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Buell Neidlinger 1936-2018

Buell Neidlinger w CT at Newport 57

Buell Neidlinger (bass) and Cecil Taylor (piano) at Newport in 1957

What turned out to be Buell Neidlinger’s final contribution to this blog arrived on March 9, in response to a piece about Keith Jarrett’s latest release. Buell had seen the accompanying photograph of Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette relaxing on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall: “Thought I recognised the floor… worked there for three years,” he wrote. In 1967 he had joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he taught bass and chamber music and, with George Russell, established the first jazz department of a major music school.

It astonished me when Buell sent some words to this blog, commenting on something I’d written about Cecil Taylor. His participation in Cecil’s trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine” made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in the early ’60s. It remains a favourite, not least for the way Buell’s bass shadows Taylor’s piano inventions with such devotion and beautiful note-choice.

As a young cello prodigy, born in New York City and brought up in Connecticut, Buell studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and had lessons from Pablo Casals. After switching to double bass, he played with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, with Hot Lips Page and Herbie Nichols, with Igor Stravinsky and Leopold Stokowski, with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, with Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, with John Cage and George Crumb, with Duane Eddy and Roy Orbison, with Sir John Barbirolli’s Houston Symphony and Neville Marriner’s LA Chamber Orchestra, with the Beach Boys and Earth Wind & Fire, with Frank Zappa and the Eagles.

The instrument he played on “This Nearly Was Mine” was the same one he used on “Hotel California”. Once owned by King George III, it had been played in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. “I sold it years ago to a girl in Hollywood for $15,000,” he told me during the course of our only conversation, on the telephone from his home in Washington State.

He also talked about his friendship with James Jamerson, whom he had met in a Hollywood studio. Buell had acquired his first bass guitar in 1953, but by the time he bumped into Jamerson on a Michael Jackson date he had become a first-choice double bassist in the studio orchestras. “Basically he was through already,” Buell said. “When Berry Gordy moved to LA, he basically signed the death warrants of a bunch of great musicians.”

Neidlinger remembered the Motown studio in Hollywood as the first place he worked where they had a transmitter. “You’d cut your shit,” he said, “and you’d go out to the car park and listen to it on the radio. If it didn’t sound good, you’d go back and do it again.”

He also remembered Jamerson’s addiction to alcohol. “He was living in a motel on Hollywood Boulevard. It was pretty ugly. After we had a meal on Santa Monica Boulevard, he invited me back. Whisky and gin bottles everywhere. He had a sliding closet. There weren’t many clothes in there, but there was his upright bass with no case. He played Fender bass on the Motown hits, of course, but really he was an upright bass player.”

Buell had strong views about everything, including bass players. He thought Paul Chambers was the greatest bass player who ever lived. He liked players who didn’t try to play the instrument as if it were a guitar, playing too many notes at the top of the instrument’s range. (This was a man whose first paying job in New York was as a dep for the ailing Walter Page, who had been the bassist in Count Basie’s pre-war band.) When Maurice White died, he sent a note to the blog saying that the EW&F man was the greatest drummer he’d ever recorded with.

In his later years Buell moved to Washington State, where he lived with his wife, Margaret Storer, another bassist. He had a group called Buellgrass, including the fiddler Richard Greene, which played his version of bluegrass music, and he and Margaret played baroque music with friends — he back on cello, she on violin.

Did I mention that he depped in Thelonious Monk’s quartet for a night at the Five Spot in 1957, alongside John Coltrane and Shadow Wilson? And for Charlie Haden in Ornette’s quartet in 1959, also at the Five Spot? And that his first No 1 was Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, on which he played in the string section? He seemed to have cherished every note, every encounter, every experience. I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone quite like him, or will be again.

Keith Jarrett’s ‘After the Fall’

Keith Jarrett TrioIn the summer of 2000 I spent an hour across a table from Keith Jarrett in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Baie des Anges in Nice. Infuriatingly, he chose to conduct the conversation while wearing mirror shades. An interviewer tries to establish some kind of rapport with his/her subject, in which eye contact plays a part; the shades meant that I spent the hour staring at reflections of myself. I thought it was discourteous, and possibly a bit passive-aggressive. Somewhat wryly, I thought back to the morning 30 years earlier when he had wandered unannounced into the offices of the Melody Maker, a couple of days after his appearance with Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight, hoping to persuade someone to interview him.

