The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I remember, looking at the original sleeve of the third album by Ovary Lodge back in 1976, thinking that London SE27 must be in the exotic depths of nowhere. You never saw live albums recorded in places called Nettlefold Hall in such a remote-sounding district as SE27. In conjunction with the earthily unearthly music which the sleeve housed I got the impression that this release emerged, dripping, from the depths of nowhere.

Well, life teaches you a lot of things; and I now find that Nettlefold Hall is situated in West Norwood, at the top of Norwood High Street in a building which also houses the local public library, and moreover is located about 10-15 minutes’ walk from where I currently live. That knowledge hasn’t rationalised the music in any sense; listening to it now, the latest instalment in Ogun’s brave and, I am glad to say, increasingly frequent reissue programme, it still sounds like nothing else in music, either then or now, and moreover, Liz Walton’s modestly controversial cover design, which, shall we say, interprets the group’s name literally, still sticks out of the HMV record racks like a strangely smiling beacon.

Ovary Lodge began life as a trio, fronted by pianist Keith Tippett, in which he could exercise his free improv inclinations and perhaps catch his breath after the epic adventure of Centipede. The other key member of this initial grouping was percussionist Frank Perry; and the term “percussionist” undersells him sorely, since he was, in both appearance and outlook, New Age a generation ahead; deeply spiritual with a tendency towards the liturgical, his “kit” famously took several hours to assemble and dissemble, featuring multiple “little instruments” as well as the more familiar drum set-up, eventually expanding to incorporate Tibetan bowls, rows of wine glasses, huge ritual gongs and authentic Buddhist temple bells. This tended to incline group improvisation towards the meditative, the sustained tones, an essence of contemplation.

Whereas the group’s first two albums, both recorded for RCA, carried the impression of free jazz plus New Age without the two quite uniting, their third – which, nearly needless to say, was eponymously titled – sees the group finally achieving a true fusion. By now Julie Tippetts had joined, and original bassist Roy Babbington had left to concentrate on Soft Machine and the BBC Radio Big Band, but not necessarily in that order; in came the ever-reliable Harry Miller. So we have a quartet which ostensibly consists of vocals, piano, bass and drums, but that doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

Influenced perhaps by the AACM, and wary of coming across as too virtuoso or “learned,” Keith, Julie and Frank all made a point of doubling up on auxiliary instruments, not all of which they were intimately acquainted with (at least, not at that stage); so Chinese flutes, school recorders, various types of Oriental violins and sundry percussion and vocal chants all have a part to play in expanding the palate of the music.

The opening “Gentle One Says Hello” sets out their template, and, once again, that of New Age at least a decade ahead of its guiltily opulent wallpaper status; here, however, there is a tangible sense of spiritual questing, with all four offering long extended drones, slowly intertwining, Keith issuing ominous low piano chordings, Julie switching from scampering sopranino recorder to sustained vocal lines, Frank’s ceremonial percussion solemn as a salamander, Harry’s stern bowed bass holding it all together; the vocal interaction between husband and wife (Keith and Julie) is very affecting indeed.

But, when needs must, they can also roar. “Fragment No 6,” opening with Miller in Mingusian mood, cheerfully double-stopping his lines and setting the tempo, explodes into violent freedom, but it’s the ecstatic vibrancy of mutual discovery that powers the performance rather than anything destructive; Julie shrieks, yells, harrumphs and croons orgasmically against Keith’s furiously criss-crossing, and sometimes colliding, piano lines, Miller and Perry pushing the intensity as far as it can travel, and then further; at the four-minute mark the band appears to COME but that soon settles, but the building up starts again and gradually everything fuses together in a gargantuan and glorious noise – Julie working up to a scream, Keith practically pummelling the keyboard with his bare fists, and just before eight minutes Perry starts lashing his Tibetan bells and gongs like the volcano of punctum and all four miraculously BLOW UP in one, long, sustained, staggering ORGASM which, if you know what I mean, and of course you do, goes beyond “music.” The tide recedes, they retreat to a modal minor meditation, the track fades. No doubt the absence of this record from the public catalogue for nigh on three decades has given rise to the distorted fantasy that British free improvisation in the mid-seventies was going nowhere (as though the Incus releases of that time were not demonstrable enough proof to the contrary); newcomers will hear this and breathe bangles of radiant wonder.

