Skip to content

Memories of the Boogie Man

John Lee Hooker 1

You might have trouble believing this little story, but here it is. On the Friday morning in June 1964 when John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” was released in the UK, three of us — strangers to each other — were queuing up to buy it as a record store prepared to open its doors in the centre of Nottingham. This wasn’t the new Beatles or Stones single. This was a record made eight years earlier by a middle-aged American blues singer, and yet it seemed like the newest and most essential thing you could spent that week’s 6/8d on. And we three weren’t alone. “Dimples” made No 23 in the charts.

A few months later Hooker toured Britain, backed by the Groundhogs. They played the Elizabethan Rooms in Nottingham, a large space above the Co-op, and all five members of the local R&B band I was in made the pilgrimage to hear him. More than that, we clubbed together for a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and persuaded him to sit down at a table with us between sets and listen to our naive questions about the blues. He was patient and good-natured but the whisky evidently spoke more clearly to him than we did and I don’t remember a thing he said.

But the proximity was more than enough, as it probably was for the Groundhogs. They clearly loved his music and did their best, but this was an early stage of English kids playing the blues and they were probably a little too refined and respectful for the music’s good (although, of course,  John Lee’s idea of how many bars made 12 created problems of its own). Musically speaking, it wasn’t great, but the chance to see him close up was priceless.

I thought about all that while watching John Lee Hooker: The Boogie Man, Todd Austin’s excellent documentary on BBC4 tonight. I listened to Van Morrison saying that he responded so directly to Hooker because of his working-class background, and to Eric Burdon talking about how it was because he left school unable to read or write that Hooker spoke to him. Fair enough. But I also thought that there was I, a middle-class boy, privately educated, to whom Hooker spoke just as directly and profoundly from the instant I heard him. And that was the magic.

“Boom Boom” was a big record for me when it came out on a Stateside 45 the year before “Dimples”, and so were “Tupelo” and “I’m Mad Again” from The Folk Lore of John Lee Hooker. But the record I really loved was Don’t Turn Me From Your Door, a collection of tracks from two sessions in 1953 and 1961 released on Atlantic’s Atco subsidiary in 1963, most of them featuring just Hooker’s voice and his guitar (and his boot-heel, of course). There was an elemental quality to these recordings that went back beyond the Chicago blues we were mostly listening to and yet, with its pulsing drones and sudden explosive note-clusters, seemed as free as the freest free jazz.

The Boogie Man is fine tribute, thanks not least to Charles Shaar Murray, one of its consultants, whose fine biography of John Lee gave the programme its title. Among others giving evidence are Elvin Bishop, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and three of Hooker’s very eloquent children. Robert Cray has the best story, telling us that this was one Delta-born bluesman who, whenever he went on the road, always travelled with satin sheets.

Homage to Celia

Celia Cruz

Celia Cruz was to Latin music as Aretha Franklin was to soul, Cesaria Evora to fado**, Mahalia Jackson to gospel and Bessie Smith to the blues. She was the queen. On the two occasions I saw her, I was left in no doubt of that. The first was in 1976, when she appeared at the Lyceum with the Fania All Stars, alongside Johnny Pacheco and Ray Barretto. The second was 10 years later, when she arrived at Hammersmith Palais on a sultry July night with Tito Puente’s eight-piece band, took the stage in a dress covered with black, silver and hot red sequins, and set the place on fire. Here’s what I wrote in The Times the next day:

“Most of her songs are constructed according to a formula that gets the verse out of the way before concentrating on the sequence in which the singer improvises over a mesmerising two-chord vamp. It is there, in the real heart of the music, as the polyrhythms of congas, bongos and timbales interlock with the fluid and deceptively simple stroll of the bass guitar, that Celia Cruz proves her greatness. The vamp section of the mid-tempo ‘Bemba Colora’ turned into a roller-coaster of successive crescendos and she shouted, chattered and crooned, the audience hardly needing her encouragement to chant the responses while attempting to dance in the sweaty crush at the foot of the stage. Her own dancing, involving brief bouts of spasms and convulsions that defined the Latin ability to retain control while discarding inhibitions, provided a further incitement to displays of ecstatic abandon.”