Anyway, he talked interestingly. He was in Nice with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, his fellow members of what had become known as the Standards Trio. They were on their first tour since Jarrett’s recovery from a bout of chronic fatigue syndrome, which had left him unable to play for two years. His gradual recovery had been indicated by the release of a solo album titled The Melody At Night, With You. Its gentle, almost unadorned treatments of standards and folk tunes, recorded at his home, make it a special favourite of mine. “I learnt something about playing the piano,” he told me when I asked him about it. “The heart determines where the music comes from, and there was more heart in that recording than there was virtuosity, but what I had as a pianist I put into the heart place, and that can translate into other contexts.” (You can read the whole interview, published by the Guardianhere.)

Now we have a new release of a trio album made during that period (in November 1998, in fact) at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre in Newark, not far from Jarrett’s home. Called After the Fall, it’s a document — like The Melody at Night — of a man testing the state of his physical powers, on this occasion with the support of his two musical soulmates.

Wanting to keep things simple, they stuck to bebop and standards. “When I first came back to playing, I didn’t want to play as hard,” Jarrett told me in Nice. “I didn’t want to dig in to the piano as much. Bebop was the right thing to do, because there’s a lightness to it.” But isn’t bebop a notably athletic and competitive idiom, perhaps unsuited to convalescent therapy? “Yes, but it’s light-footed, if you think about it. Playing in large halls with the trio, and trying to project to the people, I ended up playing hard, and I didn’t want to do that. With bebop the phrasing is more like a voice phrasing, because most of the bebop players – except maybe Bud – were horn players. I wanted to have a chance to phrase like that.”

There’s no sense of frailty in evidence. Instead there’s a leanness and a clarity that make it exceptional. Jarrett is a great bebop player: a passage six minutes into Bud Powell’s “Bouncin’ with Bud” finds him unspooling a line that would make the tune’s composer stand and applaud, and there are moments of similar exhilaration on Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” and John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”. He plays the blues elegantly on Pete La Roca’s “One for Majid”, produces characteristically lustrous ballad readings of “Late Lament” and “When I Fall in Love”, and exposes his sense of humour on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. A 15-minute version of “The Masquerade Is Over” devolves from its medium-up tempo through a beautiful collective transition into the coolest lope imaginable, while a 13-minute “Autumn Leaves” ends on a glorious Latin groove, rocking along to Peacock’s bass riff .

The fact that many of these tunes feature on the trio’s earlier albums shouldn’t deter anyone from investigating After the Fall. This is Jarrett with the shades off, the defences down, temporarily shorn of the extremes of his virtuosity but looking us straight in the eye. The music’s limitations, such as they may be, turn out to be the foundation of its strength.

* After the Fall is out now on the ECM label. The photograph of Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock is by Patrick Hinely.

‘Rhythm & Reaction’

Rhythm and Reaction 3

William Waldorf Astor, the richest man in America, had made a new home in England by the time he bought the late-Victorian Gothic mansion known as Two Temple Place in 1895. Set on the north bank of the Thames between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges, it became the headquarters for his various business and philanthropic interests. At a cost of $1.5m — imagine how much that would represent in today’s money — he turned the interior into a riot of mahogany staircases, ebony pillars, marble floors, cedar panelling and staggering stained glass. He was 71 when he died in his bath at home in Brighton in October 1919, six months after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had arrived in London to play at the Palladium, the Hippodrome and Hammersmith Palais and, astonishingly, at Buckingham Palace for King George V.

A century later, there’s a less tenuous connection between the building and the band. Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain is an exhibition illustrating aspects of Britain’s embrace of the music in its early decades, from minstrel shows to the end of the inter-war period. Curated by Professor Catherine Tackley, head of music at Liverpool University, it does a pretty good job of conjuring the atmosphere of Britain in the Jazz Age, via ancient banjos and drum kits, 78rpm discs, books (including Al Bowlly’s guide to crooning), blown-up photographs (Ellington arriving at Southampton docks in 1933, for example), early copies of publications such as the Melody Maker and Rhythm, paintings (including William Patrick Roberts’s “The Dance Club” of 1923, above), fabrics and ceramics, bakelite wirelesses, and Wyndham Lewis’s 1912 design for the programme and menu at the Golden Calf, a West End cabaret club.

