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London Jazz Festival 4: What’s Going On

When the photograph of Marvin Gaye appeared on a large screen above the stage late in the evening, just as the rhythm section of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra was cranking up one of the familiar vamps from What’s Going On, the eyes started to prickle and a round of applause arose from the audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Fifty years after his masterpiece entered our lives, what would Gaye have made of this occasion, had he lived to see it?

He would certainly have noticed that the concerns he voiced throughout the cycle of nine songs are even more relevant today. The point was driven home when that same screen carried the words of Rosa Parks, Margaret Mead, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and others over contemporary images of protest.

Fifty years ago! Gaye was 32. I was 24. So young! It’s sad for someone of my age to see today’s 24-year-olds still having to confront worldwide poverty, systemic racism, pointless war and the threat posed by climate change, which were the themes of What’s Going On. Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter are responses to some of those concerns, and more effective ones that we managed in our younger days, but the issues remain unresolved.

Maybe some of them will be sorted out by the generation represented on stage last night: a 27-piece orchestra of strings, brass, woodwind and rhythm under the baton of Peter Edwards, drawn from the ranks of the invaluable Tomorrow’s Warriors project run for the past three decades by Janine Irons and Gary Crosby. None of the young musicians was born when Gaye recorded the pieces they were playing last night in Edwards’ rearrangements, but all of them clearly understood and were committed to its meaning and significance.

The 28th member of the ensemble, the South London-born soul singer Noel McKoy, brought a depth of experience as well as great vocal expertise to the role of Gaye. Without attempting an imitation, he inhabited the songs and negotiated their contours beautifully. But he was one among equals with the other musicians. A special commendation must go to the tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael, who added immense presence and character to the solo parts originally played by Wild Bill Moore. The funk was brought by the unflagging team of Sarah Tandy (keyboards), Sonia Konate (guitar), Jihad Darwish (bass guitar). Romarna Campbell (drums) and Noda Oreste (congas), who hit a quietly simmering groove on one transitional passage which — with Tandy on electric piano — reminded me that Bitches Brew was released just a couple of months before Gaye embarked on the first sessions for what would become What’s Going On.

Edwards shuffled the running order of the individual songs, starting out with “What’s Happening, Brother” and “Right On”, leaving the title song until the middle of the set, and ending with the spiritual lift of “Save the Children” and “God Is Love”. There were photographs of modern urban wastelands to accompany “Inner City Blues” and wildfires and melting ice sheets for “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. The actor Colin Salmon, the 29th member, delivered a poem/rap that summarised the album’s themes with emotional precison and dignity.

That was the second half of the evening. The hors d’oeuvres, before the interval, had been a selection of pieces from Trouble Man, the soundtrack to a blaxploitation movie, released in 1972 as the successor to What’s Going On. The hipsters’ favourite Gaye album, Trouble Man is an instrumental suite with vocal interludes, cutting and pasting the work of LA session men — Earl Palmer, Victor Feldman and so on — with Gaye’s own multi-instrumental rhythm tracks. Brass and string arrangements commissioned from a variety of seasoned pros — Dale Oehler, Jerry Long, Bob Ragland, J. J. Johnson, Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken — created and sustained a powerful mood of noir soul. Once more Edwards shook the pieces up, using Salmon as a narrator/commentator and again featuring Carmichael in the role, this time, of Trevor Lawrence, Gaye’s preferred saxophone soloist of the time.

A rearrangement of one of the original work’s gentler passages for the string section (led by Olivia Moore), with improvised solos passed in a round-robin between individual violin and viola players, was for me the musical highlight of the entire triumphant evening. In the way it developed and transformed an idea from the original recording, it reminded me of something Gaye said in 1976 while discussing Trouble Man in a radio interview with Paul Gambaccini: “If somebody took that album and did a symphony on it, I think it would be quite interesting.” I’d say Edwards and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra have done the groundwork on that project. They’re halfway there, and should be encouraged to see it through.

* The Nu Civilisation Orchestra perform What’s Going On at Birmingham Town Hall tonight (Friday 19 November), at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Wednesday 24, and at Canterbury’s Gulbenkian Theatre on Friday 26. Donations to the Tomorrow’s Warriors project can be made here: https://tomorrowswarriors.org/support/jointhemovement/

London Jazz Festival 3: SooJin Suh

K-Music is an annual festival of contemporary South Korean music which ended last night with an event at the Purcell Room on the South Bank, held in conjunction with the EFG London Jazz Festival. The closing concert featured the drummer SooJin Suh and her Seoul-based Coloris Trio, completed by the pianist Jaehun Kang and the bassist Hoo Kim.