I can still hear that “Bemba Colora”: it went on for a very long time and would still be going on now, if those of us who were there had been given a vote on the matter. It was a night when you wished you’d been born Latin, and one of the dozen most memorable gigs I can remember.

Inevitably, “Bemba Colora” is among the 10 songs associated with Cruz chosen by Angélique Kidjo, the great Beninese singer, for her new album, titled Celia. Or, as one might put it, this is Angélique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo paying tribute to Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso.

It’s no surprise that Kidjo and her producer, David Donatien, approached the project from an original perspective, choosing to take the songs on a journey back to Africa. This isn’t a salsa album: it’s an album of the African diaspora, bringing sounds and inflections from all over the continent to bear in a very organic and contemporary way. The musicians involved include Tony Allen, the great Afro-beat drummer, who partners the bassist Meshell Ndegeocello on several tracks, and the members of London’s Sons of Kemet, who provide the basis for a fine reading of “Bemba Colora”. Shabaka Hutchings, their tenor saxophonist, and Theon Cross, their tuba-player, contribute to several other tracks.

The one that really caught my ear is “Sahara”, a ballad of grand yearning recorded by Cruz in 1952. Written by Eligio Varela Mora, it’s given full value by Kidjo’s majestic delivery, languid but intense, over a beautiful arrangement featuring the unhurried ticking of Donatien’s percussion, the colourations of Xavier Tribolet’s piano and organ and Clément Petit’s overdubbed cellos, a kind of desert chamber ensemble. Every track has something interesting to offer, but this is where the project most fully realises its potential, both as a tribute and as a free-standing creation. Like that “Bemba Colora” in Hammersmith more than 30 years ago, it casts a spell you want never to end.

* Angélique Kidjo’s Celia is out now on the Verve label.

** See Vitor Fragoso’s comment.

Fat John & John Burch

Fat John Burch

In the UK between about 1962 and 1964 you could detect, beneath the excitement of the Beat Boom, the emergence of a music that made anything seemed possible. Largely inspired by the Charles Mingus of Blues & Roots and Oh Yeah!, a new generation of British musicians applied jazz techniques to the form and spirit of the blues in an effort to give their music a strong emotional impact. The nodal point for this was Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, in which a guitarist who loved the music of the Delta chose to surround himself with a shifting cast of younger players who were listening to Mingus, Coltrane and Ornette. When these musicians moved on, some of them became a powerful force in the British rock movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The transitional period didn’t last long. Some of its most interesting bands never got beyond the clubs and pubs and the occasional BBC radio broadcast, and didn’t even get as far as releasing a record. That’s partially rectified by the appearance of new collections of mostly unheard music from two of them: the Fat John Sextet, led by the drummer John Cox, and the octet of the pianist John Burch.

Cox, born in Bristol in 1933, wasn’t all that fat; he was useful drummer who started out as a bandleader in London with a group playing “half mainstream, half trad”. That changed quite quickly. In 1962, with John Mumford on trombone and Dave Castle on alto, they had a Monday-night residency at the Six Bells in Chelsea, playing music of a more contemporary cast. Art Blakey’s “Theme” was among the three tracks they recorded at the Railway Hotel in West Hampstead for a Decca compilation titled Hot Jazz, Cool BeerIn December 1963, when they recorded an unreleased session at the Pye studio just off Marble Arch, the line-up featured Chris Pyne on trombone, Ray Warleigh on alto and flute, Tony Roberts on tenor, Pete Lemer on piano and the great Danny Thompson on bass.

