvisations — by Paul Dunmall (soprano), Kevin Figes (alto), Ben Waghorn (tenor) and Chris Biscoe (baritone) — and Julie’s powerfully affecting singing.

Keith’s use of his resources here is flexible and imaginative. His deployment of the singers is in a very English tradition of choral music, the voices sometimes soaring up to the 12th century cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling. There are times when he makes the saxophones sound like a pipe organ powered by human breath; even more astonishing is a passage where you imagine you’re hearing distant gongs and bowed cymbals.

The 40-minute piece is continuous, but for our convenience the CD is programmed with seven divisions. The fourth of them, a 14-minute passage, contains some of the most moving music I’ve heard this year: a series of slow movements featuring lean a cappella vocal writing, a dissonant slow upward swirl of voices and reeds giving way to a glowing melody emotionally related to John Tavener’s “The Lamb”, Julie’s mbira (thumb piano) and her wonderfully poised vocal solo over saxophone harmonies, and the return of the choir, with Biscoe’s soft baritone tiptoeing gently between their legato phrases.

“Now it is silent, and words hang warm,” they sing in this section. “All is calm. All that remains… All that remains in my heart is still. All is still. Now in the quiet — and quite alone — not alone!” But the luminous serenity is disturbed by a writhing Dunmall soprano solo, emerging from a babble of voices, demonstrating that the inherent possibilities of such collaborations did not end with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Singers. The parallel harmonies of the closing movement have an unadorned elegance reminiscent of plainsong.

It’s a work of great spiritual depth and power, radiating its beams of light as though shining through stained glass — the motif of the cover design. I remember Keith telling me about it with special pride. Now everyone can hear it, and join the long applause that filled the cathedral at the conclusion of a marvellous performance that reveals a different and very precious facet of the soul of a great musician.

* Keith Tippett’s The Monk Watches the Eagle is released on the Discus label. The photograph of Tippett, by Paolo Soriani, is from the CD sleeve.

Happy birthday, Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick was spotted by Burt Bacharach while she was singing background on the Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce” with her sister Dee Dee, her aunt Cissy Houston and their friend Doris Troy in the summer of 1961. She was 20 years old. A year later she recorded “Don’t Make Me Over”, the first of her string of hits written by Bacharach and his lyricist, Hal David.

She had grown up singing gospel music alongside members of her family in the Drinkard Singers and the Gospelairs before studying music at a college in West Hartford, Connecticut. Her musicianship enabled her to cope with the unusual interval leaps and mixed time signatures that Bacharach introduced to the pop music of the early 1960s, blending R&B with Broadway; her poise, her control, her distinctive timbre and her avoidance of gospel gestures such as extravagant melisma and roughened texture made her voice the perfect instrument for this unique purpose.

I love almost everything Dionne ever did, from the early Bacharach masterpieces of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By” right up to “I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face” with Jerry Ragovoy and “His House and Me” with Thom Bell. But there’s a special place in my affections for an album called Here I Am, released in 1965, in which the Bacharach/David/Warwick combination reaches a series of peaks.

A couple of those peaks are ballads, written, arranged and performed with exquisite delicacy: “In Between the Heartaches” and “If I Ever Make You Cry”. But even more remarkable to my ear is “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)”, an epic of orchestra pop remarkable not just for the double set of brackets in its title but for an astonishing swirling momentum driven not so much by a conventional rhythm section as by the strings, the choir and periodic fusillades of percussion: tympani, tubular bells, boo-bams. And on top of it all, Dionne is doing as she always has done, negotiating Bacharach’s melodic twists, inhabiting Hal David’s words, singing like a real person who happens to be in possession of a divine gift.

Today, it’s exactly 80 years since Marie Dionne Warrick was born in Orange, New Jersey. A very happy birthday to her, with deepest gratitude.

