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A Christmas No 1

Some strange magic makes Davitt Sigerson’s “It’s a Big Country” my favourite Christmas record, narrowly ahead of Booker T and the MGs’ “Winter Wonderland”, Elvis’s “Merry Christmas Baby”, Leon Russell’s “Slipping Into Christmas” and James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto”.

I met Davitt in 1977, when he was a charming 20-year-old New Yorker just down from Oxford University and deeply immersed in soul music, and I was editing Time Out. He suggesting contributing a weekly column of disco listings: a great idea, although there was stern resistance from a majority of the rest of the editorial staff, who were basically into pub-rock and a bit of punk. Anyway, we went ahead. The following year I moved to the Melody Maker and he wrote pieces for me there, too, including a terrific early piece on Chic, for whom we shared a great admiration.

In 1980 he started making records himself, for Michael Zilkha’s Ze label. His first single, “I Never Fall in Love”, seemed bound to be a hit, and I’m not the only one who still finds himself humming it, savouring the witty lyric, and wondering why the hell it wasn’t. (And somewhere I think I’ve still got a box of the 45s, just in case its time comes around.)

What neither “I Never Fall in Love” nor “It’s a Big Country” — which was featured (alongside the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping”, Alan Vega’s “No More Christmas Blues” and Cristina’s “Things Fall Apart) on The Ze Christmas Record in 1981 — shows is that he had a great feel for a white-boy version of street-funk. When he didn’t get a hit he moved on to writing songs for other artists and to producing, his credits including the Bangles’ third album, Everything, which included the hit “Eternal Flame”. In the ’90s he served briefly as president of Polydor and EMI/Chrysalis, and as chairman of Island in the US.

At some point I remember him telling me that he was writing speeches for politicians, and in 2004 he published a novel called Faithful, which was probably intended to make him the successor to Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis. That was the last I heard of him.

So what is it that I like so much about “It’s a Big Country”? It’s the way the writer, like Chuck Berry and Hal David, uses American place-names to signpost the narrative, which is then guided by a very nice jangling rhythm track at a tempo that is not exactly hurried but suggests that the protagonist might still have more cards to write and calls to make. It’s the conversational tone, and the mention of “me and Ann” (I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the years trying to decide whether she should have an e, like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, or not, like Ann Sevier in Hans Koningsberger’s An American Romance). And it’s the fact that whenever I hear “Got an uncle in Los Angeles / Beverly Hills, to be precise,” it makes me smile.

If you’re out there, Davitt, merry Christmas. And to everyone else, as well.

2016: The best bits

The Nobel Prize in Literature

To live outside the law, you must be honest.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.

Sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked…

Like William Shakespeare, whom he mentioned in his acceptance speech at the Nobel awards ceremony, Bob Dylan has lodged more phrases in the collective consciousness than you could begin to count. To me, that’s one cast-iron argument in favour of awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature. The announcement met some opposition, much of it incoherent, but it seemed to me like one of the very few bright public moments in a notably dark year.

The appearance of Dylan’s friend Patti Smith at the ceremony in Stockholm, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, was wonderfully moving, and her description of the experience was equally affecting. As she delivered the line “I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,” I thought of the report I’d read that morning about the two girls, possibly as young as seven or eight, said to have been used as suicide bombers in the market of Maiduguri, a city in north-eastern Nigeria, the previous day. While I can’t imagine Dylan ever thinking in terms of prophecy, his words have a way of retaining, even deepening, their resonance through time and space. And that’s what literature does.

(Another occasion on which an old song seemed to find a new place in history was Bruce Springsteen’s intense performance of “American Skin (41 Shots)” at Wembley Stadium in June. Written after the killing of Amadou Diallo and now rededicated to Trayvon Martin, it formed a stark interlude in the middle of an otherwise euphoric concert on a warm midsummer evening. I’m hoping, without much confidence, that next year’s most memorable moments will be unshadowed by such concerns.)