Those two sessions make up Honesty, a new 2CD set that is, I think, the only memorial to John Cox’s career. The 75-minute Pye session includes such standards-to-be as Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”, Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie”,  Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” and Junior Mance’s lovely “Jubilation”, indicating that the prevailing wind was blowing from a hard-bop direction, with occasional gusts of soul. More than half a century later, it holds up well. And while any opportunity to hear Warleigh’s eloquence is not to be missed, it’s also good to be reminded of what a very expressive player Tony Roberts has always been, and how scantily represented he is on record (Henry Lowther’s Child Song and Danny Thompson’s Whatever and Whatever Next being the only examples that spring to my mind). This is fine post-bop jazz with a hint, in Mingus’s “My Jelly Roll Soul” and the Latin rhythms of which Cox was fond, of how the music would have sounded in a more informal live setting .

Pyne, Warleigh and Thompson had all been members of Blues Incorporated. So had Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who appear on Jazz Beat, by the Johnny Burch Octet. A fourth member of both Burch’s and Korner’s bands, the saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, was committed elsewhere when the band recorded a BBC Jazz Club session in 1963. Stan Robinson depped for him, joining a front completed by Mike Falana (trumpet), John Mumford (trombone), Bond (alto) and Miff Moule (baritone), with a rhythm section of Burch (piano), Bruce (double bass) and Baker (drums).

The music here has a rougher edge (and has survived with an appropriately raw sound quality) and at times it can be electrifying. I remember hearing this broadcast, and the version of “Early in the Morning” — a work song borrowed from Murderers Home, the Alan Lomax recording of prisoners’ songs at Parchman Farm — stayed with me through the decades until I heard it again. Apparently arranged (very effectively) by Baker, it was also in Blues Incorporated’s repertoire. Here it inspires good solos from all the horns and an absolutely incendiary one from Bond, very much on the form he showed a year or two earlier on Don Rendell’s Roarin’. Brewing up a fusion of Cannonball Adderley’s soulfulness and Eric Dolphy’s out-there angularity, he shows here what was lost when his instincts and appetites led him elsewhere. Burch’s nice arrangements of Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'” and Jimmy Heath’s “All Members” are other highlights of this session. Two years later Burch led a different line-up on a BBC Band Beat session. The mood on tracks like “The Champ”, “Oleo”, “Milestones” and “Stolen Moments” is relatively restrained by comparison with that of the Bond/Bruce/Baker line-up, but there is fine work from Hank Shaw (trumpet), Ken Wray (trombone), Ray Swinfield (alto) and Peter King on tenor, and the bass is in the hands of the young Jeff Clyne. The approach is more polished, and the fidelity is higher.

The vinyl version of Jazz Beat has eight tracks, three from the first session and five from the second. The CD has six from 1963 and lots of outtakes from the later broadcast, including Tony Hall’s introductions. I wrote the sleeve note but since no money changed hands I feel no embarrassment in drawing your attention to a release that, along with the Fat John CD, helps to fill an important gap in the history of British jazz. Within a short time, of course, some of the people featured on these records were taking their place in bands heard around the world.

Neither of the leaders is still with us. To judge from Simon Spillett’s notes for Honesty, Fat John led an eventful life after his career in jazz came to an end. Burch, a year older than Cox, died in 2006, his life having been made reasonably secure by the royalties from a song called “Preach and Teach”, which appeared on the B-side of “Yeh Yeh”, Georgie Fame’s No 1 hit, earning as much in songwriting royalties as the A-side. Many deserve a break like that; few get it.

* Honesty is out now on Turtle Records. Jazz Beat is on the Rhythm and Blues label: the LP came out on Record Store Day and the CD is released on April 26.

A thought on ‘Rock Island Line’

Rock Island LineWhile watching Billy Bragg’s enjoyable BBC4 documentary on “Rock Island Line” this evening, and listening to his interviewees talking about what it was that made Lonnie Donegan’s recording so compelling back in 1956 that it inspired and facilitated an entire musical revolution, I found myself trying to isolate the qualities that had so inflamed my own imagination as a nine-year-old.