Back on Highway 61

Generally speaking, I prefer Bob Dylan to make his own cover versions, just the way he’s been doing for the best part of 60 years. There are maybe not even a dozen exceptions, mostly the obvious ones: Presley’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, Jimi’s “Watchtower”, Stevie’s “Blowing in the Wind”, the Fairports’ “Si tu dois partir”, Ferry’s “Hard Rain”, Betty LaVette’s “Things Have Changed”. But now there’s a definite addition to the list: Dave Alvin’s version of “Highway 61 Revisited”, a highlight of From an Old Guitar, his new album of rare and unreleased stuff.

To be honest, I haven’t followed the career of the singer/guitarist from Downey, California who started out at the very end of the ’70s with the Blasters and more recently led bands known variously as the Guilty Ones and the Guilty Women. My bad, as the young people say. From an Old Guitar is full of great stuff, drawing on country, blues, R&B and, in Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “Perdido Street Blues”, old-time jazz, with other songs from Mickey Newbury, Earl Hooker, Doug Sahm and Marty Robbins.

Dylan’s parable is set to a low-riding shuffle beat, the layered guitars of Alvin and Greg Leisz howling, nudging and screeching from multiple perspectives as the magnificent verses are recited in appropriately biblical tones. Alvin’s voice is one that wears its bruises, scars and calluses lightly, weighting and timing every line perfectly, drawing out the dark humour, simultaneously absurdist and apocalyptic. The video is well assembled and cut, particularly the chase towards the end between a hot rod and a Highway Patrol car on a two-lane blacktop.

My other favourite is a song called “Peace”, credited to Willie Dixon. It bears no resemblance to a song of the same name that gave the title to a 1971 Dixon album, but it carries the hallmarks of the composer of “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “The Seventh Son”. The buried hook — the thing that makes we want to listen to it again, straight away — is a funky little chorded figure from Joe Terry’s electric piano: peeping through two or three times, it seems to want to take the song in a different direction before thinking better of it and withdrawing.

I can happily listen to this album from start to finish, and then over again. Even better, I imagine, would be to wander into some bar or other — Dingwalls, perhaps, or the old Tramps on 15th Street in NYC — and drink a beer or two while listening to Alvin and his band working their way through the whole thing. One day, maybe. But whatever, that “Highway 61” is going to stick around.

* Dave Alvin’s From an Old Guitar is out now on the Yep Roc label.

It’s a disco night (don’t stop)

So disco’s back. “The golden years, the silver tears / You wore a tie like Richard Gere’s…” Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Crying at the Discothèque” is a remake of a 1980 record by Alcazar, which borrowed the Chic-produced rhythm track of “Spacer”. The new disco-revival albums from Ellis-Bextor and Kylie Minogue take me back to the late ’70s, when my friend Howard Thompson, then recently relocated to New York, taped shows from all-disco WKTU (92.3 FM) and mailed the cassettes to me in London. The 12s I bought in those days mostly came from Groove Records on the corner of Greek Street and Bateman Street in Soho. Here are a dozen lasting favourites, not exactly unpredictable, from that time. 

1. Odyssey: “Native New Yorker” Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, formerly collaborators on “A Lovers’ Concerto” and “Let’s Hang On”, with the help of the great arranger/producer Charlie Calello, created a whole movie in a song: “It’s the thought you had / In a taxicab that got left on the kerb / When he dropped you off at East 83rd…” I love the uptown 25-35 lead vocal of Lillian Lopez — born, as it happens, in Connecticut — and the slight Latin emphasis in this extended mix, particularly the piano playing of Richard Tee.

2. Evelyn Champagne King: “Shame”  I’d be happy to die now if I knew I’d be reincarnated as one of the guitarists behind Ms King, extending this sublime track into eternity.

3. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: “Bad Luck” Teddy Pendergrass in his pre-solo pomp, with Ronnie Baker on bass, Earl Young on drums and Vince Montana Jr on vibes, and a rap on Nixon closing perhaps the best breakdown in history. 

4. Norma Jean: “Saturday” An early Chic production, from a time when Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards found a different keyboard or tuned percussion lick for every hit. Here it’s Dave Friedman’s vibes.

