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Shirley Ellis and ‘The Nitty Gritty’

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It starts with the buzz of a crowd, a splash of cymbal, and a snare-drum roll. For a second or two, it sounds like a circus warming up. But then a deep rhythm kicks in, with a heavy emphasis on the “one” and a double handclap on the backbeat. And a no-nonsense female voice speaks up: “Some folks know about it, some don’t / Some folks learn to shout it, some won’t.” In response, a bass voice provides an echo, doo-wop style: “Some don’t… some won’t.” Then you get the female backing singers, the double-time soul clapping under strict instruction: “Double beatin’, keep repeatin’, right down to the real nitty gritty.” South-of-the-border trumpets join in with Latin triplets, and the crowd noise rises until there’s a kind of delirium going on as the track fades after a mere two minutes and 14 seconds.

That’s Shirley Ellis’s “The Nitty Gritty”, one of the most intriguing singles of the ’60s: a whole tribal rite contained in a 45rpm side. It doesn’t matter whether or not the crowd noise was overdubbed. I remember its electrifying effect on me when I heard it in September 1963, at a time when a new wave of soul music was breaking out of Detroit, Chicago and New York. And yet it seemed different, perhaps because it was an independent production that wasn’t part of a specific “sound”.

Born in 1929 in New York to parents from Montserrat and the Bahamas, Shirley Ellis grew up in the Bronx and began her career as a singer and songwriter in her teens, winning the celebrated talent contest for amateurs at the Apollo Theatre. In 1959 she met Lincoln Chase, another New Yorker of Caribbean parentage, who became her co-writer and manager. “The Nitty Gritty” was their first US hit, reaching the US top 10 on the Congress label, and it was followed in 1964 by “The Name Game”, which made the top three, and 1965 by “The Clapping Song”, which made the top 10 in both the US and the UK.

“The Name Game” and “The Clapping Song” were based — like the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” (1963) and the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” (1965) — on children’s playground rhymes. Ellis and Chase emphasised the syncopations inherent in both songs, helped by magnificent playing from their New York session men, under the baton of the great Charlie Calello, who arranged and produced both sides (“The Nitty Gritty” had been supervised by Hutch Davie). In “The Clapping Song”, the rhythm was in the stressed words: “Three six nine, the goose drank wine / The monkey chewed tobacco on the street-car line / The line broke, the monkey got choked / And they all went to heaven in a little row boat…” Any child who learnt that rhyme was absorbing a sophisticated groove, a variant of the hambone (Bo Diddley) beat.

Ellis made a number of other singles, only one of which, the hard-driving “Soul Time” (1967), was in the class of those first three hits. Nevertheless before she retired from performing in 1968 she had recorded enough sides of sufficient quality for Ace Records’ Mick Patrick to compile a 24-track CD titled Three Six Nine: The Best of Shirley Ellis. Comprehensively annotated by Harry Young, it gives a good all-round view of a singer who began by wanting to emulate Sarah Vaughan and ended up becoming famous for her high-grade novelty hits. “The Puzzle Song” and one or two others may have stretched the formula beyond its useful limits, but there’s a great up-tempo version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me”, a hip-swinging uptown soul arrangement of Lou Christie’s “Back Track”, and a nice treatment of Barbara Mason’s swooning “Yes I’m Ready”.

She died in 2005, aged 76, having left a small but lasting mark on one of pop music’s golden ages. And “The Nitty Gritty” still sounds like nothing else you ever heard.

‘Dancing in the Dark’

Martin Speake

One summer night last year a quartet led by the alto saxophonist Martin Speake, with Ethan Iverson on piano, played a version of “Dancing in the Dark” — the Broadway ballad, not the Springsteen song — so suffused with the essence of noir that it had me turning towards the door of the Vortex, waiting for Gene Tierney or Gloria Grahame to make their entrance.

So subtly did the musicians enunciate the theme that I didn’t even recognise it as the song to which Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse danced in Central Park in a wonderful sequence from The Band Wagon in 1953 (not much noir there, even though they were dancing by the light of a street lamp). But Speake, Iverson, the bassist Fred Thomas and the drummer James Maddren put an entirely different set of castors under the tune, with the pianist’s lush chorded solo bringing the evocation of a darker, more sensual mood to its peak.