Of course there was that thrilling rhythm, imitating the gathering momentum of a locomotive. And there was the urgent informality of Donegan’s vocal delivery, so different from the crooners who dominated the airwaves in the middle 1950s. But there was something deeper at work, and I think it was this: a dominant feature of the song’s melody is the interval between the tonic and the flattened third. The tonic is the note you hear several times as he follows “Well, the Rock Island…” — all sung on the tonic — by rising to the flattened third on the next word, sung with a heavy emphasis: “…Line…”

A little later on in our musical education, we learnt that the flattened third is one of the two “blue notes” in a major scale (the other being the flattened seventh). In this case, since Donegan sings “Rock Island Line” in the key of D, the flattened third is F natural. And that F natural, I reckon, is the first blue note most of my generation ever heard, or at least noticed, and its impact was immense. For all of us, from everyone who joined a skiffle group, whether they quickly found another hobby or became John Lennon, that note was the portal to everything that followed, for within it was encoded the sound, the flavour, the spirit and the soul of the blues, the music that, in all its forms, would shape a new culture.

My theory, anyway.

Guidi plays Ferré

Giovanni Guidi Avec le Temps

From left: Francesco Bearzatti, Giovanni Guidi, Thomas Morgan, João Lobo and Roberto Cecchetto (photo: Clément Puig)

Léo Ferré’s “Avec le temps” is one of the most exquisite sad songs ever written (Avec le temps va tout s’en va / On oublie le visage et l’on oublie la voix…). Giovanni Guidi is a lyric poet of the piano. The combination of the two, assembled for the title track of Guidi’s new album, is a natural. The pianist’s touch is at its most effecting on a piece like this, with never a note wasted as he searches for the song’s essence. But it’s not just him and Ferré. It’s Thomas Morgan, the double bassist who combines Gary Peacock’s ardent fluidity with Charlie Haden’s deep soul, suffused with a pensive quality that is all his own. It’s also João Lobo, who adds a dimension that makes this group something more than a conventional piano trio, his discreet splashes, scrapes and sussurations disrupting the perfection in a subtle and highly creative way.

It’s a seductive start, but the album has much more to offer. On the second track, guests appear. The first is the guitarist Roberto Cecchetto, whose opening duet with Morgan on the modal “15th of August” reminds me of Gabor Szabo and Al Stinson in that great Chico Hamilton group of the early ’60s. The comparison extends to the other guest, Francesco Bearzatti, who turns up later in the same piece, playing tenor saxophone with some of the contemplative quality of the mature Charles Lloyd, like a Coltrane who finally found that inner peace. Lobo’s playing behind Morgan’s thrumming figures on the closing section of this is so stunning that you just don’t want it to stop.

Gradually the album travels further out, very interestingly so as Bearzatti’s Aylerish squalls on “Postludium and a Kiss” add another disruptive element to roil the prevailing balladry before, in a thrilling process, the other musicians rise to match his energy. “No Taxi”, by the trio, turns in another direction, towards a meeting of Thelonious Monk’s angles and Lennie Tristano’s seamless flow, with Bearzatti playing the Charlie Rouse/Warne Marsh role. “Caino” is a pre-dawn tone poem, with fine shading from Cecchetto’s guitar, and “Johnny the Liar” feels like a continuation of the same dream-state. “Ti Stimo”, a Guidi favourite, has a lovely rustic simplicity that Bill Frisell would enjoy, and “Tomasz” — a dedication to the late trumpeter Tomasz Stanko — finds the trio summoning the ravishing beauty heard on their previous albums, City of Broken Dreams and This Is The Day, both released, like this new one, on ECM.

As far as I know, Guidi, Morgan and Lobo have played together in London only twice, both times at the Rosenfeld Porcini art gallery. Someone should bring them back as soon as possible. This is one of the finest groups in contemporary jazz, and Avec le temps is not to be missed.

Roxy in the Hall of Fame

Roxy demo

Roxy Music will be among the performers tonight at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, when the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame opens its arms to the latest group of inductees. No one really needs the validation offered by this much derided and arguably unnecessary institution, but it’s like the Oscars or the Booker: at least it gives you something to argue with.