Live performances

1. Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra (Cité Universitaire, Paris, January)

2. Matana Roberts’s ‘For Pina’ (Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, November)

3. Arve Henriksen / Jan Bang / Eivind Aarset (LSO St Luke’s, May)

4. Liberation Music Orchestra (Cadogan Hall, November)

5. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band  (Wembley Stadium, June)

6. Mike Westbrook (Kings Place, November)

7. Ches Smith Trio (New School, NYC, January)

8. The Necks (Union Chapel, April)

9. Laura Jurd / Evan Parker / Orphy Robinson / Alexander Hawkins (Cockpit, March)

10. Oddarrang (Jazzahead, Bremen, February)

11. Christian Lillinger’s Grund (Tiyatrom, Berlin, August)

12. Oslo Jazz Festival Band (Ronnie Scott’s, January)

13. Twelves (Vortex, July)

14. Wadada Leo Smith (Cafe Oto, July)

15. Orphy Robinson’s Bobby Hutcherson tribute (St James the Great, East London, September)

16. Terry & Gyan Riley (Barbican Hall, September)

17. Moses Boyd (Phonica, October)

18. Jason Moran’s ‘The Wind’ (Milton Court, November)

19. The Enemy (Vortex, November)

20. Elephant 9 (Ronnie Scott’s, May)

New albums

1. Catherine Christer Hennix: Live at ISSUE Project Room (Important)

2. Tyshawn Sorey: The Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi)

3. Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World (Mais um Discos)

4. Masabumi Kikuchi: Black Orpheus (ECM)

5. Radiohead: A Moon-Shaped Pool (XL)

6. Beyoncé: Lemonade (Parkwood)

7. Ossatura: Maps and Mazes (ReR)

8. Andrew Cyrille: The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)

9. Darcy James Argue: Real Enemies (New Amsterdam)

10. David Bowie: blackstar (Columbia)

11. Philip Clemo: Dream Maps (All Colour Arts)

12. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (Columbia)

13. Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone (Pi)

14. Anna Lena Schnabel: Books, Bottles & Bamboo (ENJA)

15. Jason Palmer / Cédric Henriot: City of Poets (Whirlwind)

16. Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra: Time/Life (Impulse)

17. Empirical: Connection (Cuneiform)

18. Laurence Crane + Asamisimasa: Sound of Horse (Hubro)

19. Paolo Conte: Instrumental Music (Decca)

20. Applewood Road (Gearbox)

Archive/reissue albums

1. Georgie Fame: Survival: A Career Anthology 1963-2015 (Universal / Polydor)

2. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto: Getz / Gilberto ’76 (Resonance)

3. Albert Ayler Quartet: European Radio Studio Recordings 1964 (hatOLOGY)

4. Ray Charles Orchestra: Zurich 1961 (Montreux Jazz)

5. Various: Jon Savage’s 1966 (Ace)

6. John Surman: Morning Glory (Fledg’ling)

7. Don Cherry / Irene Schweizer / JohnTchicai: Musical Monsters (Intakt)

8. Shirley Horn: Live at the 4 Queens (Resonance)

9. Chet Baker: Live in London (Ubuntu)

10. Various: The Motortown Revue in Paris (Tamla)

Books: Fiction

1. Emma Cline: The Girls (Chatto & Windus)

2. Patrick Modiano, trans. John Cullen: Villa Triste (Daunt Books)

3. Christine Otten, trans. Jonathan Reeder: The Last Poets (World Editions)

Books: Non-Fiction

1. William Finnegan: Barbarian Days (Little, Brown)

2. James McBride: Kill ’em and Leave (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

3. Damon Hill: Watching the Wheels (Macmillan)

Feature films

1. The Assassin (dir. Hou Hsaio-Hsien)

2. Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

3. Our Little Sister (dir. Hirozaku Korea)

4. Love and Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)

5. Victoria (dir. Sebastian Schipper)

Documentary films

1. Don’t Blink (dir. Laura Israel)

2. I Called Him Morgan (dir. Kasper Collin)

3. What Happened, Miss Simone? (dir. Liz Garbus)

Exhibitions

1. Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy, October)