5. Gladys Knight: “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind” The impossibly prolific Van McCoy wrote this one for Gladys, and it’s a perfect fit: “Your ex is back in town / What you gonna do when she comes around / And she starts going through her act…” 

6. Sheila (and) B. Devotion: “Spacer” Chic’s Rodgers, Edwards and Tony Thompson again, this time confecting perfect Euro-disco with a French singer. The strings were conducted by Gene Orloff, 30 years after he played violin with the Neil Hefti Orchestra behind Charlie Parker on “Repetition”.

7. Cheryl Lynn: “Got to Be Real” (12-inch version) Toto’s David Paich produced this with his dad, Marty, a fine jazz pianist and arranger who worked with Chet Baker, Mel Tormé and countless others. Ray Parker Jr plays guitar and James Gadson is on drums. Cheryl was barely 21 when she wrote this with David P. and David Foster. Tracking herself on backing vocals, she sounds like a trumpet section in full flare.

8. Oliver Cheatham: “Get Down Saturday Night” A snare flam sets up the top-of-the-beat groove that provides minimalist support for a living-for-the-weekend song (gotta have one of those). No idea who mixed this, but they did a wonderful job.

9. Melba Moore: “This Is It” (Tom Moulton mix) More Van McCoy magic. Melba is the daughter of the bandleader Teddy Hill, with whom Dizzy Gillespie paid his first visit to London in 1937, and who went on to manage Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in ’40s, providing an after-hours home for Gillespie and his fellow bebop pioneers Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian.

10. Philippé Wynne: “We Dance So Good Together” The death of the former (Detroit) Spinners lead singer from a heart attack on stage in Oakland, California in 1984 removed one of the most creative soul singers of his generation. This track, from his 1980 solo album, was produced by George Clinton and ex-Motown/Invictus songwriter Ronnie Dunbar, with Bernie Worrell on synths, and written by James Dean (co-composer of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”) and John Glover. 

11. Candi Staton: “Victim” “I told you young hearts run free…” In Dave Crawford’s bespoke lyric, Candi sings about being “a victim of the very songs I sing.” This is almost too much of a song to be danced to: “Oh well, I guess I’ll end up in the lost-and-found / It looks like love and me, we’ve lost another round.” But the groove and the vibes touches are irresistible, as is the backing singers’ “doo doo-wap” interlude.

12. Vera: “Take Me to the Bridge” Fabulously tacky Euro-disco from Montreal. Music and production by Louis Toteda, words by Don Saunders. The identity of the lead singer is disputed. Goodness knows which or what “bridge” is the subject of her erotically charged plea (I don’t think it’s the middle eight), but the record’s hook is the double-pop of the bass in the chorus. 

Re-reading Brian Eno’s diary

Many of these new words suggest the dissolution of a certain quality of public discourse that we have taken for granted since the Enlightenment, which hinged on the possibility of reaching evidence-based concensus — albeit even temporary — about what constitutes reality. The post-modern scepticism of any distinction between ideologically derived value systems and evidence-driven science is now grasped at gratefully by libertarians, populists, identitarians and tax evaders the world over: “Why shouldn’t there be a special reality just for me?” they demand. An early warning sign of this attitude creeping into politics was when a member of Dubya’s entourage, questioned about the veracity of some claims he’d made in support of the Iraq war, said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

It’s interesting to watch that kind of hubris crash up against a little strand of RNA — and conspicuously lose the battle. As I write this, we’re five months into the Covid pandemic, and it turns out that even an empire can’t change biological reality. I wonder if it will make any difference to how we view the role of leadership in the future, when we evaluate the various national responses to Covid and notice that the people who dealt with it most successfully were not the macho braggarts, not the “we-make-our-own-reality” brigade, not the “man-up” populists, not the Panglossian libertarians, but the people who had the humility to listen to the science and the humanity to care enough to act upon it.

Those words are taken from the new introduction to a 25th anniversary edition of A Year with Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno’s diary of 1995, and form part of a commentary on a list of words and terms created since the original publication: AI, Airbnb, Alexa, algorithm, alt-right, alternative facts, Amazon and so on — several pages of them, fact, all the way to zero-hour contract, zero-tolerance, Zooming and zoonotic.