Rhythm and reaction 4

Perhaps the most haunting exhibit is a pastel study for a work called “The Breakdown”, painted in 1926 by the Scottish artist John Bulloch Souter for the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. At least one of the layered meanings of this study of a formally dressed black saxophonist sitting on a broken piece of classical statuary as a naked white woman dances to his music was provocative enough to upset the Colonial Office, which complained that it was “obnoxious to British subjects living abroad in daily contact with a coloured population.”

The Melody Maker had already joined in with an extraordinary editorial which, after admiring the artist’s technique, inveighed on behalf of dance-band musicians against “the habit of associating our music with the primitive and barbarous negro derivation…” The painting, it claimed, was “not only a picture entirely nude of the respect due to the chastity and morality of the greater part of the young generation but in the degradation it implies to modern white women there is the perverse anger to the community and the best thing that could happen to it is to have it… burnt!”

Forced to withdraw his painting, Souter destroyed it, leaving only the pastel study (above) and a version he recreated in oils in 1962, which is also on show.

Almost every aspect of Rhythm & Reaction deserves study in greater depth — e.g. minstrelsy, “jazz” motifs in the decorative arts, the “rhythm clubs” formed by the music’s early adherents — but as it stands the exhibition does an effective job of prompting reflection on an important phenomenon. It would be of particular interest, I think, to young members of the newest and highly multicultural generation of British jazz musicians, who might find it enlightening and (despite the fate of “The Breakdown”) even inspiring.

* Rhythm & Reaction is on show at Two Temple Place until April 22, daily except Tuesdays (information on opening hours and special events: https://twotempleplace.org). “The Dance Party” is on loan from Leeds Museum and Art Gallery. The pastel study of “The Breakdown” is from a private collection. Those who want to know more about the subject should read the late Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain 1919-1950, republished in 2010 by Northway Books.

Elaine Mitchener’s ‘Sweet Tooth’

Elaine MitchenerThe architect Nicholas Hawksmoor completed St George’s, Bloomsbury, one of his half-dozen London churches, in 1730, at a time when the transport of slaves from Africa to the New World was booming, with Britain the biggest trafficker. It was built to serve a prosperous parish, although its tower can be glimpsed in the background of Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ engraving of 1751, the artist’s depiction of the low-life inhabitants of the Rookery, as the tenements of nearby St Giles were known. More recently, in 1937, the church welcomed Emperor Haile Selassie at a requiem for the dead of the Second Italo-Abyssinian war, a particularly bloody three-year conflict featuring the use of mustard gas by Mussolini’s troops on the Ethiopian army.

Slavery and, by association, colonialism are the subjects of Elaine Mitchener’s “Sweet Tooth”, which received its first London performance in the beautifully restored interior of St George’s last night. A theatre piece, specifically related to the use of slaves in the sugar industry, it makes use of Mitchener’s talents as singer, dancer and actor, as well as those of three distinguished improvisers: the violinist/accordionist Sylvia Hallett, the saxophonist Jason Yarde and the drummer Mark Sanders. All four become performers in the piece, choreographed by Dam Van Huynh and lit by Alex Johnston.

Hallett began alone, accompanying her scraped double stops with strange amplified vocal ululations. Mitchener entered, wailing and shrieking in a wordless expression of fear and anguish, writhing as if resisting the constraint of chains, joined in duets first by the yelps and barks of Yarde’s baritone saxophone and then by Sanders’s small hand drums.

The piece proceeded through six “chapters”. In one, Mitchener re-enacted an auction by reciting the names, attributes and prices of individual slaves, at one point continuing to list them while lying face-down on the stone floor of the central aisle. In another, she used the third finger of each hand to stretch her mouth, creating the terrifying effect of the “scold’s bridle”; this went on for several minutes as the distortion reduced her attempts to speak to a whimper (and you feared her mouth might never return to its proper shape). Towards the end each performer took up a bundle of thin canes, using them to brush the floor and whip the air as they moved freely around the space. Some of the music — which included passages of intense free improvisation — was inspired by an invocation song collected by musicologists in Jamaica and traced back to the BaKongo tribe of West Central Africa.