2. Alex Katz (Serpentine Gallery, June)

3. Picasso portraits (National Portrait Gallery, October)

Georgie Fame: the man in full

georgie-fame-box-2

Georgie Fame at the Cinnamon Club, Manchester, in 2007 (photo: William Ellis)

You wait decades for a proper anthology of Georgie Fame’s best stuff, and then two of them come along almost at once. Last year there was the beautifully produced five-CD box called The Whole World’s Shaking, including his first four albums for the Columbia label between 1963 and 1966 — Rhythm & Blues at the Flamingo, Fame at Last, Sweet Thing and Sound Venture, each with bonus tracks — plus a fifth disc of rarities and oddities from the period. Now there’s an equally handsome new six-CD set, also released on Universal/Polydor, called Survival: A Career Anthology 1963-2015, which ranges from the Blue Flames’ first two instrumental 45s for the R&B label to the lovely album, Swan Song, which came out last year, and which he billed as his last (although I gather he might be having second thoughts on that). This new box is so full of good stuff that I hardly know where to begin, although I suppose I should point out some of the less obvious highlights.

I was at Island Records in the mid-’70s when Chris Blackwell signed him, to the surprise of those at the company who thought his adventures in the middle of the road during his time with CBS (“The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”, and so on) had destroyed his credibility. From a commercial perspective, the Island liaison was a failure.  First, with J. J. Cale taking over from Mose Allison as the dominant influence on his music, Blackwell sent him to Tulsa with Denny Cordell to make an album that never saw the light of day, and then Glyn Johns took over for one that was released but made no impact. There’s a whole disc from those sessions, including the slinky blues “Ozone” and a high-stepping version of Bobby Womack’s “Daylight”.

But what we also have from the Island vaults are seven tracks from the previously unheard tapes recorded at a Lyceum gig in the autumn of 1974 with an expanded 12-piece all-star Blue Flames line-up, including Marc Charig alongside Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton on trumpets and Elton Dean in a saxophone section also including Alan Skidmore, Stan Sulzmann, Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle. Brian Odgers (bass guitar) and Brian Bennett (drums) are the rhythm axis, with Colin Green and Bernie Holland on guitars and Lennox Langton on percussion. Thanks to careful remixing supervised by Tristan Powell, one of Georgie’s talented sons, it’s a treat to hear them roar through “Point of No Return”, “Parchman Farm” and so on in front of an enthusiastic audience at a venue that was once a great place for gigs, before The Lion King took up permanent residence.

The other big surprise to me was a track from his sole album for Pye, Right Now, produced in 1979 by the rather unlikely team of Karl Jenkins, then midway between Soft Machine and the knighthood earned for his classical compositions with Latin titles, and Jimmy Parsons, for many years the suave maitre d’ of Ronnie Scott’s. The song is called “Eros Hotel”, and Georgie wrote it with the UK-based American poet Fran Landesman, best known for her lyrics to “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”. A gentle reverie, swathed in strings, it’s a most elegant evocation of seduction in London, and it makes me want to seek out the album from it comes.

We know what Fame can do with other people’s songs, but “Eros Hotel” is a reminder of what an accomplished composer he became. From “Getaway” through “Flamingo Allnighter”, “Vinyl” and “Mose Knows”, his stuff is hip. There’s another example of his lovely ballad-writing in “A Declaration of Love”, one of the 11 tracks here from the fine New York sessions supervised by Ben Sidran in the early ’90s. The eight-minute title track, the bluest of blues on altered changes, comes from those sessions: you can imagine how much he enjoyed sharing the studio with A-Teamers Richard Tee (piano), Robben Ford (guitar), Will Lee (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums).

