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Romain PilonNo one influenced the way jazz has been played on the guitar for the last 40 years more profoundly than Jimi Hendrix, who wasn’t a jazz musician in any way but nevertheless exerted an influence as profound as that of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane on saxophone players.

Hendrix’s example granted guitarists a licence to exploit the variations in tone and attack made possible by their electronic equipment, to break away from the restrained approach of earlier giants, from Charlie Christian to Wes Montgomery, and to spend more time exploring colour and texture in sound. A list of those players whose conception was touched by his influence to a greater or lesser degree might include such figures as Larry Coryell, Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, Terje Rypdal, David Torn, Vernon Reid, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and the man we saw in London last week, Marc Ribot.

So it makes a nice change to listen to a young guitarist whose playing, while thoroughly modern, shows no traces whatsoever of a similar inclination. Romain Pilon was born in Grenoble, spent four years studying at Berklee, lived in New York for a year and is now based in Paris. The Whirlwind label released his first album, by a trio, last year, and now comes its successor, called Colorfield. This one features a quartet in which Pilon is joined by three Americans: the tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, the double bassist Michael Janisch and the drummer Jamire Williams. Recorded in London, the album contains seven of Pilon’s absorbing compositions plus Horace Silver’s lovely ballad “Lonely Woman” (not to be confused with Ornette Coleman’s oft-performed piece of the same title).

Here is an hour of music in which substance triumphs over style. The tunes are attractive and varied but never flamboyant, and they inspire solos which have no ambition beyond a thorough exploration of their themes and structures. Pilon plays with a small, rounded, soft-edged tone reminiscent of the great Jim Hall, and uses absolutely no effects other than his great ear for harmonically acute, melodically elegant, rhythmically fluid improvisation. His colleagues are equally outstanding, particularly Smith, who confirms the impression he made last year on the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s much praised debut album — he’s another unshowy player, avoiding the customary influences in favour of an approach that might be what you’d get if you blended Warne Marsh with Sam Rivers and added a dash of Joe Henderson.

Janisch and Williams play a full part in these outstanding conversations, in which everyone has something worth saying and no one tries to shout anyone down. If you want a lesson in how to swing very hard indeed without raising the voice above a civilised murmur, listen to the final track, “7th Hour”. All in all, highly recommended.

John Abercrombie is a guitarist of an earlier generation, similarly unflashy and always worth hearing. His 39 Steps caught my eye before it caught my ear. It’s on ECM, whose releases are noted for the quality of the photography adorning their covers. But where there’s usually a moody land- or sea- or cityscape, with this one there’s an aerial picture of part of a football pitch: just the mown grass and the whitewash of the halfway line, the centre circle, the penalty area and the D. No players, however. In this context the image has more to do with geometry than sport; it seems to have no relationship to the music, which is by the American guitarist’s quartet, including  Marc Copeland on piano, Drew Gress on double bass and Joey Baron on drums. Or, indeed, to the album’s title, which is reflected in several tunes named after other films by Alfred Hitchcock.

This is an even quieter album than Pilon’s. With six compositions from Abercrombie and two from Copeland, plus the standard “Melancholy Baby” and one short collective improvisation, it barely disturbs the air in the room. A form of chamber music, certainly, but of a very high order when the four men are exploring the nuances of tunes as elegantly appealing as the guitarist’s “Vertigo” or the pianist’s “Spellbound”. Copeland occasionally inserts a hint of astringency that I suppose you could call noir-ish, but no violence is committed. For those prepared to listen closely, the relatively circumscribed emotional range will be no barrier to enjoyment of another exceptional album.

* The drawing is from the cover of Colorfield. It is uncredited.

Ribot, Grimes & Taylor

Ribot Grimes Taylor 1

On a small table in front of the chair on which he sat to play guitar at the Cafe Oto last night, Marc Ribot had a large egg-timer. I’ve often wonderered how musicians — improvising musicians in particular — know when they’re reached the end of their alloted time. Most of them seem to have an internal clock, its calibration refined over the years. But I’ll never forget the morning after a particularly mesmerising performance by Art Pepper at St Paul’s Church in Hammersmith at the end of the ’70s, when a photographer came into the Melody Maker‘s office with a set of pictures from the concert, including one that showed the great saxophonist taking a surreptitious look at his wristwatch.

I’d be surprised if anyone was clock-watching last night. The trio of Ribot, the bassist Henry Grimes and the drummer Chad Taylor started with a medley of Albert Ayler tunes, providing the guitarist (who is probably best known for his work with Tom Waits and Marianne Faithfull) with a canvas for the scrabbling, string-scrubbing, sound-splintering techniques that place him somewhere on the spectrum between Jimi Hendrix and Derek Bailey. As he eased away from adding country inflections to Ayler’s march-hymn structures and wound himself up into a state of near-catharsis, I was reminded of Robert Fripp’s startling solo on King Crimson’s “A Sailor’s Tale” (from the album Islands), one of my favourite guitar improvisations.

There can’t have been more than a handful among the capacity crowd who were born when Grimes disappeared off the jazz map in 1970, having spent a dozen years establishing himself — via such important recordings as Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village — as one of the foremost members of an unusually gifted generation of double bassists. The story of his rediscovery more than 30 years later, living in Los Angeles, surviving on non-musical jobs, writing poetry and unaware of any developments in the music during the intervening period, has passed into legend. Now, at 77, he overflows with energy, ideas and purpose, the strength and fluidity of his playing absolutely unscarred by that extended lay-off.