It was highly dramatic, of course, and at times harrowing, as it needed to be. Mitchener — who recently collaborated with the pianist Alexander Hawkins on an album of material including songs by Jeanne Lee, Archie Shepp and Patty Waters for the Intakt label, titled UpRoot — is a performer of great passion and uncompromising commitment. Those qualities, allied to a technical command of her various disciplines, are likely to make her a significant presence in the years to come. Last night she made Hawksmoor’s old stones shake.

* There is a further performance tonight — Friday, February 23 — at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton. ‘Sweet Tooth’ was commissioned by Bluecoat, Liverpool; the Stuart Hall Foundation; and the International Slavery Museum.

Reuben Fowler’s ‘Black Cow’

reuben fowler 2

In my experience, jazz musicians tend to approve of Steely Dan. The mixture of sardonic outlook, funny chords and respect for fine improvisers seems to do it. Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Christian McBride and Mel Tormé were among those who covered their songs. A few months ago I enjoyed hearing the students of the Guildhall School of Music’s jazz course performing variations on Donald Fagen’s classic album, The Nightfly. Now comes Reuben Fowler, a gifted young London-based trumpeter, composer and arranger, with a download-only big band version of “Black Cow” — track one of the Dan’s album Aja — whose proceeds will go to Cancer Research’s oesophageal cancer unit, in memory of Walter Becker.

Steely Dan’s music wasn’t jazz. A rock body with a jazz head, maybe. Anyway, it responds well to being played by jazz musicians, as it usually was on the original albums, as long as they don’t try to play tricks with it. Fowler’s “Black Cow” is respectful to the work put in on the slinky groove of the original by the likes of Joe Sample, Victor Feldman, Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey and Paul Humphrey. Jason Rebello (Fender Rhodes piano), Rob Luft (guitar), Lawrence Cottle (bass guitar) and Ian Thomas (drums) hit all the marks, while Paul Booth’s muscular tenor solo loses nothing by a comparison with Tom Scott’s original. The Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart does a great job with the enigmatic lyric — a little hoarser and more wearied than Fagen, but that works, too. Fowler’s arrangement wisely plays it cool until the finale, when the power of four trumpets, four trombones and eight reeds filters through to stirring effect.

I’m not normally a fan of downloads and streaming, for reasons mostly to do with the shamefully inadequate way they remunerate the artists. In this instance, however, the music and the motive make it a must. It’s also a nice way to celebrate Aja‘s 40th anniversary (which was actually last September). And at some time in the future Fowler — who was born 12 years after that album made its appearance — might put together a whole album of this stuff, which would be a very nice thing indeed to have.

* “Black Cow” by the Reuben Fowler Big Band is released on the Ubuntu label and can be found on the regular download and streaming platforms, including Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer and Tidal. The photograph of Fowler is by James Gardiner Bateman.

Muddy Waters: Behind the sun

Muddy Waters

A new compilation of Muddy Waters’ recordings for the Chess label got me listening obsessively this week to “Louisiana Blues”, one of my favourite pieces of American music. The pleasure was enhanced by the fact that the mastering of Can’t Be Satisfied: The Very Best of Muddy Waters 1947-1975 gives the music, recorded on primitive equipment at the Chess Studio in Chicago almost 70 years ago, a new clarity without compromising its grainy warmth.

Recorded on October 23, 1950 with Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica, Ernest “Big” Crawford on string bass, the drummer Elgin Evans tapping something (possibly a washboard) almost subliminally, and an unknown second guitarist, “Louisiana Blues” has the subtlety and intricacy of chamber music. Opened by Muddy’s quivering unaccompanied bottleneck guitar, it eases quickly into a graceful pattern that switches between a light-footed stride and a funkier half-time rhythm as the instrumental lines wind around each other.

The time is hard to follow: there’s a basic 4/4, but Muddy throws in individual bars of 2/4 and 3/4. Unlike John Lee Hooker, however, he doesn’t do it because the symmetry of the conventional 12-bar blues is of no consequence to him. He does it because that’s what the natural cadence of the song, whose melody line echoes the bottleneck phrases, is demanding. You know that nothing was ever written down on a piece of manuscript paper that day in 1950, but this is nevertheless a fully composed piece.