Side two (as the old vinyl edition had it; tracks 3-5 on the CD) begins with the nearest thing to a groove on the record, with the fantastic haikuesque title of “A Man Carrying A Drop Of Water On A Leaf In A Thunderstorm.” Here Miller thrums out a solid bass riff as a crazed violin (I think played by Perry) starts off zigzagging in the Ornette tradition before settling on a droopy cyclical three-note loop in the venerable Tony Conrad/John Cale eternal theatre drone style which I am convinced subsequently cropped up on more than one “pop” or “rock” record, though I cannot currently recall which one(s), through which Keith and Julie provide very clearly defined recorder and vocal lines, Keith even resorting to shaking a pair of maracas and uttering Apache war whoops at the track’s climax.

“Communal Travel” at nearly eighteen minutes is the album’s centrepiece, and here the group achieves its ambition of concealing ego in favour of a collective soul, everyone enmeshed so closely that eventually it is impossible to tell who is playing, blowing, hitting or singing what (apart from Miller, who with dogged glee sticks to bass and nothing but bass throughout the entire record). With its endlessly inventive intersections of flutes, voices, chirrups, high tones, low pulses, delicate harmonium and a plucked piano interior which could practically be a harp, it is a logical if unlikely blood sister to the Brotherhood’s “Night Poem”; there is no central theme or riff diving in and out of the sonics here, but the atmospherics are beautifully handled and always on the edge of urgency – no surprise that Miller’s bass is the key anchor in both pieces – so that when the thrashing climax does eventually arrive, it doesn’t feel artificially reached but the most natural of conclusions; after that there is nothing left to say other than a minute-long “Coda,” where Keith, Julie and Frank’s voices harmonise, ascending higher and higher like nasturtiums towards a welcoming sun before they collectively squeal and ascend to the heaven of earthly revelations. Clearly, on the evidence of both this and the “new” Keith Tippett record about which I will shortly be speaking here, the spirit of ’67 survives in surprising but utterly truthful ways.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Monday, July 23, 2007

“Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway thereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out”
(Thomas Hardy, “I Looked Up From My Writing”)

Angeleno singer/songwriter Elvis Perkins isn’t the Sun Records tribute act his name might suggest, but if there is a connection to be had it is with the other Elvis’ “Blue Moon” in which Presley draws his mourning out into extended, wracked cries which supersede and transcend any notion of “words” needed to signify emotion (this “Blue Moon” may even have been another unwitting precedent to Alvin sitting in his room). In the above poem Hardy writes of the moon as a woman, gazing down on his protagonist who is mourning over a son lost in battle, but her gaze is one of reproach and barely concealed suspicion that Hardy’s writer would be the first to raise a gun at some unspecified crisis stage in the future. Graves’ White Goddess we would probably do best not to visit at this moment.

Elvis Perkins’ name and other crucial details are best explained by the fact that his father was the actor Anthony Perkins – that sprightly, tensed-up coil of suppressed gayness which ensured that he owned Norman Bates, but that no one else could touch him. Note his exquisite graces when speaking with Marion Crane over the table; his extreme shyness interacting with his natural sense of good manners. But his would-be feminine status can only be protected by the most extreme of means; Crane awakens something in Bates whose awakening he knows will destroy him – if this scenario seems far-fetched, consider the last days of Kenneth Williams as spelt out with graphic pain in his Diaries; living with and taking meticulous care of his ageing mother who is only just hanging onto life, tormented by his own pain, both physical and psychological, the horrible consequences of a lifetime spent puritanically denying his urges towards love and companionship, both physical and spiritual; the request to visitors to use the public toilet across the road from Euston Square tube station (the apartment block in which both lived has now been demolished, which I find eerily fitting, like the car finally admitting to be sunk fully into that swamp) – so to preserve his fealty to a mother who no longer exists except when he wants her to, and thus preserve his own perilous existence, he has to kill the threat, stamp it out in the shower. Orson Welles took this tetchy purism of Perkins’ and stretched it and him out even more agonisingly by casting him as Joseph K in his film of Kafka’s The Trial, setting his self-denial against the triple challenge of Jeanne Moreau (reclining patiently on his bed), Elsa Martinelli and Romy Schneider with her webbed hand.