It would be easy to place the group somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of 21st century piano trios that has the Bad Plus and EST at one end and GoGo Penguin at the other. But it soon became apparent that they have something of their own to offer: a thoughtful, spacious music based on compositions, mostly by Suh, that include dedications to Andrew Hill and Herbie Nichols, which gives some idea of what they’re about.

Piano ostinatos and ground bass figures triggered many of the pieces, often providing a platform for Suh to show her command of flow and texture. She began with a solo cymbal passage whose grace reminded me of Billy Higgins, and seldom failed to be doing something interesting, whether with sticks, mallets or brushes. Much of the music was rubato, with time fluid and implied rather than explicit, which suits her perfectly, although long passage of 4/4 swing on Hoo Kim’s “Rain Drops” had an impressively lithe propulsiveness. Her companions played their part in a three-way conversation, loosening up as the long set went on.

They were joined for a handful of pieces by the British alto saxophonist Camilla George, who had earlier played an enjoyable short opening set in a duo with the brilliant guitarist Artie Zaitz. Adjusting to a more straightforward hard-bop groove, the quartet produced a particularly buoyant reading of Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream”. After George had left the stage, they finished with a tender version of Suh’s “Tear Down a Wall”, a ballad with the simplicity of a child’s song that ends their excellent recent album and gave the evening a perfect closure.

* Colorist by SooJin Suh’s Coloris Trio is on the Mirrorball Music label. The photograph of Suh at Purcell Room was taken by Ikin Yum.

London Jazz Festival 2: Cécile McLorin Salvant

With Grammy awards on her mantelpiece for each of her last three albums, Cécile McLorin Salvant could be cruising. Instead she’s challenging herself and her audience. Listening to her at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday, I was reminded of Rhiannon Giddens: these are women with powerful voices, vast musicality, great curiosity, and a disinclination to opt for the comfortable life that could be the reward for the acclaim both have received in recent years.

For the tour preceding the arrival of her next album, Ghost Song, early next year, McLorin Salvant has jettisoned the familiar support of a jazz piano trio in favour of a kind of chamber quintet featuring flute (Alexa Tarantino), guitar (Marvin Sewell), piano (Glenn Zaleski), bass (Yasushi Nakamura) and percussion (Keito Ogawa). Carefully deployed, the ensemble is flexible enough to cover all the territory she now explores as she expands her range from the basic repertoire of ballads and blues.

Her own songs at this concert included “Fog”, from the 2015 album For One to Love, the new “Thunderclouds”, inspired by Les Enfants du Paradis and finished with a couple of lines from Colette, “Obsession”, from 2018’s The Window, and the haunting “Ghost Song” itself, her voice on its final chorus plaintively joined by that of Tarantino. In these compositions, Broadway theatre music meets art song and the virtuosic inventiveness of Betty Carter meets the emotional focus of Nina Simone.

Her choice of cover versions was intriguing. “I Want to Know” was an ’50s-style R&B song, a 12-bar blues with a bridge, showcasing Sewell’s fine bottleneck playing. Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” came from Simone’s repertoire, sung with a teasing lightness. Sting’s “Until…”, from the soundtrack to the 2001 film Kate & Leopold, was interestingly rearranged to culminate in a Latin section featuring fine flute and piano solos. But the biggest surprise came with “Wuthering Heights”, a song I cordially detest in its original version, here slowed and spun into something mesmerisingly beautiful, its gimmicks completely removed in order to facilitate this remarkable transfiguration.

She’s on a journey, just as Cassandra Wilson, a member of a previous generation, was when she moved from the supper-club safety of Blue Skies in 1988 to the uncharted waters of Blue Light ‘Til Dawn five years later, using different instrumentations to tackle Robert Johnson, Joni Mitchell and the Monkees. Even McLorin Salvant herself may not know where her well-stocked mind and innately inquisitive spirit will take her in the coming years, but from the sound of Tuesday’s ovation she will not be alone on the trip.