If you’re trying to count the bars, it’s hard to follow — for me, anyway. And that’s what gives the record its everlasting mystery. It won’t stand still for you. It keeps moving to its own multi-layered momentum, seeming to slide out of your grasp while simultaneously pulling you forward with it.

Muddy wrote it, and I have a particular fondness for the first verse: “I’m going down in Louisiana / Baby, behind the sun / Well I just found out / My troubles just begun…” Behind the sun? That’s the poetry of the blues right there, in an image that leaps beyond literal meaning into the realm of the imagination. And the firm but gentle way he bends those words, laying them against the warping harmonica and bottleneck phrases, shows a supreme musicality at work.

(Another bluesman, Louisiana Red, used the phrase to introduce himself a dozen years on his first album, The Lowdown Back Porch Blues: “I am Louisiana Red / And I come from behind the sun…” Were they Muddy’s original words, or had he already borrowed them from someone else? I have no idea. But he makes them belong to him.)

Anyway, this three-minute act of perfection, characterised by a wonderfully delicate balance of interplay which we white boys of the 1960s could hope to do no more than crudely approximate, gave Muddy his first Top 10 hit in the R&B chart in February 1951, which says something about the good taste of his public. Now it’s hard to imagine a time when people all over the world won’t still be listening to it.

* Can’t Be Satisfied is a 2CD set, released on Universal’s Spectrum imprint. Its 40 tracks, selected by Russell Beecher, include material from many of Muddy’s single and album releases during his time with Chess, including selections from his 1960 Newport live album, Muddy Waters: Folk Singer, Folk Festival of the Blues, Electric Mud, Live at Mr Kelly’s and The London Muddy Waters Sessions. Listening to it sent me back to Robert Gordon’s Waters biography, also called Can’t Be Satisfied, published by Jonathan Cape in the UK in 2002 and still highly recommended.

Music for cellos, organ and gamelan

 

Tre Voci 3

The lights were already down as I fumbled my way into a back pew of the Union Chapel last night. Thirty seconds later, the performance began. I’d bought a ticket after seeing that Kit Downes would playing the chapel’s pipe organ in company with Tre Voci, a trio of cellists, and the Southbank Gamelan Players. It sounded like an intriguing combination but I didn’t have time to get any clearer idea of what they’d be doing, and I rushed to find a seat without picking up the A4 sheet giving details of the programme. So I was in a position to let the music come as a complete surprise, which is sometimes the best way.

As I’d hoped, the combination turned out to be a happy one, at its best when there was no real attempt to “blend” the ingredients. Juxtaposition was the most rewarding method. So, in the course of an unbroken hour-long open half, the gamelan ensemble played pieces of their music, the cello group played theirs, Downes played a solo piece, and they came together at various junctures.

It proved to be a rich experience. One piece for the cellos (Alexander, Torun Stavseng and Gregor Riddell) found them bowing phrases entirely in harmonics, skittering in three directions at once: very exhilarating. The four members of the gamelan group — Robert Campion, Helen Loth, Cathy Eastburn and Jonathan Roberts — produced the anticipated meditative sounds from their metallophones and gongs, gently striking and occasionally bowing the bars of their xylophone-like instruments. Downes played a piece I recognised, since it came from his new solo organ album, Obsidian. But it was when they came together that the music was at its most convincing, the players fitting the diverse layers of sound together with great sensitivity as they improvised (so I later learnt) on pieces by John Cage, Tre Voci’s Colin Alexander, and Beni Giles, a young graduate of the Royal Academy of Music’s masters course in composition.

If I found the second half, devoted to the world premiere of a new composition by Bryn Harrison titled “To Shadow”, less compelling, it may have been because the ensemble played together almost all the time in this through-composed hour-long piece. The contrasts of the first half were lost, and with them went the dramatic shifts of timbre and texture. But the evening ended in a moment of great beauty, with Laura Moody — invisible in the gallery above and behind the audience — tapping the body of her cello to provide percussive accompaniment as she intoned Cage’s “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs”, her treatment of the short song pitched somewhere between those of Cathy Berberian and Joey Ramone.