Perkins was bisexual and didn’t go out of his way to deny or bury it; he died on 12 September 1992 from complications arising from Aids, when Elvis would have been sixteen. Elvis’ mother was the photographer Berry Berenson, and she died on the day before what would have been the ninth anniversary of her husband’s passing – she was one of the passengers.

Despite repeated assurances from Perkins that the songs on his debut album Ash Wednesday do not necessarily relate to the personal circumstances in his life it is impossible from both content and delivery not to think of the album, from its title downwards (the day after, ash, ash, all is ash), as anything other than what may well be the most moving musical reaction to that full stop to Western civilisation likely to be heard. His approach is acoustic, organic melancholy; one block down from Sufjan Stevens and a voice which owes something to both Thom Yorke and Rufus Wainwright, but especially to the former (as if “Fitter, Happier” were a tape found in the shattered ruins of one of the scorched cockpits).

The record is 50 minutes of detailed emotional examination of what happens when the world you knew, the people who defined it for you, suddenly disappears and somehow stops existing. As readers need no reminding, my response to the event was a deepened numbness since my “Ash Wednesday” was Sunday 26 August 2001. But of course I can identify with the feeling of being abruptly lost, marooned, confused. In those first few weeks it was clear how much Laura had shielded me, and it is also a truth that August 2001 represented the first occasion in my life when I felt entirely alone. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I would walk out into the street, into the world, and it looked like the same street and an identical world but I could not recognise it at all; now it was alien, threatening, incompatible, a ghastly practical joke of a Xerox of the world which had been pasted up overnight on the Saturday. I knew it was not the same world. But I had to work out ways to live in it, if I were to live.

So “While You Were Sleeping” opens quietly, Perkins’ voice a bereft, vibrato-free monotone. In it he speaks of all the things which have happened since his mother “fell asleep” – “the babies grew, the stars shined and the shadows moved” – and as the song patiently builds up his voice becomes gradually more agonised and restless; he creeps into the dark kitchen at night, finds nothing, he turns the “crowded” of “my mind’s too crowded” into a multisyllabic muezzin wail, the “me” of “you and me” seems to vaporise into hopeless dust. As the hitherto restrained arrangement starts to break forth, with trumpet, musical saw and fingered bottle rim, Perkins’ thoughts become starker (“And I’ve made a death suit for life/For my father’s ill-widowed wife”) before he collapses on the “smoke” of the line “When you reached for your plume of smoke” and turns it into an elongated scream as he becomes the Ian Curtis of “Dead Souls,” savagely wanting unanswerable answers – “Were you falling? Were you flying? And were you calling out?…or were you dying?” His closing “uh oh”s and “oh no”s seem like the last scrabbled utterances of someone exhausted of breathing.

“All The Night Without Love”’s misleading fiddle-led jauntiness disguises a lament for a world gone to waste, seeking salvation in “drive-thru’ orders,” “the magnetic athletic insole” and “Got milk?”; once they caused each other’s “cells to shimmer,” and now their lives are loveless. “May Day” with its excitable choir and its Laurie Anderson “1…2…3…4” intro skilfully bridges socialist revolution commemoration with the “mayday” cry for help against a president who “gargles out a hymn in the funny fish voice way” and who needs “your quiet empire where forgetful Persians roam.”

“Moon Woman II” ties in directly with my opening remarks, a gorgeous canter of a ballad constructed as a forlorn dialogue between the sun, admiring the moon (“It’s lovely how it hits the deck/Making shadows of the trees”) and the loneliness of the moon herself (“I’m cold as a stone/And it’s dark in the night/And I’m up here all alone”). Although “my shadow hungers for you,” the two can of course never meet, and so they continue their doomed separate duet – “Does anybody love you?” Perkins asks, over and over, at the song’s close. “It’s Only Me” (no relation to the Rob Dougan song) indeed finds Elvis alone with his guitar, musing about his life – the winter and white of his youth, the wasted sunshine of his adolescence (“I grew it in the shade/Where the sun couldn’t shine,” “Roses bloomed/Out of thin air/And music rose from down the buried stairs”), the heartbreaking key changes as he thinks about the heartbreak of now (“There’s someone on my mind/Who I don’t see/I close my eyes to disappear/Into the fields of stars between my ears”), his voice cracking to the point of irreversible pain. “Emile’s Vietnam In The Sky” swoons between recollections of French blooms of several natures (“The Cocteau is covered in butter”) but even the final entry of Becky Stark on backing vocals cannot dissuade him from his central question “But do you ever wonder where you go when you die?”

