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Posts tagged ‘Elton Dean’

The spirit of 1971

On an earlier re-release of the first and only album by Centipede, the 50-strong (and therefore 100-footed) band assembled by Keith Tippett, RCA’s marketing department used a quote from the Melody Maker‘s original review: “No one who wants a permanent record of where our music was at in 1971 will want to be without Septober Energy.” It was true at the time and today, listening to a remastered and reissued version of the double album made by an ensemble containing actual and former members of Soft Machine, King Crimson, the Blue Notes, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the Blossom Toes, Nucleus, Patto, the Steam Packet and Dantalian’s Chariot, it still feels right.

In his notes to the new Septober Energy reissue, Sid Smith quotes my description of it at the time as “a miracle”, but as miracles go it was an eminently achievable one, given the spirit of creativity, goodwill and mutual encouragement in which it was conceived and implemented under Tippett’s inspired guidance. This was the first of his large-ensemble projects; if it lacked some of the finesse of later endeavours, it wanted for nothing in terms of spirit.

The clue was in the title. “Energy” was a word much applied back then to the kind of improvising habitually done by the freer players here — the tenorists Gary Windo and Alan Skidmore and the trombonist Paul Rutherford, for example, the singers Julie Tippetts and Maggie Nichols, and the three marvellous South Africans: the trumpeter Mongezi Feza, the altoist Dudu Pukwana and the bassist Harry Miller. But others from related fields were cheerfully infected by the same vibe: the trumpeter Ian Carr, the guitarist Brian Godding, the oboeist Karl Jenkins and the 19 string players led by the violinist Wilf Gibson. And then there were the horns from Tippett’s own sextet, already borrowed by Soft Machine and King Crimson: the cornetist Mark Charig, the trombonist Nick Evans and the altoist Elton Dean. There were five bass players in all, including Jeff Clyne and Roy Babbington, and three drummers, two of them being Robert Wyatt and John Marshall. Robert Fripp played guitar on stage and produced the album.

I seem to remember that the announcement of their debut concert, at the Lyceum in November 1970, made the front page of the MM. After that first gig, boisterously exhilarating but inevitably chaotic, they went on the road in Europe and had a great time. The following June they went into Wessex Studios in north London, located in an old church hall, with just four days for recording the 80-minute piece under Fripp’s supervision and a couple more days for him to mix and edit the results into four movements, each one fitting a side of the double album. Their last appearance was at the Albert Hall in December 1971.

All the enthusiasm of the time, as yet unspoiled by time and the depredations of the music industry, is there on the album. And so, thanks to the skills of the composer and the producer, is a clear view of the individual strengths of the featured soloists (meaning practically everybody), as well as their readiness to attempt a coalescence into something greater than the sum of the parts.

Part 1 begins with the sound of small percussion, like something from a Shinto temple, before long tones — strings, voices — emerge and hover, soon disrupted by the first hints of the storms to come. Gradually the brilliant disposition of the orchestral resources comes into focus as Tippett balances the roistering horns and thunderous drums with subtler deployments and great control of crescendo and diminuendo. The wrapover to Part 2 is a lovely bass conversation — one bowed, one plucked, one playing harmonics con legno — leading to a very period-correct jazz-rock sequence with Tony Fennell’s drums and Babbington’s bass guitar accompanying quarrelsome saxes over a brass choir, suddenly interrupted by giant overlapping unison riffs in which, metaphorically, the entire band seems to have been fed through a fuzz-box. A space is cleared for Carr’s serene trumpet and Skidmore’s urgent tenor to take solos against the rhythm section, both exploiting the lift of lyrical chord sequence, before Godding’s distortions announce the return of the heavy artillery. An improvised trombone quartet adds another contrasting texture.

Part 3 opens with the four singers — Tippetts, Nichols, Zoot Money, Mike Patto — delivering Julie’s lyric without accompaniment: “Unite for every nation / Unite for all the land / Unite for liberation / Unite for the freedom of man.” Then the trio of drummers take over for a powerful conversation, each individual carefully separated in the stereo picture, leading into a long ensemble passage that builds to a shuddering climax before a slow electronic fade leads to the two female singers improvising over the strings, like a giant version of the SME, the same forces combining in a disquieting written section that ends the side. Tippett’s solo piano announces Part 4, sliding into a broad, swelling theme for brass, mutating through a long Elton Dean soprano solo into a trenchant restatement of the “Unite for…” song, and ending with a pensive coda for piano and cornet.

Of course it sprawls, and not every note played over the course of almost an hour and a half could be described as deathless or essential. But it was and remains a triumph of conception and execution, a vision of musical scale with, as it were, the Little Theatre Club at one end and Woodstock at the other. It also set me thinking about the form an equivalent project might take today, with similarly open-minded and collaboratively inclined musicians drawn from newer generations. Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke from Radiohead would have to be there. Shirley Tetteh, Shabaka Hutchings, Olie Brice, Sheila Maurice Grey, Moses Boyd, Nubaya Garcia, Rachel Musson, Tom Skinner, Rosie Turton, Cassie Kinoshi and Theon Cross from the new London jazz scene. Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley from Portishead. Keiran Hebden (Four Tet) and Sam Shepherd (Floating Points). Well, you can make your own list.

