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Posts tagged ‘John Etheridge’

‘Astral Weeks’ in Camden Town

Astral WeeksIf your name isn’t Van Morrison, it takes some kind of courage to tackle Astral Weeks, one of the sacred texts of the late ’60s. No one has ever really explained how the singer, his American musicians and Larry Fallon, the arranger and conductor, and his producer, Lewis Merenstein, came up with the unique blend of idioms that make the album so distinctive. Jazz, folk, rock and blues are all in there, but so thoroughly metabolised that the eight songs create, for the length of a long-playing record, an idiom of their own. In his lyrics, too, Morrison plunged head-on into a new world of poetic spirituality.

So when Orphy Robinson and the Third Eye All Stars presented the album at the Jazz Café last night, there was an element of risk. Morrison himself performed it in its entirety on a tour in 2009, but it was his right to do so, and he brought it off quite satisfactorily, although he couldn’t quite summon the magic that had occurred during three rushed days in the late summer of 1968, when he worked with musicians he didn’t know in a line-up that adhered to no known formula. The idea of someone else taking on this precious and delicate creation and trying to invent variations on its wild, hypnotic swirl of emotions seemed foolhardy, to say the least.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. The 10-piece Third Eye band — Robinson on vibes and percussion, singers Joe Cang and Sahra Gure, flautist Rowland Sutherland, cellist Kate Shortt, Justina Curtis on electric piano, acoustic guitarists Mo Nazam and John Etheridge, bassist Neville Malcolm and drummer Mark Mondesir — chose not to attempt a radical reinterpretation of the material. They played it straight, content to infuse the music with their own freewheeling spirit.

A couple of solos — Sutherland on “Cyprus Avenue” and Robinson on “The Way Young Lovers Do” — brought the house down, while Malcolm and Mondesir did a fine job of following the template established on the original by Richard Davis and Connie Kay, who had no idea who Morrison was when they turned up for the sessions but found themselves devising a new application for their jazz chops in service of the grumpy little Irishman who barely spoke to them.

Neither Cang nor Gure attempted to imitate Morrison. They just sang the songs with a respect that did not prevent them from injecting their own energy into this hallowed material. I had never imagined that I would want to hear anyone singing “Madame George” other than its creator, but Cang — after successfully calling for quiet as the guitars strummed the intro — delivered it in a way that, like the whole evening, did no disservice to a high-wire masterpiece.

Remembering Nino Rota

Amarcord Nino RotaWhen it appeared in 1981, Hal Willner’s Amacord Nino Rota kick-started the phenomenon of tribute albums. The New York producer gathered a bunch of musicians — among them Carla Bley, Jaki Byard, Bill Frisell, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, Steve Lacy, and the then-unknown Wynton Marsalis — to take a variety of approaches, in various combinations, to Rota’s music for the films of Federico Fellini.

Last night, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, Willner presented a greatly expanded version of the project, featuring only two of the original participants — Bley and her partner, the bass guitarist Steve Swallow — but adding a bunch of new pieces arranged by and featuring the likes of Mike Gibbs, John Etheridge, Kate St John, Steve Beresford, Rita Marcotulli, Nitin Sawhney, Giancarlo Vulcano, Karen Mantler and Steven Bernstein. Now opened up to include Rota’s music from non-Fellini films, the evening contained almost too many wonderful moments to remember.

Those I carried away with me included Beresford’s use of B.J. Cole’s outrageously eloquent steel guitar on music from Il Bidone; the expansion of Bley’s brilliant arrangement of themes from 8 1/2; Mantler’s deployment of her own chromatic harmonica during her marvellous settings of the various themes from The Godfather; the emotions that surged to the surface during Gibbs’s arrangement of music from The Glass Mountain (a 1949 film directed by Henry Cass and Edoardo Anton, and starring Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray); and the very moving conclusion, which found Sawhney at the piano, meditating on melodies from La Strada, accompanied by string quartet and bass flute.

I felt a little less warm towards the brief appearances of Marc Almond and Richard Strange, delivering songs from Fellini’s Casanova films. But the arrangers were fortunate to be able to call on the services of a terrific orchestra, whose soloists included the wonderful brazen trombonist Barnaby Dickinson, the feather-tongued tenor saxophonist Julian Siegel, the deft guitarist John Etheridge, Bernstein on slide trumpet (surely the most Felliniesque of instruments), and Marcotulli, who contributed a fine piano improvisation to The Glass Mountain. Topped and tailed — with typically Willnerian hipster ingenuity — by recordings of Ken Nordine reading Shel Silverstein’s poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, the result was a two-and-a-half-hour triumph.