Then it is time for “Ash Wednesday” the song, the record’s emotional centrepiece, a terrifyingly bleak elegy of unrestrained mourning worthy of comparison with Lennon’s “Mother” (or Lennon’s “My Mother’s Dead” at the other end of that album which is about twenty trillion times scarier than his primal screaming, since he just sings it, intones it anyway, in a voice beyond numbness, perhaps beyond even this world, to the tune of “Three Blind Mice” on a field recording which appears to be broadcast live from the afterlife). Perkins’ crumble on the word “memory” sets him off, and his 98-syllable rendering of the title, over and over, in varying degrees of hoarseness, grief and candour, with its chant of “no soldier no lover no father no mother,” seems only bearable to listen to by virtue of the astringent comments of Antoine Silverman’s superb violin, Perkins’ personal about as personal as anybody could dare to get on a record – “A black and white of the bride and the groom/Will bring me to my knees/With the colourised bad dream/That takes its place on/Ash Wednesday”; it is almost too much as Perkins begs for us to share and understand his grief – “So each day is Ash Wednesday…ALL THIS LIFE is Ash Wednesday”…to bring that inevitable third Elvis into the picture, this is a Costello forcibly stripped of everything except his untrammelled rage, and that template, that portal, that escape hatch, which persists in its existence, but never before used or expressed like this…

Towards the end Perkins draws stifling, claustrophobic parallels between the World Trade Centre wreckage (“The fires all around/It’s the ending of the drought”) and the reactions of the survivors, now lowering their volume to one of quiet and deep grieving: “And we are ready now/For teargas clouds/On my mind/Come on, fill the house/Finally and weep/For its king and queen sleep/Both now in the arms of/Ash Wednesday.” In the end, it may be one of those performances too intense to stand repeated plays…but it must be listened to at least once.

“The Night & The Liquor” plays sombre games with its self-induced clouds of smoke to the accompaniment of what sounds like a modified Irish folk tune, but in time joined by questioning piano chords and a Robert Wyatt-ish organ; he imagines his mother singing him a lullaby (“Go to sleep baby”) and cannot face up to the fact that she is not coming back (“No I won’t come back baby”). His shattered mumbles outnumber his comprehensible syllables. On “It’s A Sad World After All” he duets with singer Ariana Lenarsky, while Janeen Rae Heller’s musical saw hovers mournfully over them like an untouchable angel, asking again to share his grief – “Follow the sound to the table underground/There will be plenty of tears going round/And I will be happy for you to stay with me/’Til tomorrow can become today” – but knowing that once he’s alone again he will disintegrate (“But when you leave, my powders and my teas/Will speak their heads off to me”).

“Sleep Sandwich” is a fulsomely orchestrated love song of sorts, featuring muted trumpet, trombone, tympani, glockenspiel and vibes, in which Perkins (sounding a little like Bernard Sumner) dreams about “last night” and its “science fiction movie with you and me/You in your velvet space helmet/Me in my rainball hat” with its entreaties of “You’ll be great, you’ll be a star/Someday everyone will know who you are” which may represent an old dream of his parents’ youth, though note the double-edged couplet of “May you climb high into the sky/May ratings rise” and the subtle acidity of “You write the Bible and I’ll read it off my eyelids.” As the arrangement turns increasingly distorted and stormy – the dream atomising back into uncomfortable reality – Perkins allows them, whoever they may be, to remain happy in the dream.

