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Remembering Fats Domino

Fats Domino 2When I was ushered into his room in the Churchill Hotel by the personal valet who had worked for him for more than 20 years, Fats Domino was wearing his off-duty outfit: a brown knitted suit and a hair-net. On stage at the Hammersmith Odeon a couple of nights later, the look was very different: white jacket, shoes and socks, pink tie and trousers, diamonds covering his fingers, his belt buckle, his tie clip, his watch. Here was the man whose record sales in the 1950s were second only to Elvis Presley.

This was April 1973, and he was a couple of weeks away from his 44th birthday. In person, giving an interview to the reporter from the Melody Maker, he was pleasant, if a little guarded. He dutifully ran through his history for me, the stuff that’s been in all the obituaries over the past couple of days, telling me about falling in love with the piano as a child, copying the great boogie-woogie pianists (he mentioned Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons), how Lew Chudd had signed him to Imperial, and how when Imperial was bought by Liberty he had left and made deals first with ABC Paramount, then with Mercury and Reprise. When we spoke, he was without a recording contract.

His stage show was magnificent. Here’s what I wrote, comparing his concert performance with those of other rock and roll pioneers in middle age: “Unlike Chuck, he wasn’t cynical or saddled with a poor backing band; unlike Jerry Lee, he didn’t want to sing country ballads; unlike Little Richard, he wasn’t carried away with his own divinity. He was, quite simply, Fats Domino. He sang almost nothing that wasn’t a million-seller, or close to it, and he sang them exactly as he’d laid them down on the original recordings.”

He’d brought a fine band from New Orleans: the ripe-toned saxophone section of Fred Shepherd (alto), Walter Kimball, Maurice Simon and Fred Kemp (tenors) and Roger Lewis (baritone), plus the great Roy Montrell on guitar, David Douglas on bass and Walter Lastie — a member of one of those Crescent City musical dynasties — on drums. The songs they performed included “I’m Walkin'”, “Blue Monday”, “Let the Four Winds Blow”, “I’m in Love Again”, “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Some Day”, “I Want to Walk You Home”, “Hello Josephine”, “Ain’t It a Shame”, and “So Long”, plus “The Saints”, “Stag-o-lee”, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and Professor Longhair’s “Goin’ to the Mardi Gras”, all in 45 minutes. Apart from the general impression of good humour and good times, I can recall Lastie’s brisk double-shuffle on “I’m Walkin'” and an excellent gravel-toned baritone solo on “Blue Monday”.

It was only Domino’s third visit to the UK. He’d been here as part of a package tour in 1962, and had returned in 1967 for one of Brian Epstein’s concerts at the Savile Theatre. Given that the Beatles loved and revered his music, it’s a pity they didn’t sign him to Apple and help him make some more good records.

I mentioned to him that Dave Bartholomew, the trumpeter and bandleader who had been the co-writer and musical director on his early hits, had told me a year or so earlier that, when they went into the studio back in the early ’50s, they were attempting to make the first fusion of Dixieland jazz and R&B. Fats didn’t entirely agree. “We was just doing what we wanted,” he said. “That’s all — there weren’t no more to it than that.” Enough, however, to help change the world.

The Weather Station in Islington

The Weather Station in IslingtonA few hours ahead of her gig with her band, the Weather Station, at the Lexington pub in Islington last night, the Canadian singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman tweeted a photograph she’d taken during a walk along the nearby Regent’s Canal. “Sandy Denny in headphones,” she added. Sandy would have been pleased by the compliment and intrigued by her admirer’s performance, and in particular by the way Lindeman managed to make the 50-year-old concept of folk-rock sound brand new.

The Weather Station’s new self-titled album embraces electric guitars in a characteristically modest and subtle way. Lindeman took the stage at a sold-out Lexington with the lead guitarist (and occasional organist) Will Kidman, the bass guitarist Ben Whiteley, and the drummer Erik Heestermans, and made the relatively new approach sound like the most natural thing in the world.

Perhaps the key was her rhythm guitar playing, the core of the sound, the central strum and the enunciator of chord patterns that move between the comfortingly familiar and the ear-teasingly sophisticated, unpushy but generating real momentum behind melodies that are liable to soar at unexpected moments. The other instruments arranged themselves around her with discreet sensitivity, leaving plenty of space for us to appreciate the care with which she modulates her tone and enunciates her extraordinary lines.

There were lots of songs from her last two albums, among them “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”, “I Mined”, “Floodplain”, “Tapes”, “I Could Only Stand By” and “Impossible” (with organ drone and galloping tom-toms) from Loyalty and “Free”, “Thirty”, “Kept It All to Myself”, “Black Flies” and “You and I (On the Other Side of the World)” from the new one. A short central solo acoustic segment expanded to a duo when she was joined for one song by Will Stratton, the American singer-songwriter who had provided a pleasant support set.