Earlier that day, in a session at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, they’d recorded enough pieces for an album. It’s called Intention, it’s on the Ubuntu label, and it’s a fine addition to the extensive body of work compiled by Speake over the course of what is now a long and distinguished career, showing the way he can focus a variety of source material through the lens of his distinctive musical character.

They launched the new release this week with a couple of nights at the Pizza Express, playing originals including “Becky”, whose prayer-like cadences put me in mind of the John Coltrane of Crescent, and a backwoods shuffle called “Twister”, while Charlie Parker’s “Charlie’s Wig” was transformed into bebop the way Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz heard it. Speake and Iverson are among those relatively rare musicians who’ve thoroughly absorbed the work of the Tristano school, allowing it to merge with other influences as they formed their own voices.

And, of course, amid the pieces that swung, skimmed, floated or grooved, there was “Dancing in the Dark”, stopping time to enfold us in a moment of romantic rapture. Ah, Gloria, my dear, there you are…

Nels Cline at the Vortex

Nels Cline Quartet

When I told Nels Cline that there had been moments during the two sets he’d just performed with his quartet that had made me burst out laughing with sheer pleasure, he said that it was how he’d often felt while playing with the band’s other guitarist, Julian Lage, over the past five or six years.

But it was more than just the interplay of Jazzmaster and Telecaster that made it a special night at the Vortex. This a real group, a four-way thing, in which the drummer, Tom Rainey, and the bassist, Jorge Roeder, play equally significant roles in determining the direction and dynamics of the music. And for an hour and a half they communicated the joy to be had when such a process works so well.

They played a number of the Cline compositions featured on their new album — Currents, Constellations (Blue Note) — including a luscious wandering ballad called “As Close As That”, the jaunty, jagged “Swing Ghost ’59” and the two-part “River Mouth”, which started with a limpid pastorale before moving into a kind of raga-rock drone, with some of the stunning unison two-guitar written parts which were a feature of the night. Other pieces included Carla Bley’s “Temporarily”, a Paul Motian medley of “Conception Vessel” and “The Owl of Cranston”, and John Abercrombie’s “Memoir”, originally a solo piece but here opening the evening in the form of a guitar duet.

I haven’t enjoyed hearing two guitars play off each other as much since Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were together in Television, or Bill Frisell and Ry Cooder recorded “Shenandoah” for the former’s Good Dog, Happy Man. All sorts of things were happening pretty much all the time, largely thanks to the set-up of the band, a structure devised with enthusiasm and imagination which Cline seems to put into all his projects. The music was full of surprises, things that made you gasp as well as laugh. The strength and drive of Roeder (replacing Scott Colley, who plays on the album) were a revelation, while Rainey is the only drummer who has ever reminded me of Han Bennink: swinging like the clappers but with enormous sensitivity and a deadpan wit.

A tremendous night all round, noisily appreciated by a packed house. A great album, too, for those who weren’t there.

Peter Hammill’s ‘From the Trees’

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As skinny as a bread-stick, his white hair cropped almost back to his skull, an outfit of loose white shirt and trousers giving him (somewhat deceptively) the austere, elevated air of a Zen monk, Peter Hammill took the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday with only a grand piano and an acoustic guitar for company. He was welcomed by an audience which recognised that at this stage of a 50-year journey that started with the rock band Van Der Graaf Generator, he is one of the few members of his generation who still has something to say.

It’s always intrigued me why, despite its post-war outpouring of great popular music, Britain has produced so few male singer-songwriters to rank alongside Jacques Brel, Lucio Dalla, Paolo Conte, Julien Clerc, Leonard Cohen or Randy Newman in terms of maturity, wisdom, observational gifts, craft skills and performing character. I think it’s because so many of the potential candidates came up in bands, and retained that mentality even in their solo careers, continuing to make records that very successfully put a concentration on musical (instrumental) style and content on an equal level with songwriting substance — as David Bowie did, for instance.

There have been exceptions. Paul Buchanan is one. Hammill is another, writing what might be called art songs and recording them in way that pays no attention to anything other than the songs’ demands. On his new album, From the Trees, recorded and mixed by himself at his own West Country studio, he contributes all the instruments (keyboards, guitars, bass guitar) and vocals (lead and backing), deploying his resources with fastidious restraint. There’s an exact understanding of what is needed at all times and an instinct for diversity, from the wonky minuet of “Reputation” and the pensive chorale of “What Lies Ahead” to the opening synth cloud and swooning clustered voices of “On Deaf Ears”, the folk-rocky electric guitar of “My Unintended” and the chiding Greek chorus of “Anagnorisis”.