The original diary, written in a different world, records collaborations with David Byrne, Dave Stewart, U2 and the band James, conversations about drugs with an Eritrean taxi driver and presenting the Turner Prize with Nicholas Serota, outings to judge Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World competition and to lunch with Bono and Eve Hewson at the Colombe d’Or in the hills above Nice, digressions on stuff like the art market, the Bosnian conflict, the language of car horns and the three principal debts to African music (pushed rhythm, flattened scales and call-and-response), chat about buying a computer for his young daughters and looking at Dan Flavin’s neon tubes in the Guggenheim, repeating a very good Tommy Cooper joke, and then another.

He’s a serious thinker but his sense of humour is never far away, along with a gentle self-mockery (17 April: Lou Reed, Lenny Henry and David Bowie all called. Enjoying Tricky CD. He didn’t call21 December: At the party, Rob Partridge said to me: ‘You gave hope to other balding men.’ My new epitaph: ‘Co-wrote a couple of decent songs and went bald shamelessly’).

All this makes it well worth reading, or re-reading, today, for both entertainment on trivial matters and the application of critical thinking and common sense to some of the big problems of our time. And it prompts me to wonder how different our lives would be right now, had Brian Eno spent 2020 as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Failing that, I hope he’s at least been compiling another diary.

* The new edition of A Year with Swollen Appendices is published by Faber & Faber.

The sound of London 2020

Guitarist Shirley Tetteh at Church of Sound during the EFG London Jazz Festival

Half an hour into BBC4’s special Jazz 625 programme on Saturday night, the journalist Emma Warren remarked that everybody in London’s new jazz scene has their own role to play. You might be making your contribution as a musician, or taking the money on the door. Or, she suggested, your role might be as the first person on the dance floor that night, leading the way for the rest of the audience to join in. That sense of collective commitment was strong throughout the programme.

Timed to coincide with the 2020 London Jazz Festival, the 90-minute show featured many of the most prominent names of the current scene: the drummer Moses Boyd and his band Exodus, the tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s quartet, the trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey’s irresistible Kokoroko, the singer Poppy Ajudah with a searing Black Lives Matter song, the powerful Ezra Collective, the drummer Sarathy Korwar, the clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings with Sons of Kemet, the tuba-player Theon Cross with the rapper Consensus, and others. There were interludes exploring the work of Gary Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors project in mentoring so many of the new generation, and a shift up to Manchester reflected the contributions of the trumpeter Matthew Halsall and the saxophonist Nat Birchall.

Boyd co-hosted the show with Jamz Supernova, and something he said was also striking. Every young black jazz musician, he remarked, knows what it feels like to play to a room full of middle-aged white people. And that’s fine, he added. But sometimes you want to play to people like yourself. A sequence of clips from Steam Down in Deptford, the Fox & Firkin pub in Lewisham, Total Refreshment Centre in Hackney Downs and other London venues in pre-pandemic times showed what he meant.

This music restores a sense of jazz’s old physicality. While strong on a belief in the tradition, it blends in elements of the music absorbed by younger players: hip-hop and its offshoots, reggae, Afro-beat. In that way, too, it recalls jazz’s origins as a musical broth, a bouillabaisse, a gumbo, embracing influences rather than distilling the flavour out of them.

It believes in rhythm and it believes in warmth. Communication is the priority, but without compromise. Lessons from the more abstract directions of contemporary jazz are deployed as extra tools. There are rough edges and signs of what some older listeners might see as naivety. But to watch and listen to the development of these musicians, to hear them stretching their limbs and discovering their own potential, is a thing of wonder and infinite pleasure.

In Saturday’s show the various groups were playing without an audience and in a socially distanced format. The same was true of the livestreams of the festival gigs I was able to watch. What really impressed me was that a movement nourished by the spontaneity and feedback of an intimate live setting proved able to flourish in a completely different environment. If they were being set a test, they passed it en bloc, with distinction.