London Jazz Festival 1: The peak of their art

After an hour of Mike Westbrook’s autumnal musings at the Pizza Express’s piano on Sunday afternoon, in which the great composer, arranger and bandleader stitched together the memories of a life in music into a seamless reverie with a quiet intensity that held the room in thrall, the scene at the 2021 London Jazz Festival moved to the South Bank, where Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey stormed the Queen Elizabeth Hall with something belonging entirely to the here and now.

Sometimes you get lucky and witness something that makes you realise how high the standards can be. Doesn’t matter what it is. Tennis, poetry, carpentry. On Sunday night it was jazz. A pianist, a bassist and a drummer dropped in to examine the art of the possible, demonstrating over the course of two hours of high-density interplay what can happen when three like-minded virtuosi get it into their heads to create something in which 1+1+1 = infinity.

Basically, they played their way through their recent album, Uneasy. It’s one of the year’s finest releases, but here they stretched it, expanded it, tossed its elements around, and gave it a completely new existence. So many bases were covered — 21st century takes on bebop, Latino patterns, reggae, the circular rhythms of Tyner-Garrison-Jones — that the time passed very quickly.

Linda Oh is the least known of the three, but her bass playing was the heart of the group: slight build, total physical commitment, wonderful tone, great agility, an endless flow of ideas. Vijay Iyer is a cerebral pianist who nevertheless relishes any involvement with rhythm (one night at the Lido in Berlin a few years ago, he and his regular acoustic trio — completed by the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore — locked into an endless groove that any funk band would have envied). Tyshawn Sorey operates with complete comfort at the absolute extremities of the dynamic range, from whisper-quiet to shatteringly loud, plus every setting in between. On this occasion he made you wonder why anyone would ever need more than a small bass drum, a medium-sized snare, a single cymbal and a hi-hat, from each of which he drew an astonishing variety of tones and timbres.

Their music rattled, jolted, cruised, purred, broke apart, blended back, cantered, swung, faked a stumble, slowed to a sigh. The audacity made you gasp. Solos were taken, but were always part of the whole. Oh’s leaping grooves made you want to dance. Iyer’s upper-register filigree made your mind soar. Sorey’s sudden whipcracks straightened your back.

Another side of the multi-dimensional Sorey is on view in For George Lewis / Autoschediasms, a two-CD set in which his compositions are performed by Alarm Will Sound, a New York-based 16-piece chamber orchestra here made up of brass, woodwind, strings and percussion, tuned and untuned. “For George Lewis”, a 50-minute piece dedication to his mentor and fellow composer, conducted by Alan Pierson, bears the imprint of Sorey’s interest in the music of Morton Feldman: fully composed, based on a process of accretion and subtraction of single held notes, it moves with mesmerising deliberation through austere and refined layers of sound, creating the musical equivalent of colour-field painting.

“Autoschediasms” is Sorey’s name for his version of the approach to creating real-time music with large ensembles pioneered by Butch Morris (who called it “conduction”) and Anthony Braxton. In these two performances, recorded in St Louis in May 2019 and in various US cities via internet video chat in October 2020, Sorey takes the rostrum, giving the musicians prompts via gestures and prepared cue-cards. “The method can involve the use of up to four batons simultaneously by the conductor,” he writes in his informative notes, and anyone who has seen him at a drum kit will know that this is a challenge well within his scope. The result is a much more obviously active ensemble music, its details and densities sometimes clashing or overlapping, but with an emerging coherence and, like a master of action painting, an excellent sense of drama.

* Uneasy by Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey is on ECM. For George Lewis / Autoschediasms by Tyshawn Sorey and Alarm Will Sound is on Cantaloupe Music (www.cantaloupemusic.com).

Forever Curtis

No word of a lie, I was listening to a new compilation called People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook when I came across this photograph of me interviewing Curtis in January 1972, during the edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test in which he and his band so memorably performed “We Got to Have Peace” and “Keep On Keeping On”. It was the first time I’d interviewed him (last year I wrote about the second occasion, which took place in very different circumstances, here) and he was as wise and courteous as I’d been led to expect from all of the songs of his that I’d listened to over the years. You’ll have to forgive me putting the photo up here; it’s a precious memory.