But I left with my head still in the first half, when the music had held not just greater contrast but, perhaps paradoxically, something of the seductive qualities of Terry Riley’s all-night keyboard concerts and La Monte Young’s Dream House. In this, the surroundings certainly helped. The instrumentation suited the chapel’s acoustic, with lighting that enhanced the meditative atmosphere — particularly when a semi-abstract mandala pattern was projected on to the rose window above the organ chamber. And on the way out I bought Tre Voci’s EP of transcriptions for three cellos of medieval choral works by Ockeghem, Dunstable and Byrd, which turned out to be a perfect souvenir.

* Kit Downes’s Obsidian, recorded on organs at the Union Chapel and in two small churches in Suffolk, is released on the ECM label. To hear recordings of Tre Voci, go to  http://trevocicelloensemble.com/media/ And here’s a larger grouping of the Southbank Gamelan Players at David Byrne’s Meltdown a couple of years ago: https://youtu.be/99B-CrJYG9I

Nubya Garcia takes off

Nubya Garcia

I was planning to write about Nubya Garcia anyway, but today seems particularly appropriate, this being the centenary of the bill that gave women the right to vote in Britain. In 2018, one in three MPs in the House of Commons is now a woman, and I’d say that we’re getting close to that kind of gender split at the creative end of jazz. Garcia, a young tenor saxophonist and composer who came through Tomorrow’s Warriors and the Royal Academy of Music’s junior programme, is an example of a trend also exemplified by the likes of Matana Roberts, Eve Risser, Linda Oh, Kaja Draksler, Sarah Tandy, Mary Halvorson, Anna Lena Schnabel, Susana Santos Silva, Alice Zawadzki, Jaimie Branch, Ingrid Laubrock, Lucia Cadotsch, Tomeka Reid, Shirley Tetteh, Sylvie Courvoisier, Lucy Railton and many, many others.

I’m at the point now that when I go to see a band made up entirely of male musicians, it feels like there’s something wrong, something out of balance, something old-fashioned going on. And there certainly aren’t many bands that wouldn’t be improved by Garcia’s presence.

Nubya’s 5ive is her first album, and it’s a scorching debut. She’s riding the wave of a new interest in young British jazz musicians, exposed in a recent feature by Giovanni Russonello in the New York Times, and her disc is useful evidence — along with two of last year’s best albums, Shabaka and the Ancestors’ Wisdom of Elders and Binker & Moses’ Journey to the Mountain of Forever — that this is no hype. Here we have a version of smart modern jazz that knows what’s going on around it but also knows better than to deal in fashionable tricks and artificial grafts.

One thing I like about Garcia is that she doesn’t sound like Coltrane or Shorter. She has a commanding tone, pliable, fibrous and full of power, and she digs hard into the grooves established here by her excellent band on tunes that are strong and memorable. Each of the individuals takes an opportunity to stand out: Daniel Casimir with a compelling solo introduction to “Lost Kingdoms”, Joe Armon Jones with a boiling acoustic piano solo on “Contemplation”, the hugely promising Theon Cross with a tuba improvisation on “Hold”, Sheila Maurice Gray with a bold trumpet solo on “Red Sun”, and Moses Boyd with a display of thrillingly flexible drumming all the way through (joined on a couple of tracks by Femi Koloeso).

This is a snapshot of a scene that is currently humming with excitement, giving London a kind of vibe it hasn’t had since the Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes broke through in the mid-’80s. Most important of all, it seems to be finding a new audience, attracted by its energy and its inclusiveness. Not all of it is going to be ground-breaking, but it’s here and now and it needs to be noticed.

* Nubya’s 5ive is released on the Jazz:Refreshed label.

Dennis Edwards 1943-2018

Temptations

The Temptations in 1968 (left to right): Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams (front), Dennis Edwards and Eddie Kendricks

Dennis Edwards, who died on February 1, two days before what would have been his 75th birthday, was given an unusually demanding job back in 1969 when he was called upon to replace David Ruffin as one of the Temptations’ lead singers. Ruffin had left the group after being voted out by his colleagues, who were prepared to lose the matchless voice of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You” in order to rid themselves of a man whose drug intake contributed to an ego running out of control.