The BBC4 programme is available now on iPlayer. Some of the livestreams from the festival are also free to watch, like the Charlie Parker centenary tribute from Church of Sound in Hackney, featuring Gary Crosby’s Groundation, with Nathaniel Facey on alto, Shirley Tetteh on guitar, Hamish Moore on bass and Moses Boyd on drums: a quicksilver set of Bird tunes and originals. Facey’s own quartet, completed by two of his fellow members of Empirical, the drummer Shaney Forbes and the bassist Tom Farmer, and the guitarist Dave Preston, were captured at the Green Note in Camden Town, letting air and light into knotty themes by the leader and the guitarist. And at Total Refreshment Centre the impressive young trumpeter/singer Emma-Jean Thackray led her quintet — Lyle Barton on keyboards, Matt Gedrych on bass guitar, Dougal Taylor on drums and Crispin Robinson on percussion — through a wholly absorbing, convincing and thoroughly contemporary investigation of the moods suggested by Bitches Brew 50 years ago.

Tickets were £12.50 to livestream Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED Ensemble and their guests performing an 80th birthday tribute to Pharoah Sanders at the Barbican, and that’s what it’ll cost you to catch up with it via the Barbican’s website. I can only urge everyone do make the investment, since Kinoshi presents an hour of music of the highest quality, carefully devised and packed with all the best qualities of the new London scene.

The core SEED line-up — Kinoshi (alto), Sheila Maurice-Grey and Jack Banjo-Courtney (trumpets), Joe Bristow (trombone), Hannah Mbuya (tuba), Chelsea Carmichael (tenor, flute), Shirley Tetteh (guitar), Rio Kai (bass) and Patrick Boyle (drums) — kicked off with the ever-hypnotic riff of “Upper and Lower Egypt” before being joined by the clarinet of Shabaka Hutchings (on a beautifully flighted “Astral Travelling”), the pianist Ashley Henry (a heartfelt “Greeting to Saud”), the percussionist Yahael Camara-Onono (“Elevation”) and the singer Richie Seivwright (“Love Is Everywhere”). The horn arrangements were perfect, the rhythm section subtle and skilful, each of the soloists offering something of substance.

“Catch you soon, when life is normal again,” Kinoshi told her invisible audience at the end of the set. But if it was sad not to be able to witness this music in person, to share the experience with the players and to make them feel the listeners’ response, it was wonderful to be able to hear it all, staged and played and recorded so beautifully in all the venues.

If you browse the festival’s website, you’ll find other fine performances available: the trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, the guitarist Hedvig Mollestad and the poet Moor Mother with Irreversible Entanglements are some of them. But maybe watch Jazz 625 first, all the way through. At a time when the streets of the city are drained of life, it’s a reminder of what’s waiting around the corner. If it doesn’t fill you with the kind of optimism that’s been in short supply for the past nine months, I’ll be very surprised.

(Not quite) almost like being in love

One evening in the late ’70s I was at home watching The Shirley Bassey Show on BBC1 — not such a terrible idea, since she presented some interesting guests, from Mel Tormé and Janis Ian to Stan Getz and Johnny Nash — when something Bassey herself was singing stopped me in my tracks.

“Almost Like Being in Love” was written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for their musical Brigadoon in 1947. It was a hit for Frank Sinatra, and became a standard. Shirley Bassey has sung it throughout her career, and on YouTube you’ll find several versions in conventional upbeat, ring-a-ding-ding arrangements celebrating the singer’s delight at half-concealing the rapture of love.

On this occasion, however, she and her musical director, Arthur Greenslade, did something different. They recast the song in a minor key, with slightly modified melodic and harmonic contours, setting it to a languid, understated Latin rhythm. I hadn’t heard it from then until now, more than 40 years later, but it always stayed in my head as the way the song ought to be sung.

So here it is, miraculously preserved, with its chiming vibes and pattering congas, hovering strings and 12 bars of beautiful Getzian tenor saxophone (Tony Coe, maybe?), and a bitter-sweet vocal performance that hints at layers of emotional complexity beneath Mr Lerner’s words. It sounds just as exquisite and ambiguous as I remembered. Imagine how cool it would be if Sade, Tracey Thorn or Paula Morelenbaum took this arrangement and recorded it today. Cool, yes, but no cooler than Ms Bassey.