The 24-track album, compliled by Tony Rounce, kicks off with the Impressions’ version of “Gypsy Woman” and includes Mayfield’s “Keep On Keeping On”, but otherwise it consists of versions of Curtis’s songs by third parties. A few of them he also produced, such as Jan Bradley’s charming “Behind the Curtains”, Barbara Mason’s “Give Me Your Love”, Gladys Knight’s “The Makings of You”, the Staple Singers’ uncharacteristically lubricious “Let’s Do It Again”, Aretha’s “Look Into Your Heart”, Patti Jo’s irresistible “Make Me Believe in You” and Walter Jackson’s majestic “It’s All Over”. But some of the finest moments come when outsiders are looking in on the material.

Rounce suggests that Dionne Warwick’s version of the much loved “People Get Ready”, recorded in Memphis in 1969, is the closest to Curtis’s original with the Impressions, and he’s right, but it’s different enough to make it a marvellous complement. The Techniques’ “Queen Majesty” and the Gaylads’ “That’s What Love Will Do” are chosen to illustrate the huge impact the Impressions had on Jamaican vocal groups (I think I’d have added the Uniques’ “Gypsy Woman”, with its gorgeous Slim Smith lead vocal).

My only other suggestions would have been to find a place for the Opals’ “You Can’t Hurt Me No More” and to omit Major Lance’s over-familiar “Um Um Um Um Um Um” in favour of the lesser-known “Delilah”, his first single for OKeh in 1963, with its great piano from Floyd Morris, Al Duncan’s kicking drums and little touches of Curtis’s guitar. Lance’s first hit, “The Monkey Time”, appears in a version from the Miracles’ Mickey’s Monkey album, allowing us to contrast the significant difference in feels between Duncan’s drumming on the original and Benny Benjamin on the Motown version.

I was pleased to be introduced to the Jackson 5’s intense and long-buried 1970 version of “Man’s Temptation”, produced by Bobby “Does Your Mama Know About Me” Taylor, its lead switched between various brothers, and to Keni Burke’s “Never Stop Loving Me”, which is early-’80s Quiet Storm music at its suavest. The version of “I’ve Been Trying” by Jerry Butler, an ex-Impression, may not be quite as sublime as the group’s original — the B-side of “I’m So Proud” — but what could be? It was their finest hour.

It’s always good to be reminded of the mark Curtis left, not just as a singer and composer but as a man who believed in taking control of his own destiny when so many in his position were being robbed of it.

* The photo was sent to me by Tim Dickinson, to whom many thanks. People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook is on the Kent label.

Dylan 1980-85

While reading an interview with the filmmaker Jesse Dylan in the (London) Times last week, one quote caught my eye. The interviewer asked him about the continued productivity of his father, who is now in his ninth decade. Jesse replied that his dad wasn’t trying to outdo himself. “He’s just thinking, ‘Should I paint a picture today? Should I write a song?'”

It reminded me of of my own reaction to visiting the Musée Picasso in Paris a few years ago and realising how wonderful it must have been to be him, to get up in the morning and think, “Shall I paint a picture today? Shall I paint a few plates? Shall I make a bull’s head out of a pair of bicycle handlebars or a guitar out of a matchbox and some rubber bands?”

That’s not the only point of comparison between the two, for sure. But Dylan transforms farm implements into sculpture and photographs into paintings with the same unstoppable desire to make stuff. He’s not expecting everything he creates to be the equal of “Desolation Row”, just as Picasso didn’t think a painted soup dish needed to be a rival to the Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Jesse Dylan’s remark might have helped me to make a different kind of sense of the latest volume of the Bootleg Series, titled Springtime in New York and assembled from recordings made in the first half of the 1980s. This was a period that included Shot of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque, and most of the tracks on the deluxe five-CD version of the new release are outtakes from those sessions, in Los Angeles as well as New York, plus material from various tour rehearsals and a couple of live tracks (“Enough Is Enough” from Slane Castle in 1984 and “License to Kill” from the same year’s David Letterman show).

There are works of genius here, the two takes of “Too Late” and its eventual metamorphosis into “Foot of Pride” being the prime exhibit, showing Dylan functioning in 1983 at the peak of his powers, creating something that only his imagination could have produced, working away at its shape and structure and detail and angle of attack (and then still not being satisfied enough to put it on the relevant album). “New Danville Girl” has long been loved by bootleggers as a prototype of what would become, 18 months later, the epic “Brownsville Girl”, featuring a friendlier arrangement and more modest production but lacking some of the final version’s finer points. “Let’s Keep It Between Us” is a Dylan song recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1982 and here performed two years earlier as a confiding southern soul ballad, with wonderful B3 interjections from Willie Smith.