Each lyric repays attention: literate, plain-spoken even when taking an oblique approach, never remotely pretentious (I had to look up “anagnorisis”, but was glad I’d bothered). The degree of autobiographical essence doesn’t matter, although the songs have the stamp of felt emotions, of a man addressing his own doubts and imperfections, his own perceptions of fate and mortality. I might be forgiven for following the clue in the title of “Girl to the North Country” towards the inevitable conclusion that this poignant song was inspired by Bob Dylan and his early muse, Echo Hellstrom, whose death was reported back in January.

The best of all comes last: “The Descent”, a work of quiet but intense drama dealing, I think, with the long-term consequences of auspicious beginnings and missed chances (or possibly something else altogether). But, anyway, it’s a thing of great elegance and beauty, its verses alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4 to build tension before the cadence of the line smoothes out, with a strong vocal flighted in its finished studio version on piano, organ and Mellotron-like sampled strings. Correctly placed in the running order, it resonates long after the music has stopped.

At the newly refurbished QEH, Hammill ranged through the repertoire assembled through his long career, moving from piano to guitar and back, with great care taken at the mixing desk to enhance the immediacy of the sound of both instruments. His singing was highly wrought in its changes of volume and attack, as it used to be with VDGG, and well tailored to each song. Circumstances meant that I could only stay of an hour, but of the older material I was particularly struck by “Like Veronica” (from None of the Above, 2000), possibly inspired by the abused Kim Basinger character in Curtis Hanson’s movie of James Ellroy’s L. A. Confidential (“Wear your hair like Veronica Lake / And the bruises won’t show where he hit you”: the brutality of the lyric matched by the delivery). And most of all by an exquisite “Time to Burn” (from In a Foreign Town, 1988), a meditation on temps perdu much stronger for being shorn of the trappings of its original arrangement.

“The world has gone IKEA,” Hammill told Nick Hasted in an interview for the Independent in 2004, “and I’m a bespoke furniture maker. Not selling many, and only to people who find me.” They’re the lucky ones.

* The photograph of Peter Hammill is by James Sharrock. From the Trees is released on Hammill’s own label, Fie! (www.sofasound.com).

Grant Green’s groove

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What I’d give to be able to walk into a small club somewhere and discover Grant Green playing with a little band – just his guitar plus a tenor saxophone, B3 organ, bass guitar, drums and congas. Green was a great jazz player, as we know from the great Blue Note recordings of the mid-’60s on which he kept pace with such advanced musicians as Bobby Hutcherson, Larry Young and Elvin Jones, but in less formal circumstances he could turn to a repertoire of funk and soul tunes on which to boil up an irresistible groove. Both sides of his character are to be found on two new multi-LP sets of previously unknown material unearthed, restored, remastered and released by the Resonance label on lavishly packaged 180-gram vinyl in time for this weekend’s Record Store Day.

The first album, titled Funk in France, consists of three vinyl LPs drawn from two sources. The first disc comes from a guitar festival held in 1969 at ORTF’s Maison de la Radio in Paris, where Green, a late replacement for the ailing Tal Farlow, played a set with the excellent bassist Larry Ridley and the veteran big-band drummer Don Lamond. Basically, it’s a jam – but a very good one, particularly on two Sonny Rollins tunes, “Oleo” and “Sonnymoon for Two”, which allow the guitarist to demonstrate his bebop chops. He’s also joined by another of the festival’s featured artists, Barney Kessel, for a delightful investigation of Charles Trenet’s “I Wish You Love”.

The other two discs come from two nights at the following summer’s Antibes Jazz Festival, where Green arrived with his own band: the tenorist Claude Bartee, the organist Clarence Palmer and the drummer Billy Wilson. This is an open-air version of his club music, featuring R&B hits like Little Anthony’s “Hurt So Bad” and Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers”, and two long versions of his own “Upshot”. It’s raw, driving, crowd-pleasing stuff, with bags of atmosphere.