What was interesting about seeing her live was the way her lyrics were given, if anything, even greater value. Some of these songs are like the deepest conversations you ever had with someone you care about — and very often they’re like things that were formulated but somehow never got said. On the faster songs she piles lines on top of each other to create a river of thought and feeling. And none of the nuances are lost when she sings them with a band in front of an audience.

Lindeman doesn’t do stage dramatics or ingratiation. When a song ends (and her endings, whether abrupt or lingering, are always worth attention), she tends to make no acknowledgment of applause but goes straight into adjusting her tuning for the next song. Yet there’s no distance between her and her listeners. Although her spoken comments tend to be restricted to dry asides, she radiates a warm intelligence; her fleeting changes of expression — a grimace at a fluffed entrance, a small and mysterious smile now and then — say most of what she needs to convey. By the end of the evening I don’t suppose there was a man or a woman in the place who wasn’t a bit in love with her.

* The Weather Station play tonight (October 24) in the Eagle Inn, Salford and tomorrow at the Music’s Not Dead record shop in Bexhill on Sea (free, 7pm). They’ll be back for another UK tour in January and February. The new album is on the Paradise of Bachelors label.

‘Astral Weeks’ in Camden Town

Astral WeeksIf your name isn’t Van Morrison, it takes some kind of courage to tackle Astral Weeks, one of the sacred texts of the late ’60s. No one has ever really explained how the singer, his American musicians and Larry Fallon, the arranger and conductor, and his producer, Lewis Merenstein, came up with the unique blend of idioms that make the album so distinctive. Jazz, folk, rock and blues are all in there, but so thoroughly metabolised that the eight songs create, for the length of a long-playing record, an idiom of their own. In his lyrics, too, Morrison plunged head-on into a new world of poetic spirituality.

So when Orphy Robinson and the Third Eye All Stars presented the album at the Jazz Café last night, there was an element of risk. Morrison himself performed it in its entirety on a tour in 2009, but it was his right to do so, and he brought it off quite satisfactorily, although he couldn’t quite summon the magic that had occurred during three rushed days in the late summer of 1968, when he worked with musicians he didn’t know in a line-up that adhered to no known formula. The idea of someone else taking on this precious and delicate creation and trying to invent variations on its wild, hypnotic swirl of emotions seemed foolhardy, to say the least.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. The 10-piece Third Eye band — Robinson on vibes and percussion, singers Joe Cang and Sahra Gure, flautist Rowland Sutherland, cellist Kate Shortt, Justina Curtis on electric piano, acoustic guitarists Mo Nazam and John Etheridge, bassist Neville Malcolm and drummer Mark Mondesir — chose not to attempt a radical reinterpretation of the material. They played it straight, content to infuse the music with their own freewheeling spirit.

A couple of solos — Sutherland on “Cyprus Avenue” and Robinson on “The Way Young Lovers Do” — brought the house down, while Malcolm and Mondesir did a fine job of following the template established on the original by Richard Davis and Connie Kay, who had no idea who Morrison was when they turned up for the sessions but found themselves devising a new application for their jazz chops in service of the grumpy little Irishman who barely spoke to them.

Neither Cang nor Gure attempted to imitate Morrison. They just sang the songs with a respect that did not prevent them from injecting their own energy into this hallowed material. I had never imagined that I would want to hear anyone singing “Madame George” other than its creator, but Cang — after successfully calling for quiet as the guitars strummed the intro — delivered it in a way that, like the whole evening, did no disservice to a high-wire masterpiece.

Art Ensemble at Cafe Oto

AEC Cafe OtoAmid the strangest weather in 30 years, with sand from the Sahara and dust from Iberian wildfires turning the air in London dark red at lunchtime on the hottest October 16th since records were first kept, there was another surprise awaiting the audience for the second of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s three sold-out nights at Cafe Oto this week.

We had bought tickets expecting the regular four-piece line-up of the current AEC: co-founder Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones) and long-time member Famoudou Don Moye (drums and percussion) plus trumpeter Hugh Ragin and double bassist Junius Paul. What we encountered was the band extended to a septet by the presence of Mazz Swift (violin and vocals), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Silvia Bolognesi (double bass, the only one not visible in the photograph above). It was a special treat.