And before there can be any “moving on” there has to be the remembering, and then the grieving, and thus “Good Friday,” a hymn in everything including name, closes this record of mourning with its harmonium drone, Sunday school piano, Ariana’s harmonies, Antoine’s violin, Heller’s saw (has the musical saw ever been used so creatively on a record of this kind?). Perkins sings stately: “I’ll give you my body/And I’ll grieve your prayer/No one will harm you/Inside this song/We will be safe here as/The light is low.” Gradually, slowly, he learns to begin to let go: “Get out of your body/Let go of your blood/That falls on the secret/And colours the flood,” but the grief remains, for now not quite resolved (“No, this life is Ash Wednesday,” run his closing thoughts, “It’s Ash Wednesday forever approaches Good Friday”), not even by the closing high saw figure as souls ascend to heaven; it is not I think coincidental that both melody and performance very closely echo the Blue Nile’s “Easter Parade.” What remains for him now is to work out his own resurrection; he has not the energy to attempt it now, but neither is he ruling it out. His Ash Wednesday becomes The Church Of Them, and the beginning of the way back to find the way forward.

“Where in wild-winged crowds
Blown birds show their whiteness
Up against the lightness
Of the clammy clouds;

“By the random river
Pushing to the sea,
Under bents that quiver.
There shall rest we”
(Thomas Hardy, “Epeisodia”)

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Thursday, July 19, 2007

It was one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of great singles of 1981, even though it was recorded and released in the spring of 1976. Many have identified the vocal stylings of Noosha Fox as a clear precedent for everyone from Kate Bush via Macy Gray to Alison Goldfrapp, but on hearing “S-S-Single Bed” again after a very long time, the message which winks out clearly to me is: hello, Clare Grogan, and indeed hello, the Altered Images of Bite. An artful mix of chattering white boy funk and gleaming paddling pools of synthesisers, pitched both high and low, Fox deploys a precise balance between teasing, mocking, regretting and conspiring.

While it is easy to discern a Kate Bush precedent of sorts in some of the songs on the first, eponymous Fox album from 1975 in songs like “Pisces Babies” and “Red Letter Day,” with their octave-vaulting but playful vocals and melting dividing lines between sombre classical strings, nostalgic flower power phasing and imagery, and startlingly prescient synth bass squelches (“Spirit” sounds so 1982 it’s unreal, and “He’s Got Magic” sounds nearly 2007 with its stereo channel cutouts). And there’s little doubt from looking at Noosha Fox in her carefully elegant Dora Carrington-meets-Marlene Dietrich poses that she was a Bloomsbury hippy to her Australian folk roots. But Kate Bush was her own person and one of the greatest mavericks pop has known; whereas Fox, the group, was essentially a front for seasoned songwriters Kenny Young and Herbie Armstrong. Young in particular is a fascinating case; one of the Brill Building generation of American songwriters, he wrote “Under The Boardwalk” and thereby theoretically freed himself from the burden of having to work ever again, but he carried on, writing amongst other things “Captain Of Your Ship” by Reparata and the Delrons before moving to Britain in 1968 and masterminding a series of what he himself described as “kinky” hits for Irish singer Clodagh Rodgers. He seems to have remained content with the backroom lifestyle, and Fox was his only real attempt, unless you count the shortlived post-Noosha spinoff Yellow Dog (who went top ten with the curious “Just One More Night” in early 1978), to gain stardom as a performer.

The first Fox album begat two big hit singles, “Only You Can” and “Imagine Me, Imagine You,” soft rock-cum-bubblegum (and I do not use the conjunction “cum” recklessly) with an added punctum factor of enigmatic ethereality, and it has to be said was sonically rather more adventurous than Blue Hotel, their second album which has now similarly been reissued by Cherry Red. The fact that Blue Hotel appeared in 1977 will likely explain why I didn’t even know there was a second Fox album; in the midst of the punk avalanche it never really stood a chance, but it’s a highly agreeable collection of country-ish rock-pop, if completely out of its time (had it been a Nancy Priddy or Evie Sands collection from 1969 or thereabouts it would be chaired at shoulder height), and not without lyrical adventure; on things like “Moustaches On The Moon” and especially “Friendship Rose,” Noosha seems to sing of the pleasures of self-pleasure (“I’m sailin’ on the seven waves/While lyin’ on my rubber bed”) and the rather lovely ballad “Dejenina” partly invents Rufus Wainwright.