An abundance of great material among the 111 tracks includes items from the two tremendous live albums, Name Droppin’ and Walking Wounded, recorded live at Ronnie’s in 1997. There’s also a glorious “Since I Fell For You” on which he’s accompanied only by his Hammond B3 and Guy Barker’s trumpet, and a fine “Funny How Time Slips Away” from the Pye session, and tons of other things that you might never have heard before but will be very pleased to meet in the course of a journey through a wonderful life in music, in which even the occasional misstep was simply the preface to a graceful recovery.

The team who put this exemplary package together — Tristan Powell, the disc jockey Dean Rudland and the Universal A&R man Chas Chandler — deserve the highest commendation. The blemishes are few: the Basie drummer Sonny Payne is mistranscribed as Sonny Cain, Bill Eyden is wrongly identified as Phil Seamen (the man he replaced as the Blue Flames’ drummer) in a caption to one of the many fine photographs in the accompanying 48-page hardback booklet, and I’d have liked the generally comprehensive musician credits to have extended to identifying those who played on the Island studio sessions. But those are quibbles. If I didn’t already have Survival, it would be the only thing I’d want or need for Christmas.

Reconsidering Frank Zappa

zappa-film-1In the final moments of Eat That Question, a documentary in which the director Thorsten Schütte creates a chronological collage of interviews and performance clips from throughout Frank Zappa’s career, we see Zappa with a baton in hand, conducting a piece of his orchestral music. We’re in the early ’90s and, after several years of treatment for prostate cancer, he is close to death. As he waves the stick in a staccato 4/4 pattern, several percussionists play a fascinating jigsaw tattoo. Hearing his score come to life, the composer is clearly entranced. It’s a lovely and touching moment.

I interviewed Zappa a couple of times around 1970, and found it an uncomfortable experience. This was, after all, a man who said that rock criticism was people who couldn’t write writing for people who couldn’t read, or something like that. And I was a rock critic (of sorts). It has always seemed to me a stupid remark, a dismissal of a lot of worthwhile work from some talented and enthusiastic people, but it was probably the result of a series of bruising experiences.

He was intensely clever, of course, and he was funny, if not always as funny as his most fervent admirers found him. The Zappa I had liked at the beginning was not the ironist and satirist but the Zappa who wrote “Memories of El Monte” for the Penguins, who created Ruben and the Jets, and who got the Mothers of Invention to juxtapose sleazy East LA doo-wop with homages to free jazz on Uncle Meat. That was a Zappa who clearly loved his sources. I lost interest when Hot Rats came out; it seemed to me that other people were doing that sort of jazz-rock thing a lot better, and I never properly re-engaged.

But I came out of Eat That Question feeling a whole lot more sympathetic to him. I loved the clip from the eye-wateringly funny appearance on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 where the totally unknown Zappa demonstrates the music he’s devised to be played with drumsticks and violin bow on a pair of bicycles (the whole thing is on YouTube). I was interested by his suggestion that all his pieces might in fact together comprise one single composition, and also by his definition of his philosophy of writing music: “Any thing, any time, any place, for no reason at all.” His excoriation of communism is gob-smacking, his exchange with Tipper Gore’s parental-ratings committee hilarious. I was touched by the film of his visit to Prague in 1990, when he is welcomed by Vaclav Havel and a member of a Mothers of Invention-inspired band called Electrobus recounts how, in the Soviet era, he had been told: “We will take your Zappa away — you will not spread his ideology here.”

Throughout the film, Zappa’s sparring sessions with TV interviewers are generally thoughtful and good-natured, sometimes in the face of complete incomprehension (although the interview with NBC’s Today show, taped during his final days, is very sensitive). It made me wish I’d liked him, and his music, more.

‘Blue & Lonesome’

rolling-stonesPut a guitar in my hands and you’ll get the “Smokestack Lightnin'” riff until you rip the instrument away from me and smash it over my head. That’s part of having been a teenager in the early ’60s, and equipped with a certain set of instincts. It doesn’t leave you.