On the whole, though, I prefer the second release, which is titled Slick! and was recorded on a single night in 1975 at a Vancouver club called Oil Can Harry’s, reminding us that Green was also recorded at places like Detroit’s Club Mozambique and the deliciously named Cliché Lounge in Newark, New Jersey. Here he’s accompanied by his frequent collaborator Emmanuel Riggins on electric piano, Ronnie Ware on bass guitar, Greg Williams on drums and Gerald Izzard on percussion.

It’s a double album, and although it opens with a sprightly version of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time”, the funk seeps in on the second track, a 26-minute version of Tom Jobim’s “How Insensitive”, which opens with a lovely passage of unaccompanied guitar before a groove is established and eventually assumes control. After that it’s funk all the way, through medleys featuring instrumental jams on the Ohio Players’ “Skin Tight”, Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on, Reggae Woman” and the O’Jays’ “For the Love Of Money”.

Like the material from the Antibes sets, this is not cerebral music. But it warms the heart and moves the feet, just as it did for a generation of regulars in clubs in the black districts of cities across North America. Green died in 1979, aged 43, suffering a heart attack during an engagement at his friend George Benson’s Breezin’ Lounge in Harlem, after a year of ill health. His playing is loved for its blues-driven clarity and directness, whatever the context. And, as usual, Resonance — a non-profit organisation — goes to the trouble of providing plenty of background material in the accompanying booklets, along with artwork that evokes the vibe of the period. These two albums are time capsules, offering something to be enjoyed as well as preserved.

Pohjola/Kallio: ‘Animal Image’

Verneri Pohjola and Mikka Kallio credit Maarit Kytoharju

Four years ago, the gifted Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola made his debut on the Edition label with Bullhorn, a small-group album of exquisite modern jazz in the line of descent from Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and Manu Katché’s Neighbourhood, which is to say cool, clear, strongly lyrical but always alert post-bop music with attractive themes and thoughtful solos, handsomely veneered. Last year he followed it up with Pekka, a more rock-inflected but also beguiling set of interpretations of themes composed by his late father, Pekka Pohjola, who was the bassist with the excellent group Wigwam in the early ’70s and the leader of his own band until his death 10 years ago.

His new release, Animal Image, is a collaboration with the percussionist Mika Kallio, who also appeared on Pekka. It was recorded to accompany a film about the “infinite relationship” between man and animals, made in northern Finland by the visual artist Perttu Saksa, who approached the project from an unusual angle by showing Pohjola and Kallio his footage and then cutting the film to their improvisations — a reversal of the conventional method.

With Pohjola using electronics as well as trumpet and Kallio adding bells and gongs to his drums, the result is a restrained but ravishing set of sound pictures, a kind of Nordic response to Jon Hassell’s Fourth World recordings of the 1980s. This is the sound of snowfields and big skies, of glistening details and slow change, and of survival. Its sheer beauty (most immediately expressed in Pohjola’s glorious trumpet tone) and approachability makes Animal Image easy to recommend to people who wouldn’t normally go for something as apparently austere as a series of free improvisations for trumpet and percussion. And now I’d love to see the film.

* Animal Image is out now on the Edition label. The photograph of Verneri Pohjola and Mika Kallio is by Maarit Kytoharju.

A record shop life

 

Going for a Song

The history of the British music scene from the 1950s onwards can be told through the story of the nation’s record shops, which is exactly what Garth Cartwright does in Going for a Song, his newly published survey of the retail outlets that drew fans and musicians to their specialist stock and thereby shaped the evolution of the music in all its forms.

Whether it was John Mayall buying blues 78s at a shop in Manchester’s Marsden Square, David Bowie buying Bob Dylan’s first album in the folk department of Dobell’s on Charing Cross Road, Mick Taylor buying B. B. King’s Live at the Regal at Transat Imports in a basement on Lisle Street, or Joe Strummer hearing Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” at Ted Carroll’s original Rock On stall in the Golborne Road market, these were the places where enthusiasms were incubated and encouraged.

For a few months in 1964-65 I had a Saturday job in the basement record department of a TV rental shop in central Nottingham, using the shop’s main deck to listen to imported Blue Note albums which I’d been allowed to order but no one wanted to buy (that Christmas, Jim Reeves was outselling Eric Dolphy by about 1,000 to one). But the places I haunted as a customer were a second-hand stall in the covered market, where I bought my first jazz LPs from a rather doleful man who travelled in each day from Grantham, and a West Indian record shop near the bus station, where the sleeve of Jimmy McGriff’s I Got a Woman hung in the window and they stocked Prince Buster 45s on the Blue Beat label.