“Eddie (Kendricks) and I first noticed a singer named Dennis Edwards at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., when he was still with the Contours,” group member Otis Williams wrote in his autobiography (Temptations, Fireside Books, 1989). “We watched from the wings as he sang lead on Lou Rawls’s ‘Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing’. Dennis not only had a stirring, soulful voice, but he was a showman with real command of the audience. His style was a little rougher and grittier than David’s, but we could tell that David would be able to handle David’s songs and bring a new sound to the Tempts as well. Eddie looked at me and said, ‘That’s who we should get. If David don’t straighten up, that’s who we should keep in mind.”

In one sense, the transition was easy: a simple matter of a personnel transfer from one Motown group, a mid-level attraction with their best years behind them, to another at the much higher peak of their powers. But it was far from straightforward. Ruffin refused to accept his rejection, turning up at the group’s gigs on several occasions and trying to join them on stage so persistently that for a while they had to hire security guards to keep him away.

Edwards was fortunate in that his arrival coincided with a change in the group’s style, masterminded by their visionary producer, Norman Whitfield, and his co-writer, Barrett Strong. Whitfield yanked Motown into the era of psychedelic soul, expressed in 10-minute tracks with lengthy instrumental interludes and strange sound effects, wah-wah guitar licks and chattering hi-hats, laconically minimal bass riffs and soaring strings, and lyrics with a strong dose of social realism shared around between the contrasting voices, from Kendricks’s falsetto to Melvin Franklin’s bass.

The new singer’s first recording with the group was the one that announced the new approach: “Cloud Nine”, a No. 2 hit on the U.S. pop charts in 1968. The lead is switched around throughout the track, but Edwards kicks it off, his raw, gospel-schooled tenor establishing the unvarnished tone: “The childhood part of my life, it wasn’t very pretty / See, I was born and raised in the slums of the city / It was a one-room shack we slept in, other children beside me / We hardly had enough food or room to sleep / It was hard times, needed something to ease my troubled mind . . . ” Whitfield’s rhythm track made inventive use of Motown studio stalwarts James Jamerson on bass guitar and Uriel Jones on drums, bringing in Melvin “Wah-Wah” Ragin to play rhythm guitar, Spider Webb on a second drum kit, and — so it’s said — Mongo Santamaria on congas.

The record won a Grammy for best performance by an R&B group, confirming the commercial validity of Whitfield’s decision to venture away from Motown’s tried-and-true methods. Again Edwards was the dominant voice as the combination spent the next four years rolling out hits like “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Psychedelic Shack” and “Ball of Confusion”. The great run reached its climax in 1973 with the epic “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”: a 45 with a six-minute A-side but a full 12 minutes on the album. The long instrumental sections featured the jazz trumpet of Maurice Davis, who combined his frequent appearances in the Motown studios with a teaching job in the Detroit public school system, and the guitars of Ragin (wah-wah rhythm, left channel) and the 19-year-old Paul Warren (blues licks, right channel), a Whitfield protégé who went on to long-term road gigs with Joe Cocker, Eros Ramazotti and Rod Stewart. Plus, of course, Jamerson and Jones, and Eddie “Bongo” Brown’s congas, and Paul Riser’s superb arrangement for a contingent of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. And the finest double-time handclaps ever committed to record.

In fact this one-chord jam was Whitfield’s Symphony in B Flat Minor, one of the high points of 20th century popular music. And at its centre was Dennis Edwards, the voice of the song’s protagonist: “It was the third of September / That day I’ll always remember (yes I will) / ‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died / I never got a chance to see him / Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him / Mama, I’m depending on you to tell me the truth . . . ”

Maybe a group with so many superb lead singers always contained the seeds of its own destruction. Kendricks had left by the time of “Papa”, disliking the extravagance of Whitfield’s productions and missing Ruffin’s voice alongside him. Paul Williams, the group’s first lead singer until Kendricks and Ruffin took over, left the following year, suffering from a combination of sickle-cell anaemia and alcoholism; he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1973. Ruffin died of a cocaine overdose in 1991. Kendricks succumbed to lung cancer in 1992. Franklin suffered a fatal cerebral seizure in 1995. Otis Williams still leads the Temptations — the last survivor of the original Famous Five and now also of the group who, with Edwards’ arrival, turned the page to begin a brilliant new chapter.

Michael Mantler’s ‘Comment c’est’

Michael Mantler 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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