By and large, however, this is an assembly of lesser material. Unlike The Cutting Edge or More Blood, More Tracks, it’s not the sort of compilation that enables the dedicated student to make a close scrutiny of Dylan’s working method over a tightly defined period of time. It’s a whole lot looser than that, and variable in quality. You don’t necessarily need Dylan’s versions of “Fever”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”, “Abraham, Martin and John” or “Sweet Caroline” — or Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, which isn’t noticeably better than those performed by a hundred young British R&B bands in the mid-’60s (including my own). You might, of course, need his gorgeous version of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”. But what all of them do is remind us of what Dylan’s backing musicians often say, that he knows a very large number of songs — and if you’re in his band, you have to be ready to play them, at least in rehearsals.

Taken together with the outtakes of songs like “Blind Willie McTell”, “Jokerman”, “I and I”, “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Sweetheart Like You”, “Tight Connection to My Heart”, “Seeing the Real You at Last” and “Dark Eyes”, some of them pleasingly devoid of the production touches added to the versions released on the original albums, they made me think of what it might be like if Bob Dylan turned up in your village with his band, rented the parish hall and spent an evening entertaining the locals. It wouldn’t be a show. It wouldn’t be for posterity. Nobody would be taking notes or keeping score. There might be false starts and missteps and re-runs. There would certainly be some things that didn’t work quite as well as others. Playing these five discs end to end, flattening out the artistic highs and lows, allowing the kaleidoscope of Dylan’s approach to American music to form and disperse and reform, you get a sense of how much fun that would be.

* Bob Dylan’s Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series 1980-85 is out now in various formats and configurations on the Columbia Legacy label. The photograph of Dylan in New York is from one of the booklets that come with the deluxe version and was taken by Lynn Goldsmith.

Xhosa Cole in the round

Xhosa Cole at the Cockpit Theatre (photo: Steven Cropper)

In heaven, if there is one and we get to go there, all gigs will be like Jazz in the Round, the monthly series now in its tenth year at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone. It was good to be back in that intimate space for the first time since the start of the pandemic, among an audience encircling the young Birmingham-based saxophonist Xhosa Cole, whose debut album, K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us, is one of the year’s highlights.

Last night Cole brought a new band, a trio completed by the double bassist Josh Vadiveloo and the drummer Jim Bashford, and a repertoire which he announced would be devoted to the compositions of Thelonious Monk. Then he fooled many of us by starting with a Monkish tune of his own devising before moving on to a highly wrought version of “Played Twice”. Already the trio was revealing itself to be a finely balanced mechanism in which even drum solos become conversations.

The obvious comparison would be with Sonny Rollins’s classic 1957 Village Vanguard recording for Blue Note with Wilbur Ware and Pete LaRoca. Tenor, bass and drums can form an austere, unforgiving format, but Cole, Vadiveloo and Bashford made it seem welcoming, not least thanks to the care put into the arrangements. “Evidence”, already the most staccato of jazz tunes, was made even more so, but without forfeiting a powerful sense of flow. “Pannonica” added the tiniest hint of vaudeville to spice up a tune whose strolling A section is as close as Monk ever came to writing a pop tune (before he added a defiantly chromatic middle eight).

It’s no disrespect to the bassist and drummer, marvellously agile and responsive throughout, to say that the dominant memory of the evening was provided by Cole’s lengthy unaccompanied reading of “Round Midnight”, which grew directly out of “Played Twice” and began with the sound of clicking pads. Supple and full of life, unhurried but rich in variations and allusions, employing subtle hints of multiphonics in a wholly relevant way, Cole’s solo sometimes evoked Monk’s own habit of adding arpeggiated flourishes to his solo piano improvisations, relishing the sense of decoration without losing the thread of continuity.

Unexpectedly, it reminded me of the first version of “Round Midnight” that I remember hearing, a feature for Johnny Griffin on Lookin’ at Monk, a 1961 recording by the two-tenor group Griffin co-led with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. I think Griffin, one of the great post-bop tenorists, would have admired not just Cole’s impressive technical command but the poise, maturity and warmth with which the 25-year-old found new life in a very familiar tune.

* Xhosa Cole’s K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us is on the Stoney Lane label.

Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’

Probably the best compliment I can pay to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary is to say that it’s made in the spirit of the music. His switchblade editing, abundant use of split-screen and fantastic material from all sorts of archives creates a tone parallel to the sounds we’re hearing and to the lives we’re watching.

An important decision was not to include testimony from anyone who wasn’t actually a witness to the events the film records. Every voice you hear bears the glory and the wounds of what happened in that short time when Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico rewrote the rulebook. Cale is wonderfully engaged with a story that, for him, ended badly. Tucker still sounds like the real glue of the band. The voices of the departed members are heard in archive interviews. Among others who shed light are the veteran avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the actress Mary Woronov, the superfan Jonathan Richman, the composer La Monte Young, the scenemaker Danny Fields, Merrill Reed Weiner, Lou’s sister, and Martha Morrison, Sterling’s wife. (No Gerard Malanga and only the briefest glimpses of Edie Sedgwick, which is a bit of a surprise.)

It’s quite a demure film, given the milieu; the sexual merryground is glimpsed but not explored. Neither is Haynes interested in deep musicology. He wants impressions rather than details, which keeps the film moving. He doesn’t try to analyse the divide in Reed’s personality between the brutal and the tender. But we do get a feeling for the characters, as when Cale sums up Nico quite beautifully: “She was a wanderer. She wandered in and she quietly wandered out again.” And we certainly get an idea of how the chemistry between Long Island doo-wop fan Reed and Welsh avant-gardist Cale turned 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side into such a potent musical laboratory. Haynes leaves us with a lovely colour clip of Reed and Cale performing “I’m Waiting for My Man” during their reunion at the Bataclan in Paris in 1972, with Nico waiting in the wings.

Throughout the film, the great songs — “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Sister Ray”, “White Light/White Heat”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Rock and Roll”, “Sweet Jane” — are allowed to emerge in the perfect setting. And as they issue from big cinema speakers, you may yourself experiencing once again the seismic effect they had when you first heard them, brand-new. There were times when I wanted to cheer.

Hipster, still eminent

Of course there’s nothing really new to be heard on the pair of live albums Donald Fagen has just released, one under his own name and the other under that of Steely Dan: Northeast Corridor, a selection of the Dan’s songs recorded at the Beacon Theatre in New York and Boston’s Orpheum Theatre, and a concert version of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo masterpiece, pieced together from those and a couple of other venues across the US. Why would there be? The original recordings were pretty close to perfect in the first place, or as close as Fagen and his late partner, Walter Becker, could make them across days, weeks and months in state-of-the-art studios.

So what’s the point? Perhaps it’s to allow us to replicate the sensation of hearing them for the first time, which is what even the slightest shift of emphasis or ornament allows. The slightly adjusted harmonies of the chorus to “Kid Charlemagne”, the melodica on “Aja”, the drum coda to “Reelin’ in the Years”, the brand-new rhapsodic trombone intro to “Things I Miss the Most”, the ceding of the solo bridge passage of “Maxine” to a member of the close-harmony backing choir — they’re small changes, but they help us to see the bigger picture anew. Otherwise the proportions and trajectories are much as they were on the originals — although in the case of The Nightfly the overall feel is a little more, shall we say, fatback: fuller and funkier, but not so much as to change the tone.

Maybe the most significant change is to Fagen’s voice, and even that doesn’t really alter the listener’s response. Always the instrument of someone who had to be persuaded to to take the lead on his own songs, and the more authentic for that, age has cost it some of its strength but none of its capacity to beguile and engage. It was always a sidelong voice, and his delivery of the confessions of a graveyard-shift DJ on The Nightfly‘s title track seems even more affecting.

When Fagen made The Nightfly, he was looking back 20 years to the time immediately before the Kennedy assassination, when capitalism seemed ready to share its material abundance throughout the western world. Now, another 40 years later, in a period of disillusion and uncertainty, the evocation of that period’s Madison Avenue-inspired optimism carries extra weight.

The musicianship across both albums is, of course, immaculate. Keith Carlock’s drums and Freddie Washington’s bass make those mid-tempo rhythms as crisp as a brand-new button-down shirt. The two-brass, two-reeds front line swivels on a dime (with a special mention for Roger Rosenberg’s baritone solo on “Black Cow”, and no blame to tenorist Walt Weiskopf for not quite being Wayne Shorter on “Aja” or Michael Brecker on “Ruby Baby”). Guitarist Jon Herington produces a great Denny Dias tribute on the euphoric “Bhodisattva” and pianist Jim Beard romps through “Glamour Profession”.