Those are the things that stay with you. On trips to London I bought an imported Mar-Keys 45 on Stax at Transat, My Name Is Albert Ayler at Dobell’s and an album by Shinichi Yuize, the koto master, at the achingly cool One Stop on South Molton Street. After I’d moved to London I spent more hours at Collet’s on New Oxford Street (run by Ray Smith and Gill Cook) than anywhere else, with occasional trips to Golborne Road and to Peckings’ tiny Studio 1 ska shop in Askew Road, Shepherds Bush. Nowadays it’s mostly the excellent Ray’s Jazz Shop in Foyle’s, sometimes Sister Ray in Berwick Street and Sounds of the Universe on Broadwick Street, and occasionally — not often enough — Honest Jon’s on Portobello Road.

I miss the little independent soul and oldies shops clustered in Hanway Street, a doglegged alley off Oxford Street, and, at the other end of the scale, Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, with its amazing stock: the primary haunt of what David Hepworth named “the 50 quid man”, the sort of consumer who — growing into middle age with a bit of disposable income — would drop in for a new CD and pick up a couple more that filled gaps in his collection. I miss Dobell’s and James Asman’s on New Row for their sometimes cranky character. In New York I miss Village Oldies, later Bleecker Bob’s; the fabulous Colony Records on the corner of Broadway and West 52nd Street, which closed in 2012 after 64 years; and a more recent casualty, the adventurous Other Music on East 4th Street.

A great record shop sometimes requires a form of negotiation that doesn’t apply widely in the world of retail: the need for customers to prove themselves worthy of making a purchase. The first time I encountered that phenomenon was in Dobell’s, when I bought the Ayler album and was brusquely informed by a tall man with a beard that “the guy can’t play”. That was 50-odd years ago. The most recent time was last year, in House of Oldies on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, where I kept my head down while the owner frightened off a customer who had bothered him with requests that revealed what he clearly saw as an unacceptable ignorance of doo-wop music.

One of the most memorable record-store visits, back in 1970, was to the great R&B producer Bobby Robinson’s shop at its original location on 125th Street and 8th Avenue in Harlem, opposite the Apollo Theatre. Charlie Gillett and I spotted the dust-covered boxes of 78s on high shelves, undisturbed for more than a decade. Another was to buy Northern Soul singles at Selectadisc on Arkwright Street in Nottingham — a street of vibrant working-class character since completed obliterated by urban development — and being transfixed by the beauty of the proprietor’s wife while handing over the cash for bootlegged copies of the Fuller Brothers’ “Time’s A Wasting” and Moses Smith’s “The Girl Across the Street” at the urging of my pal Dave Milton, who ran his own shop in Derby.

I could go on. Couldn’t we all, when it comes to record shops? More to the point, Garth Cartwright’s book is a wonderful guide to many of the places I’ve mentioned, and to the the people who brought them to life, from such well known figures as Doug Dobell, Ted Carroll and Geoff Travis to the more obscure characters like the Levy family of Whitechapel, Lee Gopthal of Musicland, Rita and Benny Isen of R&B Records in Stamford Hill, Laurie Krieger of Harlequin, Barry Class of the Disci chain and the mysterious Brian Abrams, whom I first encountered at his original Record & Tape Exchange in the Goldhawk Road in 1970, when he was on his way to creating a little empire based on eccentric employment policies and journalists’ review copies.

Cartwright goes right back to 1894 and the opening in Cardiff of Spillers, which survives today as the world’s oldest record shop, and tells the stories of projects that had a significant lifespan, like HMV and Virgin, and those that didn’t, like the Vogue label’s record shop on Charing Cross Road and the Chelsea Drugstore on the King’s Road. He goes outside London to include much-loved places such as the Epstein family’s NEMS emporium in Liverpool, Birmingham’s Diskery, Pete Russell’s Hot Record Store in Plymouth, Barry’s Record Rendezvous in Manchester and Eric Rose’s Music Inn in Nottingham, which hopes to celebrate its centenary next year. He’s done his research and talked to lots of people, both surviving proprietors and their customers (which makes me wish the book had an index).