That’s what the Rolling Stones demonstrate, rather more expertly, on Blue & Lonesome, their 23rd studio album, recorded in three days at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio at the end of an alley in Hammersmith. It’s the best thing they could have done — in fact probably the only thing they could have done to rekindle my interest.

I’ve been reading an old Record Mirror piece by Norman Jopling, dated May 11, 1963. The intrepid reporter had been to see the Rolling Stones at the Station Hotel in Richmond-upon-Thames, and had talked to them afterwards about their repertoire, which was based largely on the recorded works of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. They told him they had no interest in using original material. “After all,” an unidentified Stone told him, “can you imagine a British-composed R&B number? It just wouldn’t make it.” The sounds like Brian Jones to me. And within a year, of course, he would be eating his words as Andrew Oldham coaxed Mick Jagger and Keith Richard into producing “Tell Me”, “Good Times, Bad Times”, “Satisfaction” and the rest.

Of course they wrote some great songs. But that well dried up many years ago, and it was an intelligent decision to go back to where they came from and make an album of blues covers. I admire the fact that they chose comparatively obscure songs; how simple would it have been to make an album out of the likes of “Smokestack Lightnin'”, “Boom Boom” and “Big Boss Man”? Instead they’ve gone for Jimmy Reed’s “Little Rain”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime” and Lightnin’ Slim’s “Hoo Doo Blues”, songs known only to the cognoscenti.

And, like the bluesmen they worshipped, they’ve got better with age. Play these tracks next to recordings from their early years like “Honest I Do”, “I’m a King Bee” and “Little Red Rooster”, and you can’t miss the improvement the years have brought. Production quality has something to do with it, of course. Don Was and the engineer Krish Sharma are a cut above whoever recorded the first Stones tracks at Regent Sound on Denmark Street. In partnership with the musicians, they know exactly how to distress the sound, dirtying up the guitars and providing a great sonic perspective that evokes the 1950s Chess recordings of the Muddy Waters Blues Band. This is rough music, and that’s how it comes across here.

I’m sorry that they don’t credit the individual guitar solos (Hubert Sumlin would have given a pat on the back to whoever gets the starring role on Little Johnny Taylor’s “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing”). But Jagger gets an extra star for some excellent harmonica-playing — which he needed to do, given that three of songs are plucked from the repertoire of Little Walter Jacobs, a gob-iron immortal.

My only complaint about an otherwise thoroughly worthwhile album concerns the sleeve. How difficult could it be to design a fantastic cover for a blues album by the Stones? If you don’t have any ideas of your own, Mr Art Director, just go back to their first LP, with its moody chiaroscuro group photograph by Nicholas Wright, or its very similar successor, for which David Bailey did the honours. Instead we get a piece of artwork based on the tired old “tongue” logo — so crass as to be actively repulsive. And I’d have liked an Andrew Loog Oldham sleeve note, too.

* The photograph of Mick Jagger and Ron Wood is from the inside of the album sleeve, and is uncredited.

Paolo Conte’s ‘Amazing Game’

paolo-conte-8858-ph-dino-buffagniAn all-instrumental album from Paolo Conte: that would be like an episode of The Sopranos without Tony, right? Well, not exactly. He doesn’t sing on Amazing Grace (although he does mutter the word “Tips” at the beginning and end of the short track of that name), but in its way this is still an album of full-strength Conte, offering perspectives that don’t normally get exposed.

It is, he says, a collection of “recordings made at different times (from the ’90s to the present day), for soundtracks of theatre productions and for study and experimental purposes, that I had very carefully tucked away at the back of various drawers”. He was right to decide that they needed to be exposed to the light of day.

There are 23 pieces, ranging in length from 61 seconds to six minutes, and in style from clarinet ballads and a tango for piano and bandoneon to romantic string quartets and soulful wind chorales and a sweeping orchestral piece, and a lovely, pensive fragment for solo piano called “Gli Amici Manichini” that sounds like it was recorded on primitive equipment in some deserted hotel ballroom 100 years ago. That last item is one of six written for a theatre piece called Il Ballo dei Manichini, of which the final work is the only song of the set: a jaunty pop number called “Changes All in Your Arms” sung by two women, Ginger and Rama Brew, as if they’re gathered around a pub piano.