I suppose Roxy are getting in on the strength of Avalon, the band’s only million-selling album in the US. In their home country, their biggest impact was created — as David Hepworth notes in A Fabulous Creation, his new book about the history of the pop LP — by their debut album, which slid a dagger into the heart of progressive rock and endless boogie in the summer of 1972.

Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera will be there tonight. Brian Eno and Paul Thompson won’t, for various reasons. Nor will Graham Simpson, the original bassist, who left before the first album came out but without whom, as Ferry has said, there would probably never have been a Roxy. Simpson died in 2012; he’s the subject of a forthcoming documentary directed by Miranda Little, several years in the making (here is the trailer).

Anyway, just to amuse you, here (pictured above) is the original Roxy demo tape, recorded on May 27, 1971 on Eno’s Ferrograph. Ferry, Simpson, Mackay and Eno were on it, but not Manzanera or Thompson. The guitarist then was Roger Bunn, formerly with Pete Brown’s Piblokto! and Giant Sun Trolley, and the drummer was someone calling himself Dexter Lloyd, a draft-dodging classical percussionist from Chicago whose real name was James Strebing (both would be gone by the end of the summer).

A month later, the demos were dropped off at my flat in Shepherds Bush. “4.30 Brian somebody with tape at home” is the entry in my diary. “Brian somebody” was Ferry. That’s his writing on the box, and his phone number. I just tried calling it, but no one picked up.

Scott Walker 1943-2019

Scott Walker’s death was announced today. As a small tribute, this is the introduction to a piece I wrote a couple of decades ago about the events of the year 1965. 

In 1965, things changed fast. It just happened. You didn’t even have to try. Here’s a little story from one day in the spring of that year. Perhaps it says something about what things were like, and how special it felt, even then, even in the margins.

It’s a Friday evening. In a house in the Midlands, an 18-year-old boy is waiting to take a 17-year-old girl to the opening night of Bob Dylan’s first British tour. He has two tickets in his pocket. Sheffield City Hall, grand circle, front row, seven shillings and sixpence each.

The television is on as they prepare to leave her parents’ house. It’s Ready Steady Go!, live from London, the weekly hotline to the heart of whatever’s hip. One of the presenters — either the dolly-bird Cathy McGowan or the incongruously avuncular Keith Fordyce — announces the appearance of a new group. They’re from America, they’re called the Walker Brothers, and this is their first time on British TV. Their song is called “Love Her”.

On the small black and white screen, the face of a fallen angel appears. The boy and the girl are already cutting things fine for Dylan, but still the girl freezes in the act of putting on her coat and, as if in slow motion, sits down to watch the 21-year-old Scott Engel, clutching the microphone as though it were a crucifix, delivering the straining, heavily orchestrated teen ballad in a dark brown voice borrowed from the romantic hero of a picture strip in Romeo or Valentine.

As the song ends and the image fades, the girl shakes herself lightly, refocuses on her surroundings, pulls on her brown suede jacket. OK, she says. Ready to go.

Gebhard Ullmann’s Basement Research

Gebhard Ullmann Jazzfest Berlin 2017 © Camille Blake - Berliner Festspiele-4

When Peter Brötzmann declined — in somewhat unnecessarily brusque terms, I thought — my invitation to join Tyshawn Sorey in a late-night duo performance at Jazzfest Berlin in 2017, my thoughts very quickly turned to Gebhard Ullmann, the highly experienced saxophonist, composer and bandleader who deserves to be a great deal better known outside his native Germany. The way it worked out, I was only sorry that I hadn’t asked Ullmann first. He and Sorey (the festival’s artist in residence) had never met or spoken before; their set was completely improvised, and provided a perfect exposition of what magic such musicians can create together in the right circumstances. I won’t forget it, and neither will anyone else who was in the Seitenbühne at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele that night.