At the end of Cartwright’s engrossing and hugely valuable survey we arrive at the rather less optimistic era of the vinyl revival and the annual Record Store Day, which the author views with a degree of scepticism. As he points out, the number of independent record shops in Britain tumbled from 948 to 408 between 2003 and 2007, and the recovery is struggling to stabilise itself. But as long as recorded music is available in a physical form there will be successors to those who helped so many of us to follow our ears wherever they led. They deserve this fine book.

* Going for a Song is published by Flood Gallery (£12.99).

Lewis Wright’s ‘Duets’

Lewis Wright

If he were not already a word-class vibes player, Lewis Wright would make a great commercial songwriter. Unlike most people who write jazz compositions, Wright seems to think first of all in terms of pure melody, and then how that melody can be given the most emotionally satisfying harmonic support. He has the knack of writing tunes that sound both fresh and familiar at the same time. In a previous generation, Benny Golson had the same gift.

Wright is probably best known as a member of Empirical, whose last album, Connection, contained a Wright-penned ballad called “Lethe” which carried distant echoes of Duke Pearson’s “Cristo Redentor” (as recorded by Donald Byrd) and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. Its lovely gentle swell was used to set up and counterpoint Nat Facey’s urgent alto saxophone solo. The tune sounded like a potential jazz classic, although I’m not sure such a thing still exists now that original material is practically compulsory. After two years of owning the album, and several live exposures to the piece, I still play it all the time and it never fails to improve the prevailing mood.

Now Wright, who is 29, makes his leadership debut on record with an album of his own compositions called Duets for Vibraphone and Piano, on which he is joined by Kit Downes. They launched it last night at the Pizza Express in Soho with a set which showed very clearly how much they enjoy playing together, as they’ve done since they were schoolboys living in adjacent villages in Norfolk (Downes is the elder by two years).

It also confirmed Wright’s compositional talent. The ballads “Sati” and “An Absence of Heart” are winning enough — romantic without being drippy — to remind me of Michel Legrand, a comparison which prompted the thought about commercial songwriting. “Sati”, indeed, sounds as if it’s just waiting for the right film to be made — and, like “Lethe”, it ends with a coda that shows he has imaginative ideas about structure. Up-tempo pieces such as “Tokyo ’81” and “Fortuna” are full of cunning surges and sideslips, rhythmically active enough to remind one that Wright has also made his living as a drummer with the likes of Melody Gardot and Joss Stone but still glinting with faceted melodies as they fly by.

His spectacular improvising is not exactly held in check or kept under wraps here (there’s a dazzling passage on the closing “Kintamani”, for instance), but the real point of the exercise is the integration of compositions, performers and instruments into a form of chamber jazz that is by turns serene, jaunty, athletic and pensive. I’d call it a complete success.

* Duets for Vibraphone and Piano is out now on the Signum Classics label.

Betty Lavette, protest singer

Betty Lavette

Which activist was it who remarked, sometime in the early ’70s, that he’d forgive Bob Dylan everything if he’d just write one more good song against the Vietnam war? I forget, and it doesn’t really matter. Dylan, of course, never responded to the plea. That phase of his life was done. And I guess that when Patti Smith sings “Hard Rain” at the Nobel ceremony in the time of Trump and Putin, a 50-year-old song is as good as new.

So if we can’t have new songs that rail against injustice with the kind of resonance that Dylan’s early efforts achieved, then maybe revisiting the old ones is the best we can hope for. The fine soul singer Betty LaVette does that to an extent on her new album, Things Have Changed, where she and her producer, Steve Jordan, reinterpret a dozen Dylan songs of varying vintages.

Most of them are non-political, either early (“It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Mama You Been on My Mind”), mid-period (“Going Going Gone”) or more recent (“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Emotionally Yours”, “Seeing the Real You at Last”). But the saw-toothed, low-slung version of the title track which opens the album sounds like an elliptical state-of-the-nation address delivered from the back table of some anonymous small-town bar, and it sets the tone and trajectory for what follows.

Much credit for the album’s considerable success must go to the guitar of Larry Campbell (one of Dylan’s most faithful sidemen), the keyboards of Leon Pendarvis, the bass guitar of Pino Palladino and Jordan’s drums, whose collective nailing of a kind of grunge-funk mode is discreetly compelling throughout. It took skill, imagination and guts to devise a new groove for “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, in which LaVette pays as little attention to the sheet music as Dylan himself would, cutting herself loose from the melody to locate what she needs within such a well-worn song. “Political World” rides on a lean displaced-backbeat riff that nods to War’s “Slippin’ into Darkness”, which suits me fine, and the exquisitely restrained treatment of “Going, Going, Gone” lifts it straight into the upper reaches of my list of favourite Dylan covers.