As you would expect, the unbroken 80-minute performance was a mixture of the prepared and the spontaneous, moving easily through contrasting ensemble passages which gave way to solos from each of the participants. The extra string players never felt like a bolt-on extra: they were fully integrated into the ensemble, playing equal roles in the composed passages, in the textured backgrounds and in the long, boilingly intense collective improvisation which prefaced the sign-off with the familiar descending cadences of “Odwalla”.

Mitchell played an astonishing sopranino solo during which he manipulated rapid sequences of harsh cries against a sustained whistling sound. Ragin alternated between regular and pocket trumpets, four-valve cornet and flugelhorn with unfailing relevance. Paul’s wonderfully emotional solo and his fast walking 4/4 with Moye in one passage evoked the spirit of the late Malachi Favors. On the opposite side of the stage, Bolognesi responded with an improvisation making energetic use of the bow. Swift sang with restrained warmth and she and Reid both left, in their solos and in the ensemble, the impression of instrumentalists of great character and inventiveness, virtuosos of unorthodox techniques and startling effects that contributed to the overall scheme. Throughout the set Moye reminded us of what wonderfully subtle and propulsive drummer he is.

The two sustained standing ovations that greeted the end of the set and the brief hymn-like encore were the equal of anything I’ve heard at Cafe Oto. It was an unforgettable end to a day marked by natural wonders.

Bunny Sigler 1941-2017

Bunny Sigler.jpgIn the world of Philadelphia soul music, Bunny Sigler was a backroom boy who occasionally made it into the spotlight. A writer, producer and backing singer (on Harold Melvin’s “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, for instance), he also made a handful of interesting singles. Among them, in 1967, was an expanded version of a Shirley and Lee hit retitled “Let the Good Times Roll / Feel So Good”, which became a Northern Soul favourite. The one I love, however, is his 1973 retread of “Tossin’ and Turnin'”, Bobby Lewis’s 1961 smash, which he subjects to the full Philadelphia International treatment: the great MFSB rhythm cooking at maximum heat in Sigma Sound studios, almost certainly with Earl Young on drums, Ronnie Baker on bass, Roland Chambers on guitar and — most gloriously of all — Harold Ivory Williams on delirious gospel keyboards. And there’s a divine moment at 1:50 when Sigler, listing the things that are keeping him awake, wails “There’s a phone out there ringin’ / There’s a group out on the corner singin’… hallelujah!” Enjoy. And read the nice New York Times obit here. RIP, Mr Sigler.

Arthur Jafa at Store Studios

Arthur Jafa 3Perhaps you’ve already seen Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern. If you haven’t, you should. It’s full of marvellous things, from the paintings of Romare Bearden, Wadsworth Jarrell and Bob Thompson to the photographs of Roy DeCarava and Beuford Smith via posters and murals and a vitrine full of covers of The Black Panther newspaper. One or two of the later rooms aren’t so compelling, and I was unpleasantly jarred by the mystifying inclusion of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Muhammad Ali. But the whole exhibition, curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, tells a great story and seethes with life.

On the other side of the Thames, there’s something strongly related. Installed in a black tent-like structure on the roof of Store Studios as part of Everything at Once, a kind of de luxe pop-up show in an old brutalist office building at 180 The Strand, overlooking the Shard and the National Theatre, Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message is Death is very different in nature and scale but, because of its contemporaneity, even more affecting.

This is a seven-minute collage of snippets of film from all kinds of sources, set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”. For those, like me, previously unfamiliar with his 30-year career, Jafa is a cinematographer who was born in Mississippi, lives in Los Angeles, has worked with Spike Lee, directed a couple of the videos for Solange’s masterpiece A Seat at the Table in 2016, and exhibited earlier this year at the Serpentine Gallery.

His new work uses newsreel and found film of black Americans marching, worshipping, performing, dancing, and being threatened, beaten and shot by officers of the law. These images are juxtaposed with footage of heroes: Nina and Aretha; Martin and Malcolm; Miles and Trane; Louis and Jimi; the two MJs, Jordan and Jackson; Serena and Lebron; Ali and Louis Farrakhan; and a 17-year-old Biggie Smalls rapping on a Bedford-Stuyvesant streetcorner. Having started with a clip of Barack Obama at the funeral of the murdered Rev. Clementa Pinckey in Charleston, South Carolina, it ends with James Brown in his ’60s prime.

The whole thing has the rawness of a crude assemblage of video grabs. Hardly anything lasts more than a few seconds, an exception being a harrowing sequence of a mother in distress as she’s ordered from her car by police at night and is handcuffed before her young son makes his way towards them with his hands raised. Jafa occasionally intersperses his chosen clips images with close-ups of the sun and footage from monster movies, whose relevance I don’t really understand. (There’s also a curious decision to include the famous clip of Derek Redmond, the British 400-metre runner, limping to the finish of the Olympic semi-final with a torn hamstring, supported by his father, in Barcelona 25 years ago.)