Maybe the best of all is a track called “P.U.B.S.A.G. (Passa Una Bionda Sugli Anni Grigi)”, its lyrical theme stated by the trumpet of Alberto Mandarini and the clarinet of Massimo Pitzianti, supported by Jiri Touche’s double bass and Daniele Di Gregorio’s drums, Conte’s piano nudging them along with simple and unhurried but exquisitely timed phrases. And it’s followed immediately by the title track, another gloriously melodic reverie in the form of a trio for piano, bass and Di Gregorio’s vibes.

Perhaps I wouldn’t swap these pieces for favourite songs like “Alle Prese Con La Verde Milonga” or “Los Amantes Del Mambo”, but it’s amazing how the pungency of his character comes through even when he denies us the pleasure of the rasping voice, with its characteristic combination of world-weary wisdom and irrepressible youthfulness, of a man — a unique and precious jewel of our musical world — who will turn 80 next month.

* The photograph is by Dino Buffagni. Amazing Game is out now on the Decca label.

The return of Shakin’ Stevens

shakin-stevensThe first time I was impressed by Shakin’ Stevens was in 1970, while idly playing through his debut album with his group, the Sunsets, a bunch of rockabilly hounds from Cardiff, on the cheap sound system in the listening room at the Melody Maker‘s old Fleet Street office. Called A Legend, produced by Dave Edmunds and released on the Parlophone label, it contained one track that I found I needed to hear over and over again: a wild version of “The Train Kept A-Rollin'”, originally written and recorded by the bandleader Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, in the idiom of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, and given a definitive rockabilly restyling five years later by Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio, with the great Paul Burlison on guitar. It might be a heretical view, but I found the lubricious pounding of Stevens’ version even more powerful than Burnette’s hallowed recording.

Seven years later, while casting his musical Elvis!, the great Jack Good — creator of Six-Five Special, Oh Boy! and Shindig! — selected Stevens to play one of the show’s three incarnations of Presley. Tim Whitnall played the boy Elvis, Stevens played the “perfect” Elvis of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”, and P. J. Proby played the late Elvis. Each of them fitted his role perfectly, and I’ll never forget the impact of the finale, when Whitnall and Stevens stood with heads bowed as Proby, in full Elvis-in-Vegas costume, sang “American Trilogy” from a pulpit against a backdrop of the film of the endless motorcade of white Cadillacs at Presley’s funeral.

At that time Stevens was still virtually unknown to the general public. But the show was a success, running for two years at the (now demolished) Astoria on Charing Cross Road, and soon afterwards he finally made his breakthrough as a solo artist, exploiting his voice and his looks — a cross between Ricky Nelson and Chris Isaak — with a string of pop hits including “This Ole House” and “Green Door”. Since then he’s been seen on reality shows, oldies packages and charity galas. In 2010 he was in hospital for several weeks after suffering a heart attack while gardening.

When I saw that he had a new album out last month, I was reminded of how much I liked that “Train Kept A-Rollin'” and his performance as Elvis. So I listened to it, and was pleasantly surprised. Echoes of Our Times is, at least in part, an attempt to write songs inspired by his family history, which he traces back to Cornish copper miners. That’s how the album begins, and other songs refer to the experience of family members — including his father — in the First World War, to a great-grandfather’s vocation as a Primitive Methodist minister in Wales, and to a grandmother’s work with the Salvation Army.