Now I come to think about it, there’s isn’t actually much explicit protest in this album — certainly not as much as in Mavis Staples’ recent If All I Was Was Black. But somehow the mood still feels insurrectionary. As Bob wrote and Betty sings, “This is a political world, where peace ain’t welcome at all / It’s turned away from the door to wander some more / Or put up against the wall…”

* Things Have Changed is out now on the Impulse label. The photograph of Betty LaVette is by Mark Seliger.

 

Cecil Taylor, himself

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(Photograph: Francis Wolff)

Today’s news of the death of the great musical revolutionary Cecil Taylor at the age of 89 brought back the impact of his early recordings and the experience of hearing him live on several occasions across the decades. It also reminded me of the night I gave him a lift back to his hotel after his London debut in November 1969. My car at the time was a much-loved old Fiat 500, so small that you could have fitted it into the trunk of a New York taxi cab. Hardly a limo. Barely even a car at all, by American standards. Luckily, Cecil fitted quite neatly into its confined passenger seat and talked cheerfully on the drive from Hammersmith Odeon into the West End.

His set during that night’s concert — part of Jazz Expo 69, on a bill shared with Cleo Laine and the most desultory quartet Thelonious Monk ever led — had been nothing less than staggering. With Jimmy Lyons on alto, Sam Rivers on tenor and Andrew Cyrille on drums, he reshaped my understanding of focused intensity. The two saxophonists worked their way through Cecil’s intricate unison lines against the jabbing commentary of the leader’s piano and the shifting thunder and lightning provided by Cyrille. Occasionally the skies would clear for a brief passage of shining lyricism before the storm returned, seemingly redoubled in force.

I remember two things from later in the evening. The first followed my remark that such performances must be physically draining. No, Cecil said. “You don’t notice it. Let’s go and find a discothèque — it’s good for the feet.” The second, not unrelated, came when I accompanied him to his room at the Strand Palace Hotel for a short interview. On a table was a small record player, with a Stevie Wonder album on the deck. I was surprised — maybe I’d been expecting Bartók. “Stevie Wonder is tremendous — he reminds me of a preacher,” he said. “The arrangements have the excitement of Dizzy’s old band.” He meant Dizzy Gillespie’s incendiary big band of 1947; it was a strikingly unexpected comparison.

A few years later I heard a phenomenal solo set at Carnegie Hall and then, just after the turn of the millennium, a poetry recital, shared with Amiri Baraka, at St Mark’s-in-the-Bowery in the East Village. Baraka read “A Modest Proposal for Giuliani’s Disposal (41 verses which are also curses)”, a lacerating tirade inspired by the killing of Amadou Diallo. Cecil read skeins of words that came from some private place. The last time I heard him, in a duo with Tony Oxley at the Village Vanguard maybe five years ago, he read and played, and on that particular night the music seemed to have taken up residency in that same private place.

I suppose the records I love best are the earlier ones: the free-swinging “Charge ‘Em Blues” from Jazz Advance, the whole of Looking Ahead, “Pots” and “Bulbs” from Into the Hot, the epic “D Trad, That’s What” from the Café Montmartre album, all of Conquistador. Also Dark to Themselves from the ’70s and It Is In the Brewing Luminous from the ’80s. Above all, though, the monumental “This Nearly Was Mine”, a radical meditation on Richard Rodgers’ South Pacific ballad, from The World of Cecil Taylor, now almost 60 years old. I once asked the record producer Alan Douglas (who supervised Money Jungle and the Last Poets’ debut) which album he would most like to make. “Cecil Taylor playing standards,” he said, and I knew what he meant.

Here’s a clip of a performance at the memorial service for Ornette Coleman two years ago (I was led to it by a fine piece on Ethan Iverson’s blog, Do the Math). It’s a good way to remember Cecil as well: the piano playing slowed down to mortal pace for the occasion but every note tipped with obsidian, coming at you from angles that belonged only to to this most fearless and uncompromisingly original member of the avant-garde.