I suppose I could say that Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death doesn’t tell me anything really new, or make me feel any different. But the cumulative power of the collage is moving and shocking, and Kanye West’s spare, gospel-drenched piece provides the perfect musical accompaniment for the emotions evoked by the sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal images juxtaposed on the screen. In the Observer, the art critic Laura Cumming called it “as devastating ode to black America”, and I can’t do better than that. I watched it through several times without a break, and I expect I’ll go back for more before it disappears.

* Everything at Once, which is organised by the Lisson Gallery and the Vinyl Factory, also includes work by Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Anish Kapoor, Richard Long, Julian Opie and others, and is on until December 10. Soul of a Nation closes on October 22; there’s a CD of music put together by the Soul Jazz label, featuring appropriate music from Don Cherry, Gil Scott-Heron, Joe Henderson and others. There’s a very good interview with Arthur Jafa here, from Interview magazine earlier this year.

Trio Da Kali / Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet photographed in Berkeley, CA December 12, 2013©Jay BlakesbergIt’s been my experience that no time spent checking out the Kronos Quartet’s latest activity is ever wasted, and the group’s new album, Ladilikan, in which they accompany Mali’s Trio Da Kali, is a beauty. The meeting between the voice of Hawa Diabaté, the balafon of Lassana Diabaté and the bass ngoni of Mamadou Kouyaté and the violins of David Harrington and John Sherba, the viola of Hank Dutt and the cello of Sunny Yang turns out to sound like something that has always existed, somewhere in the universe.

The primary impression is one of rhythmic vitality, with the quartet locking naturally into the trio’s two instruments to create a thoroughly integrated sextet, providing a lovely setting for Hawa Diabaté’s graceful contralto. In between the vocal passages, the band vamps with delicate power and a groove that is at times almost delirious. Approaching the conclusion of the stunning “Lila Bambo”, they come together in a unison coda that sweeps you off your feet.

Halfway through the album they give us something that might well become a classic. At Harrington’s suggestion, Hawa Diabaté sings Mahalia Jackson’s “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away”, with the original organ accompaniment transcribed for the string quartet; the words are translated into Bambara, the first among more than 40 languages spoken by Mali’s various ethnic groups. The controlled ardour of the voice and the grain of the strings — which together recreate the slightly wheezy sound of a portable harmonium — are irresistible (you can hear a snatch of it in this short trailer).

Meticulously produced by Nick Gold and Lucy Duran for the former’s World Circuit label, Ladilikan could well end up being the album I give to friends and family this Christmas. It’s hard to imagine anyone not loving it.

* Trio Da Kali play at the Musicport Festival in Whitby on October 21, then at Opera North, Leeds (22), St Barnabas Church, Oxford (25) and the Old Church, Stoke Newington,  London N16 (26).

John Jack 1933-2017

John Jack 100 Club 1Jazz never had a more faithful friend than John Jack, who died on September 7 and whose life was celebrated at the 100 Club yesterday, following a committal at the Islington and Camden/St Pancras crematorium. Among those musicians and poets queuing up to pay tribute by through performance were Mike Westbrook and Chris Biscoe (pictured during their duet), Evan Parker and Noel Metcalfe, Jason Yarde and Alexander Hawkins, Steve Noble (with Hogcallin’, one of John’s favourite British bands), Pete Brown and Michael Horovitz. Many others were present, along with scores of faces familiar from countless nights in dozens of clubs down the years, all of us having trouble believing that we won’t be seeing John again with his beloved Shirley at their usual table in the Vortex.

It occurred to me the other day that John probably heard more great music than the rest of us put together, and he knew the value of it. I met him on my first night in London, one Monday in the autumn of 1969. Earlier in the day I had reported for work at the Melody Maker and was told to go and review Westbrook’s band at the 100 Club. It was one of many great Monday nights there over the next few years, and John was a fixture. Maybe those sessions were a continuation of the work he’d done while running the Old Place in Gerrard Street for Ronnie Scott and Pete King between 1965 and 1968, offering a home to the new developments led by the generation of Westbrook, Chris McGregor and John Surman.

“The last of the Soho anarchists” was how the humanist celebrant, Jim Trimmer, described him during the committal ceremony. John was that, and more. He had been a roadie for the Vipers skiffle group; he had tried his hand as a painter; he had worked at the 2 Is, where British rock and roll was born; he had spent time at the Beat Hotel in Paris; he had been a founder member of CND; and much, much more, long before I ever met him. While working at Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop he took a flat opposite, in Charing Cross Road, and there he stayed for the rest of his life — on the side of that lovely street that wasn’t torn down by developers.