As a coda to the Steely Dan album, Fagen and his superlative quartet of backing singers leave the stage to a single-chorus instrumental arrangement of “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry”, a blues-ballad from a 1958 Joe Williams album. It’s a reminder of the depth of Fagen and Becker’s knowledge and love of music — as are these two albums as a whole. Which, come to think of it, is by itself a good enough reason for their existence.

* Steely Dan’s Northeast Corridor and Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live are out now on Universal Music. The photograph of Fagen is from the booklet with the Steely Dan album and was taken by Nick Antaya.

Supreme in Seattle

When John Coltrane died in the summer of 1967, aged 40, he left us engaged in a discussion that will go on for as long as people are still listening to his music. “Late Coltrane”, as the music of his last two years is known, provides an endless source of speculation over its intention and argument over its value.

With the original studio version of A Love Supreme, recorded in December 1964 and released a month later, he reached a pinnacle that marked the end of his middle period and signalled the beginning of something new. Formally, the album retained the by-then familiar and much admired approach of his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). But its explicitly devotional message hinted at the direction he was about to take, towards a music in which the individual notes were less important than the feelings they expressed and the spiritual release they sought.

His subsequent music, often featuring expanded versions of the line-up, with more horn players and percussionists, tended to stir up trouble among those who didn’t appreciate his engagement with the newer forms of expression that freed him from the last vestiges of Western song-form. From Ascension, released in January 1966, to the benefit concert at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in New York in 1967, this last music inspired some and infuriated others, and continues to do so.

For those still searching for a key to unlock the apparent mstery of Late Coltrane, the release of a hitherto unknown live version of A Love Supreme, recorded in October 1965 on the last night of a week-long run at the Penthouse in Seattle, provides a perfect portal to his changed universe. The quartet had played the four-section masterwork at the Antibes jazz festival in the summer of 1965, sticking close to the studio blueprint. The Seattle version, although following the same scheme, is very different in approach. With the quartet augmented by Carlos Ward on alto, Pharoah Sanders on tenor and Donald Garrett on bass, the approach is far looser, with solo space for the guests and the individual movements separated (or linked) by interludes featuring solo passages by the bassists and the drummer.

Well over twice as long, at 75 minutes, as the original, this version allows the listener to hear the new initiatives in the context of a familiar, albeit flexible, structure, which may help some to make “sense” of it. Exalted moments abound. Following Coltrane’s opening solo, Sanders’ soft-edged buzzsaw lifts “Acknowledgment” to another level of energy, driven by Jones’s Latin-inflected barrage. In the first interlude, Garrett and Garrett play together, entwining their pizzicato lines. (In the third and fourth, they play consecutively.) Ward has a beautiful solo on “Resolution”, the Panamanian saxophonist — later a valued partner of Don Cherry and Abdullah Ibrahim — displaying his personal approach to Eric Dolphy’s angular phrasing. Jones’s interlude is a six-minute solo tour de force that sets up the bravura performance of “Pursuance”, on which Tyner plays what might be one of his mightiest solos, ideas flooding from the keyboard at a blistering 80 bars (or 320 beats, if you prefer) per minute. As for Coltrane himself, the beautifully controlled winding-down on the concluding “Psalm”, arco basses echoing the tenor, is as nakedly affecting as anything he ever played.

By comparison with the unsuccessful sextet versions of two of the movements Coltrane recorded on the day after the original studio session, when he experimented with adding the tenor of Archie Shepp and the bass of Art Davis to the quartet, this is fully realised music, all its elements held in perfect balance. Not surprisingly, given the sustained intensity and unbroken beauty of what the Penthouse audience has been hearing, there’s a lengthy silence at the end before the applause begins.

The audio quality, restored from the original recording made at the club by the flautist Joe Brazil on a reel-to-reel machine, is far better than adequate. What little it might lack in perfect balance is outweighed by a clarity and an immediacy that bring us very close indeed to the first-hand experience of an historic occasion. For anyone who has ever been touched by Coltrane’s music, and perhaps wants to understand it better, this is essential listening.

* John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is released on October 22 on the Impulse! label. The photograph of Coltrane in 1965 was taken by Chuck Stewart.