Ullmann is one of those musicians whose inquisitive nature leads him to explore all sorts of environments. One of them is a multinational quintet called Basement Research, in which he plays tenor saxophone and bass clarinet and is joined by Steve Swell on trombone, Julian Argüelles on baritone saxophone, Pascal Niggenkemper on double bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Their new album, Impromptus and Other Short Works, is just out.

When he sent me a copy, Ullmann expressed his puzzlement that the early reviews had described the music as “free jazz”. “I’m not sure I get it,” he wrote. “Maybe times changed and now for the average people this is free jazz. Not that I have a problem with the term … but I do have a lot of other ‘free’ projects while this one focuses a lot on my compositions. I see myself here in the lineage of Mingus transferred using my and today’s composition techniques — but maybe Mingus would be call a free jazz musician today as well. Strange.”

Whatever you’d call Mingus, you could call Ullmann as well. To me his pieces for this group take their cue from Blues & Roots and Oh Yeah! — the bands with three or four low or low-ish horns, no trumpet or other high-pitched instrument on top, the spontaneity of their interpretation and the occasional burst of collective polyphony ensured by Mingus’s method of teaching them the pieces by ear. I doubt that’s how Ullmann does it, but whatever his method he achieves a similar level of warmth, flexibility and sheer humanity.

The tunes are often bluesy, sometimes hymn-like, encouraging each voice to interact with the others. Some of them have 12-tone components, adding a tart flavour to the underlying bluesiness. Each of the 11 tracks lasts between two and a half and six minutes, and the sense of compression may remind you pleasingly of the sort of event-density jazz records used to have before the invention of the LP.

Individually, the musicians are ceaselessly creative. I always love to hear Argüelles on baritone, and his solo on the opening “Gospel” is nothing short of magnificent. On “Lines — Impromptu #2” Swell reminds me of a young Roswell Rudd, with a wider repertoire of extended techniques. Ullmann’s impassioned and beautifully tapered bass clarinet solo on “Almost Twenty-Eight” receives excellent support from Niggenkemper and from the other two horns, who supply the sort of lightly sketched backgrounds that turn up throughout this very carefully structured album. Every track benefits from the presence of Cleaver, who is one of the most stimulating drummers around; here he gets a warm, slightly fuzzy sound from his snare-drum and tom-toms that suits the overall picture perfectly.

If you don’t know Ullmann’s music, this album is a very welcoming place to start. What it’s called is completely beside the point.

* The photograph of Gebhard Ullmann was taken in Berlin in 2017 by Camille Blake. The Basement Research album is on the WhyPlayJazz label.

Sarah Tandy at Ronnie Scott’s

Sarah Tandy at RS 1

The first time I heard the pianist Sarah Tandy in person, with Camilla George’s band at the Vortex, I was struck how far she went inside the music. As she improvised, mind and body seemed completely engaged at an unusually deep level. I’ve heard her a number of times now —  with Maisha, with her own trio and with the quintet with which she launched her debut album in London last night — and that impression remains just as strong.

Her keyboard technique is pretty impressive. She was a prodigy in the classical field — a finalist in the BBC’s young musician of the year competition — before turning to jazz while studying Eng Lit at Cambridge. As an improviser, therefore, she can make her hands do pretty well anything her mind suggests. In jazz, this is not invariably an advantage. But what Tandy does at all times, however fast her fingers are flying, is to convey a sense of soul and lyricism. It was no surprise to me when she mentioned, during a conversation a couple of years ago, that she admires Wynton Kelly, a pianist whose ability to convey joy through his playing was second to none.

Last night she led a band consisting of Sheila Maurice-Grey on trumpet, Binker Golding on tenor, Mutale Chashi on double bass and bass guitar, and Femi Koleoso on drums. That’s the line-up heard on her album, Infection in the Sentence, which is released at the end of this week by Jazz re:freshed. When she asked Ronnie Scott’s if she could launch the album at the club, she was shocked to be offered two 45-minute sets. “The album’s only 50 minutes long,” she told the audience, “so we’re going to have to get creative.”