I was privileged to be one of his pallbearers, along with Matthew Wright, Mike Gavin and Glyn Callingham, all three of whom had known him when they worked at Ray Smith’s jazz record shop in Shaftesbury Avenue, where John ran his Cadillac Records operation from the basement. His co-worker in that venture was the wonderful Hazel Miller, who had known him longer than any of us and sat alongside Shirley in the chapel. On a beautiful bright day up in East Finchley, it felt like the end of an era.

* Here’s John Fordham’s fine summary of John’s lifehttps://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/24/john-jack-obituary

Sounds of the square

Chorus 1As the shops started to close and the street-food vendors began to disperse, twilight was falling on Deptford High Street. Arriving an hour early for last night’s concert by Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra at the Albany Theatre, I heard a strange sound and walked towards it.

It was coming from half a dozen identical large tubular silver metal structures erected in Giffin Square, each of them a tripod about 15ft tall, all topped with horizontal arms that ended in a speaker horn at both ends. The arms rotated gently, like the horns in a Hammond B3’s Leslie speaker cabinet, while emitting soft sustained sounds that, in combination, made me think of Terry Riley’s all-night organ concerts of the 1970s and of Brian Eno’s Bloom, the generative-music software he invented a few years ago to turn your iPhone into a self-activating musical instrument.

Just my kind of thing, in fact, and even more so when the accumulated layers grew into the sort of sound you might expect if you made a loop of the bells of every village church in Tuscany and then re-recorded the results under water. You could wander between the metal structures, and many people did. As the last of the daylight faded, the little red lights on each horn glowed more distinctly, and the sound took on a magical quality.

This, it turned out, was Chorus, a piece by the award-winning sound artist and composer Ray Lee, who specialises in such installations. In its full iteration, Chorus features 14 of the tripods, but six was fine for the intimate space of Giffin Square. The piece had its premiere in Newbury in 2013 and has since been heard in many places, including WOMAD and festivals in Warsaw and Melbourne. I wish Lee would come and park it in my street for a week or two.

* Chorus is on again in Gifford Square, Deptford tomorrow (Saturday, September 30) at 1.30pm, 2.30pm and 3.30pm.

Sandburg/Wilson

Carl Sandburg 2

Carl Sandburg

It’s National Poetry Day, and since I have a weakness for the much abused hybrid known as jazz and poetry that goes back to schooldays, this is a good excuse — if one were needed — to write about Matt Wilson’s new album, Honey and Salt, in which he sets the words of the poet Carl Sandburg to music.

Some people don’t like the star system of reviewing, but it was while reading the August edition of Down Beat in Ray’s Jazz Shop the other day that a five-star lead review sent me across the floor to search out a copy of Honey and Salt. It turned out to be a good tip.

Wilson, a fine drummer familiar in many contexts, whom I last heard with Liberation Music Orchestra, recruited an excellent band for this project: Ron Miles (cornet), Jeff Lederer (reeds and harmonium), Martin Wind (acoustic bass guitar), and Dawn Thompson, who plays guitar and sings on a handful of the 18 selections, plus an interesting group of readers better known as instrumentalists: Christian McBride, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano and Carla Bley. Oh, and the actor Jack Black.

Sandburg (1878-1967) won two Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry, and a third for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. He was from Knox County, Illinois, as is Wilson. Sandburg’s first cousin was married to Wilson’s great-great-aunt. While researching an essay on the poet during his college days, Wilson discovered Sandburg’s interest in jazz.

The poems are dry, pithy, witty and humane, some of them with a powerful resonance in the new century. Here’s one called “Choose”: “The single clenched fist lifted and ready, / Or the open asking hand held out and waiting. / Choose: / For we meet by one or the other.” And here’s one of his best known, called “Fog”: “The fog comes / on little cat feet. / It sits looking / over city and harbor / on silent haunches / and then moves on.” Wilson includes Sandburg’s own recording of “Fog”, accompanying the poet’s gentle voice with mallets on tom-toms.

The arrangements are unfailingly inventive, and the playing of the individuals — particularly the always brilliant Miles — is outstanding. The readers are all terrific, and to Bley falls the privilege of delivering, without accompaniment, the marvellous “To Know Silence Perfectly”: “There is a music for lonely hearts nearly always. / If the music dies down there is a silence / Almost the same as the movement of music. / To know silence perfectly is to know music.” On this evidence, their acute awareness of tone and cadence and expression makes jazz musicians great readers of poetry.