The second tune of a long set began with a less than convincing rock beat but soon doubled up into fast bebop time and felt all the better for it. The third and last item opened with a slow, abstract passage in which Grimes played the violin, reminding us of his Juilliard training in the ’50s, before the adroit use of a volume pedal enabled Ribot to produce jolting note-cluster explosions. Taylor concluded the piece with a marvellous solo reminiscent of the immortal Elvin Jones, suggesting rhythm without specific metre or pulse and building excitement without the use of licks or repetition.

If Grimes’s tale reminds us how many years have passed since this music first turned the jazz world on its ear, a gig such as last night’s demonstrates how much scope it still offers to the creative mind.

* Before the first set, the audience was asked not to use recording or photographic equipment. The picture above was taken 20 minutes earlier, while the musicians were setting up their instruments. No protocols were breached.

2013 (A merman I should turn to be…)

HendrixThe last time I saw Jimi Hendrix, he was getting into a helicopter to take him away from the Isle of Wight, still wearing the stage clothes, flowing silks in orange and dark red, in which he’d performed in the early hours of August 31, 1970. It was a chilly, misty morning, not long after dawn. Eighteen days later he was dead, and the speculation began about what, in musical terms, he might have left undone.

None of the posthumous releases have given us much of a clue, and that’s certainly true of People, Hell and Angels, the Hendrix estate’s latest production, in which mostly familiar songs are presented in the guise of alternative takes or versions cleansed of the overdubs undertaken after his death. Hard-core obsessives will find more than enough to satisfy their appetites, but it’s foolish now to hope for revelations.

So what would he have gone on to accomplish? Could he really have moved on beyond the basic template laid down by “Hey Joe” and Are You Experienced soon after his arrival in London in 1966? What happened to truncate the arc of musical progression created when that first album was followed within the next two years by Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland?

The year 1969 was the one in which he seemed to hint at future directions. Not just the staggering Woodstock version of “Star Spangled Banner” — a Guernica for the Vietnam era — but the jams that took place whenever he was in New York, often involving musicians associated with Miles Davis. In March of that year the guitarist John McLaughlin took a night off from playing with Tony Williams’ Lifetime to jam at the Record Plant with Hendrix, the bassist Dave Holland (then a member of Davis’s quintet) and Buddy Miles. In May there was a much bootlegged session with Hendrix, the organist Larry Young (another member of Lifetime), Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Later that summer a session was booked at the Hit Factory for Hendrix and Miles Davis, at Miles’s behest, but was aborted half an hour before the scheduled start time when the trumpeter demanded $50,000. And there were rumours that Hendrix and Gil Evans, the arranger of Davis’s Sketches of Spain and other classics, were planning to make an album together.

None of this resulted in anything of consequence and Hendrix never found himself with those musicians in a structured environment where serious work might have occurred. For all his sublime talent, would he have been technically capable of taking McLaughlin’s place in Lifetime, the most adventurous jazz-rock group of its time? (“He wasn’t very schooled; he had a limited knowledge as far as harmony is concerned,” McLaughlin later reflected. “But he had such an imagination that he made up for it.”) How would he have sounded with a group of post-Coltrane free improvisers? Could a meeting of Hendrix and Albert Ayler have worked out? But these weren’t the sort of projects in which his managers were interested, and Hendrix’s own way of life probably militated against any more rigorous pursuit of musical adventure.

There’s an interesting quote from Carlos Santana, who was present at the Record Plant during a session in November that year: “This was a real shocker to me. He said, ‘OK, roll it,’ and started recording and it was incredible. But, within 15 or 20 seconds into the song, he just went out. All of a sudden, the music that was coming out of the speakers was way beyond the song, like he was freaking out, having a gigantic battle in the sky with somebody. It just didn’t make sense with the song any more, so the roadies looked at each other, the producer looked at him and they said, ‘Go get him.’ I’m not making this up. They separated him from the amplifier and the guitar and it was like he was having an epileptic attack… When they separated him, his eyes were red. He was gone.”

The following summer, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull was surprised by what he saw when his band shared the bill with Hendrix at the Randall’s Island festival in New York. He seemed like a different person, Anderson said, from the one he had known a year earlier. “I wanted to go and talk to him, but I couldn’t get anywhere near him because he was surrounded by a phalanx of very sinister people. I saw him briefly as he made his way to the stage and he looked very out of it.”

It all reminds me of Charlie Parker, who had a similar revolutionary effect on the way music is played before meeting a similarly premature demise in 1955 (Hendrix was 27 when he died; Parker was 34). The tinest scraps of Parker’s output are preserved and cherished, and we know that he remained capable of great improvisation all the way to his death. But, like Hendrix, Parker died leaving questions about what would have happened next. Was his work already done, or might he have found a new context to stimulate and nourish further artistic growth? In both cases, the odds seemed to have been stacked against it. But, of course, we’ll never know.

* The photograph of Hendrix is by Gered Mankowitz and is taken from the cover of People, Hell and Angels, just released by Sony Legacy. The quotes are from Eyewitness Hendrix by Johnny Black, published by Carlton (1999).