It’s hard to imagine them being anything else. Tandy’s tunes were consistently stimulating — particularly the extended opener, “Under the Skin”, which included a ferocious section of very fast straight-time blowing and ended with a delicate fade. For “Timelord” she switched to electric piano, locating an irresistible late-night/big-city groove. Her rousing arrangement of “Afro-Blue” was more Mongo Santamaria (who wrote it) than John Coltrane (who made it famous); a packed house loved it, responding to the relaxed interaction between the musicians, and to the sense that although the music is serious, it’s still fun to play like this.

When she had a residency for her trio at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston, I used to wait for her to play “Everything Happens to Me”, the Matt Dennis/Tom Adair ballad first recorded by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey in 1940, an exceptionally beautiful and poignant song with which she seemed to have a special rapport. She didn’t play it last night, but she did open the second set with her own “Half Blue”, a graceful solo piano piece which demonstrated the qualities of touch and voicing that help to make her so special.

She also loves to hit a groove, and there was a lot of that last night. It never lacked subtlety, thanks to the endlessly inventive Koleoso — who blends Billy Higgins’s floating grace with Alphonse Mouzon’s brusque power, adding flourishes of his own — and the excellent Chashi, who manipulated his bass guitar on a couple of tunes with the purring authority of Marcus Miller.

A motif of both sets was the way pieces often ended with a long, carefully improvised collective diminuendo tapering to silence; so much more dramatic than a crash-bang-wallop coda. And at the end of the night the groove changed, with Maurice-Grey singing “You Are My Sunshine”: not the way Ray Charles or Sheila Jordan and George Russell did it, but with a New Orleans second-line feel. A terrific night, and a launch that should give impetus not just to a single album but to an important career.

Lowrider Soul

Lowrider-Bomb-Classic-300x193

Don’t we all have semi-mythical places and cultures of which we’d like to have been a part? One of mine is East LA, and the Chicano culture of soul music and cars. I probably caught the obsession from listening to the two best records Frank Zappa ever made: “Memories of El Monte” by the Penguins and Cruisin’ with Ruben and the Jets.

This is Lowrider Soul is an Ace/Kent compilation of the music enjoyed by the current generation of Mexican Americans who take old cars and customise them in a particular style, starting by dropping the suspension. I’m not going to go any further into the automotive side of it. All I need to say is that, to judge from this CD, they have immaculate taste in music.

There are 24 tracks here, put together by Sean Hampsey, all dating from 1962-70, and I’d heard only three of them before. For me, it’s a treasury of brilliant discoveries, unified by mood: these are slow jams from the moment when doo-wop morphed into soul. Mostly pleading and woebegone, they’re wrenching and transcendent in the way the best soul music always has been.

There’s a strong possibility that you’re familiar with “It’s Not That Easy” by Reuben Bell with the Casanovas, since it was on Vol 1 of Dave Godin’s classic Deep Soul Treasures series a few years ago. I already knew the two sides taken from the Stax/Volt catalogue: William Bell’s “Crying All By Myself” and the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You”, a Hayes/Porter ballad that is high on my all-time girl-group chart. But I didn’t know “Shattered Dreams” by the Endeavours, or “As I Sit Here” by the Whispers (cut well before their great run of ’70s hits), Barbara Mason’s “Oh How It Hurts” (a beautiful follow-up to “Yes I’m Ready”), Brenton Wood’s “Where Were You” or the glorious “Why’d You Put Me On” by Bobbi Row and the Englishmen, an outlandish alias for the great Don Julian and the Meadowlarks. Or the rest, most of them from obscure labels such as Popside, Double Shot and Chant, as well as better known soul houses like Atco, Doré, Arctic and Kent. It makes you wonder whether that the great well of soul obscurities is ever going to run dry.

So in this dream I’m in a maroon ’49 Mercury lead sled, chopped, channeled and lowered, heading east down Pomona Blvd towards El Monte Legion Stadium, away from the neon sunset. And on top of the growl from the car’s flathead V8, This is Lowrider Soul is the soundtrack.