It’s as if, back at the very start of his career, he’d heard Music from Big Pink and decided to take that route. An excellent band features banjos and harmonicas and mandolins and a harmonium and a general feeling of handmade quality, occasionally broadening to include a small horn section and a cello. Shaky sings very well, with great conviction. Time has abraded his tone a little, which is no bad thing; curiously, on different songs he reminded of both Lennon (“To Spread the Word”) and McCartney (“The Fire in Her Blood”), but mostly he sounds like himself. Not all the material is great, but “Suffer Little Children” is a really fine southern-style blues-ballad, on which his voice has something of the strained urgency of Don Henley. “Train of Time”, all hurtling rockabilly twang and slap, is another great railroad song to put alongside the one I still cherish from his very first recording session.

So has Shakin’ Stevens, at the age of 68, transformed himself into the Welsh Robbie Robertson? That might be putting it a bit strongly. But Echoes of Our Times is thoughtful, enjoyable and substantial enough to make posterity significantly modify its judgement of the nature and scale of his talent.

* Photograph: HEC Records

Liberation Music Orchestra

liberation-music-orchEight years ago I was fortunate enough to be at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village to hear Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra on the night of the US presidential election, and then again the following night after it had been confirmed that Barack Obama would be serving as America’s first black president. The anxious optimism of the first night and the joy and relief of the second could hardly have formed a greater contrast with the current mood of the world, in which the orchestra — minus Charlie, who died two years ago, and now directed by his long-time collaborator Carla Bley — arrived in London to play at Cadogan Hall as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

I don’t think I was the only one to find their music even more emotionally charged than usual, which is saying something for a band that began life in 1969 delivering an uncompromising musical protest against the evils of the age, with a line-up including Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri and Roswell Rudd. Tonight’s 90-minute set maintained the tradition by concentrating on the concerns of the hour and consisted of material from their last two studio recordings: Not in My Name (2004) and the new Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings), the environmental album on which they were working before Haden’s death, and which was completed under Bley’s supervision. All of it resonated powerfully.

The new pieces included Bley’s beautifully plain arrangement of “Blue in Green”, her own “Silent Spring” and Haden’s “Song for the Whales”, which featured a lovely passage for Seneca Black’s trumpet, Tony Malaby’s tenor saxophone, Darak Oles’s double bass and Matt Wilson’s drums. Bill Frisell’s gorgeous, slow-burning “Throughout” made a lovely encore. The evening was sprinkled with fine solos from Malaby and his fellow tenorist Chris Cheek, Loren Stillman on alto, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Marshall Gilkes on trombone, Vincent Chauncey on French horn, Earl McIntyre on tuba and Steve Cardenas on guitar. Oles, who perhaps had the hardest gig of the night, did the right thing by playing Haden’s parts and evoking his spirit without trying to be him.

But the heart of the concert came in the long, carefully wrought medley of “America the Beautiful”, “Lift Every Heart and Sing” and Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America”, and particularly in the arrangement of “Amazing Grace” to which Bley brings every bit of her great and precious expertise at making highly schooled musicians sound like the world’s greatest town brass band. As they played it, investing every note with humanity, I couldn’t help thinking of Obama’s sudden decision, during his address to the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a US senator, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June last year, to sing the song as part of his eulogy to the priest and the eight other victims murdered by a white supremacist during a Bible study class. It’s a different world now.

* Time/Life is out now on the Impulse label.

Mike Westbrook at the piano

mike-westbrook-kp2In the days leading up to Mike Westbrook’s solo recital at Kings Place on Saturday afternoon, part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, I’d attended a run of performances by several younger pianists — Kit Downes, Michael Wollny, Giovanni Guidi and Jason Moran — of great reputation and achievement. Spending just over an hour listening to Westbrook as he stitched together songs that have meant much to him over the years provided a useful reminder of what age can bring.

Westbrook turned 80 this year. Afterwards, in conversation with Philip Clark, he spoke of the way a prolonged examination can change the material: “a deep process”, he called it, and one which he applied with equal success to songs by Duke Ellington (“Sophisticated Lady”) and Thom Bell (“You Make Me Feel Brand New”) and to pieces from his own pen, including some from his works inspired by Blake, Goethe and Lawrence.