But “S-S-S-Single Bed” is their masterpiece. It does not often resurface on seventies compilations, and at the time of writing is only otherwise available on CD as part of the dreaded Guilty Pleasures (TM) series of compiled attempts to rewrite music history and paint out all the difficult, unsmiling or differently smiling stuff. Noosha immediately exploits all the possibilities of the smouldering stutter, from her caustic initial invitation to “C-c-come, come inside” (no, I don’t know how it got past the radio programmers either) and her tremblingly wet “Sh-sh-sh shake off your shoes,” then onward to her hesitant “P-p-pour out the wine” and vaguely sarcastic “t-t-t-time, don’t it fly?” She’s teasing and tempting as far as sanity and self-control will tolerate, but here’s the rub: “But all I’ve got is this s-single bed/There ain’t no room for your sweet head,” as she goes into the chorus with bemused male backing vocals of “S-s-s-single bed” which eventually evolve into raised eyebrows of disbelief and irony, before she announces, atop a suddenly ominous, rising synth bass drone, “I’ve got a-one solitary lone sole single bed!” extending the “bed” into six syllables to coincide with the high synth melody. Despite increasing frustration from her would-be Other, signalled by the track’s only real reminder that it’s 1976 (unless you watch their TOTP performance, which has survived) when Young and/or Armstrong blows mournfully into one of those Peter Frampton guitar-to-mouth wah-wah tubes (but they got there two or three months before Frampton came alive!), Noosha herself doesn’t appear too distressed that the hapless man has “missed the last train,” since – yes – it’s another metaphor for luring them in to turn herself on, as she writhes in rainbows of introverted ecstasy. In an increasingly miserable world of Brotherhood of Man, JJ Barrie and the Wurzels, “S-S-S-Single Bed” at number four in the charts seemed to be, the Donna Summer/Silver Convention/Andrea True Connection vanguard aside, and half a year still to go before the Sex Pistols became public knowledge, the only popular acknowledgement of sex in any form. As a twelve-year-old it made me feel psychedelic in a delicate, tickly kind of way, and in a pre- and post-Clare Grogan way it still does.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

In his excellent sleevenote which threatens to make an article like this one redundant, Gary Giddins notes, “Here is the sound of Mingus elated.” In abrupt contrast to the fumblings and frustrations leading towards the final, dense triumph in his UCLA concert/workshop 18 months later, the sound of Mingus’ sextet, as recorded in concert at Cornell University in NYC in March 1964, is the “shameless joy” of something achieved. For a group which effectively lasted only six months, and in that time never once entered a recording studio, they are the most thoroughly documented of Mingus’ bands on record; every date of their subsequent European tour was recorded and many, of inevitable varying quality, have surfaced on records legal and illegal. The Cornell concert has revealed itself as something of a Holy Grail to Mingusians; the tape was discovered by Sue Mingus not that long ago and indeed for the most part contain the first public airings of several important Mingus pieces, as well as drastic revisitings of old favourites. In its combination of severe adventure and lightheaded playfulness, the Mingus sextet as heard at Cornell sounds like no other jazz in 1964, of whatever stripe; it is utterly in and of itself, as were the musicians who comprised the line-up.

In Eric Dolphy and Dannie Richmond we have the two musicians who understood Mingus’ music most deeply and instinctively; in Jaki Byard, Mingus’ most complete pianist; and there is also the opportunity to reassess two rather overlooked players who also served. Trumpeter Johnny Coles is probably best known to jazz fans for his long residency in Gil Evans’ orchestra, and still hallowed for his performance on “Sunken Treasure” from Out Of The Cool, but not much beyond that, largely because his day job was with Ray Charles. Tenorist Clifford Jordan, like Dolphy, was something of a transitional figure; not quite post-bop, only mildly dipping his toes into the waters of free, but, as Giddins points out, he gives a very solid and welcome authority to the ensemble sound as well as in his own playing. He strayed into the group almost by accident; although Dolphy had begun to work on and off with Mingus again in 1963, his multiple other commitments meant he wasn’t always there on the stand, and Mingus got into the habit of inviting guest saxophonists to sit in for him when absent, mainly old friends like Booker Ervin, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster (what I would give to hear Webster let loose on “Fables Of Faubus”!). But he took a shine to relative rookie Jordan and kept him on when Dolphy returned.