* The CD reissue of Centipede’s Septober Energy is on the Esoteric label. I don’t know who took the photograph at the Lyceum show.

Soft Machine in Croydon, 1970

Softs in CroydonCroydon’s Fairfield Halls art complex closed this week for a complete renovation that is expected to take two years. The news reminded me of the night back in January 1970 when I got so badly lost in my Fiat 500 in the one-way system around the town’s high-rise office blocks that I missed most of the first half of an important Soft Machine concert.

It’s always interesting when a gig you attended turns up on a CD decades later, even though part of one track, “Facelift”, was taken and used, after editing and overdubbing, on the Soft’s first album for CBS, the classic Third, later that year. Some years ago the Cuneiform label released the complete 75-minute show under the title Noisette; it’s still available, and well worth investigating.

Back in 1970, this is how I started the review in the following week’s Melody Maker: “It seems to me that this might just be Soft Machine’s year. Having done things the unconventional way by finding first fame on the Continent, the group should find the musical climate of Britain coming round to embrace them in the near future.”

The hall was “all but sold out”, the audience “young and attentive”. I got there in time to hear “Hibou, Anemone and Bear”, the final number of the first half. Thanks to the Cuneiform disc, I now know that Robert Wyatt — for whom, having been brought up in Dulwich, this was practically a home fixture — introduced the concert with these words: “The programme for this evening is that we do a bit and then we stop for a bit and then we do a bit more.”

It turns out that I missed 25 minutes of excellent music. Had I heard it live, I might not – after praising the playing of Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean — have written the following about the fifth member, the saxophonist and flautist Lyn Dobson: “I have grave reservations about Dobson, who seemed to be trying to do too much. Only on tenor did he say the piece of which he is capable”.

Dobson had joined the Softs the previous year, as part of a four-strong horn section. The other three members — Dean, Marc Charig and Nick Evans — had been nicked from the Keith Tippett band. Charig and Evans had left at the end of 1969, after a French tour. (Here and here are rare glimpses of that shortlived seven-piece line-up on a French TV show, L’invité du dimanche, with the added attraction of the great Delphine Seyrig.) The five-piece didn’t last long, either. Here they are in Paris that spring, shortly before Dobson left, thereby missing the band’s historic appearance at the Albert Hall in August, when they became the first ensemble from the field of popular music to appear at the BBC Proms.

At the time of his stint with the Softs, Lyn was a well-known face on the London scene. He had played the flute solo on Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” and recorded with the Small Faces. He was a member, along with John McLaughlin, of Georgie Fame’s first post-Blue Flames bands in 1967, and could be heard with the People Band, which also included Terry Day and Mike Figgis. He played with the Keef Hartley Band, he would appear on the title track of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter and on John and Beverley Martyn’s The Road to Ruin, and in the 1990s he made a couple of albums with the Third Ear Band before going to live, I believe, on Crete.

Anyway, I can now admit that in the section of the evening I missed was one of the concert’s highlights: Lyn’s flute solo on Ratledge’s ballad, “Backwards”. Introduced by the composer’s wah-wah’d electric piano, he produces a beautifully constructed improvisation that achieves an excellent blend of Eric Dolphy’s pure-toned inventiveness and Roland Kirk’s funky distortion, the latter feature coming to the fore as the piece goes into a wild Mingus-like 9/8 vamp. (Mingus, along with the Coltrane quartet of “My Favourite Things” and Uncle Meat-era Zappa, seemed to be the Softs’ most powerful influences at the time.) His tenor solos, like the one on Hopper’s “12/8 Theme”, manage to retain their clarity and logic in the heat of a furnace stoked by the non-stop focused clatter of Wyatt’s impassioned drumming.

As it happens, Wyatt was already beginning to become detached from the band. “Hugh, myself and Elton were pursuing a vaguely jazz-related direction,” Ratledge told Rob Chapman in a Mojo interview in 1997. “Robert was violently opposed to this, which is strange looking back on it because he was passionate about jazz. But he had defined ideas of what pop music was and what jazz was.” Wyatt’s verdict, quoted by his biographer Marcus O’Dair in Different Every Time: “To me, fusion jazz was the worst of both worlds. It was rock rhythms, played in a rather effete way, with noodling, very complicated solos on top.”

Robert may have been right in general terms, but that’s not true of the music preserved from the Croydon gig, which has power and inventiveness and its own kind of authenticity. To me, the five-piece was the last great Soft Machine line-up, before the noodling began to take over.

By the time Dobson joined the Softs, he had already developed a serious interest in eastern music and mysticism. Not long after he departure he generously lent me Hazrat Inayat Khan’s book about Sufism and music. It stayed with me through many house moves but eventually went missing. Maybe, like the recording of the enthralling Croydon concert, it will one day magically reappear, ready to provide a reminder of a time of open-minded, open-hearted creativity.

* The photograph of Lyn Dobson, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean was taken by Mark Ellidge, and is from the booklet accompanying Noisette.