“You don’t have too much respect for the material,” he observed. “You use it. You find harmonies that interest you more than the original. You layer one chord on top of another to make it more magical, or more beautiful, or even to throw a spanner in the works. But it’s not random. It’s logical.” The reharmonisation of some of these pieces was striking. “It’s no secret,” Westbrook said, “that when you’re writing arrangements at the piano, you become a master at holding down chords while you reach for a pen to write them down. I’ve developed a piano style almost out of that.”

It’s his version of what used to be called “arranger’s piano”, the spare approach associated with Tadd Dameron and Gil Evans, among others. And you could hear very specifically what he meant when he struck thick, dark chords and allowed them to resonate and bounce off the lid of the 7ft Steinway Model B in the silence between “You Make Me Feel Brand New” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”.

The mood was reflective, sometimes elegiac, particularly when he included a First World War poem in the first of the long, loosely themed sequences into which the recital was divided. Throughout the hour I loved the sense of a man playing these pieces for the thousandth time but still searching for new angles, new shapes, and new combinations of notes with which to deepen his investigation of their wordless essence. There was not a wasted note, not a superfluous gesture, not the tiniest hint of display for its own sake.

Much of the programme reflected the structure of his new solo album, which is titled Paris and was recorded earlier this year in an art gallery and performance space near the Porte d’Orléans. In his online notes to the album (to be found at http://www.westbrookjazz.co.uk), he says this while introducing the sequence of pieces grouped under the heading of Bar Room Music: “I often enjoy playing the piano in a crowded room where people are talking. Though almost no one is paying any attention to the music, it nevertheless affects the general atmosphere.”

Those words reinforce his strong sense of the social function of music, made explicit in the past in the work he and his wife Kate have done with street theatre groups and with their brass band. But the Kings Hall recital was at the opposite end of the spectrum: a carefully focused performance in an optimum listening environment, in front of a rapt full house. As always with Westbrook, a massive authority was lightly worn– but its presence was never in doubt, and the result was unforgettable.

* Paris is out now on the ASC label.

‘The Woman at the End of the World’

elza-soaresThe 79-year-old singer Elza Soares was in London last week, wearing a purple wig and a skintight leather dress as she sang from a golden throne on stage at the Barbican. I missed the gig, but I’ve been belatedly catching up with A Mulher do Fim do Mundo, the album she released this summer, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to end up very high on my best-of-the-year list.

“The Woman at the End of the World”: it sounds like a film by Pedro Almodóvar, and the music is not short of the kind of drama the Spanish director would relish. The project was conceived and produced in Rio de Janeiro, Soares’s home city, by Guilherme Kastrup, with the aid of Celso Sim, Romulo Fróes and a group of musicians and songwriters who collaborated to create a wonderfully modern setting for a voice that carries the marks of age but also an ageless energy.

Having begun with Soares singing a ballad called “Coraçoa do Mar” unaccompanied, the album ends with a minute and a half of silence interrupted by the distant sound of her singing to herself, as if you’d just left her house and, as you walked away, could hear her starting to get on with her daily tasks. In between comes music animated by some sort of special life-force, a mixture of samba and trip-hop and new wave and other stuff, brilliantly focused into something with great variety but a pungently identifiable character.

If I had to make a comparison, I’d say it mixes the elegant precision of Paula Morelenbaum’s great album Berimbaum, a 2004 updating of bossa nova, with some of the glorious anarchy of Os Mutantes: a rough poetry of wild guitars, horns anchored by a growling baritone saxophone, chattering (sometimes battering) percussion, songs very explicitly celebrating a raw need for sex (“Pra Fuder”), describing a police raid on a crack house (“Benedita”), and issuing threats to an abusive lover (“Maria da Vila Matilde”: “When the cops come, I’ll show them my black and blue arm / I’ll show them your cards, your game, your loaded dice…”). And a voice to break your heart. A magnificent piece of work, all told.

* The Woman at the End of the World is released on the Mais um Discos label. The photograph of Elza Soares is by Alexander Eca.