Byard is given the job of beginning the performance solo with his composition, “ATFW You,” a seamless fusion of the piano styles of Art Tatum and Fats Waller and a tune not that far removed from Mingus’ “The Arts Of Tatum And Freddy Webster” (note the coincidence of the initials) as subsequently heard at UCLA. Then Mingus arrives to perform a slow but not solemn reading of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” accompanied only by Byard’s very discreet chording; as he gets deeper into the tune he seems to become carnal towards his bass, teasing it as his fingers occasionally scurry up to the bridge, eventually snuggling up to it, sighing “baby” and “love” as though his bass were the heart of a woman. The aim is clear; the history of the music must be understood before the music itself can be experienced, or even played.

Then without warning Mingus launches into one of the performance’s two great half-hour political setpieces. “Fables Of Faubus” is expanded harmonically and rhythmically from the 1960 Candid original but the comical anger of Mingus’ and Richmond’s vocal exchanges remains. Its solo passages alternate between straight features (or at least as straight as the constantly shifting and out-catching tempos and key changes of Mingus’ music will permit) and unaccompanied free cadenzas. Byard’s solo very cleverly tells the background story by merging “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with the spiritual “Lift Every Voice And Sing” and Chopin’s Death March, while Mingus in his solo gleefully picks his way through half a century of quotations from the Great American Songbook. Dolphy, who sticks to bass clarinet all the way through the band’s first set, is diplomatically fiery. The collective improvisation sections never once sound as if they are about to fall apart; there is a stern resolution about Mingus’ idea of freedom.

After “Faubus,” the relief is more than evident. “Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” performed here in its full band arrangement for the first time, is one of Mingus’ most sheerly gorgeous tunes, Coles melting into his half-valves as he seductively leads the ensemble; again Mingus bends into his bass, practically making love to it, and completely contented, urges on Byard in his ethereal, tempoless solo feature, and audibly grins at Dolphy – as ever, intent on not letting the ballad descend into sentimentality, the clucking keys of his bass clarinet keeping everyone else on the alert like an awkwardly beautiful Red Admiral fluttering around a candlelit dinner. Then Mingus gives the signal for the band to barnstorm its way through “Take The ‘A’ Train” at about 200 times the legal speed limit, Richmond swinging like mad, everyone up for it, as Byard, again at Mingus’ behest, launches into an elegant Harlem stride piano feature, followed by Dolphy ecstatically screaming the roof down.

“Meditations” opens the second set; at over thirty-one minutes it is the most ambitious and the least comfortable of all the pieces here. It is not quite the “Meditations” of Monterey or UCLA; it begins with a heartbreaking unison line for Dolphy’s flute and Mingus’ eloquent, almost ‘cello-like bowed bass. This floats into a passage of drifting abstraction unlike anything else in Mingus’ catalogue; a tripartite dream (Dolphy, Byard and Mingus) which even in its earnest peace carries the subtle threat of turning into a nightmare. This eventually gives way to an urgent fast tempo over which Coles and Jordan have no choice but to better themselves (Jordan is perhaps the revelation of the performance; never the best defined of saxophonists, stylistically, there is a curious high-pitched plaintiveness to his tenor which puts me in mind of an American Bobby Wellins), and Dolphy cuts the tune to brutal shreds with his bass clarinet as Byard begins to gradate to Cecil Taylor-ish percussiveness (Byard’s reputation has never quite solidified; generally and mistakenly viewed as an Everyman jazz pianist of all trades – push the bebop button, pull the freeform switch – his restlessness of approach is ideal for Mingus’ unending structural and emotional changes, and is utterly distinctive and recognisable); again and again the music verges on chaotic tumult, again and again Mingus ensures that the musicians are pulled back in time, and the piece ends on the same opening quiet disquiet, eddying between thoughts of paradise and the horrors of real.

This was clearly a cathartic performance, since the light subsequently floods the concert hall; the central message having been immaculately delivered, the band audibly relax into the easily swinging blues of “So Long Eric” (on which, typically, Dolphy isn’t featured – if there’s a fault with this performance, it’s that we don’t hear his alto at all, except in the ensemble for “So Long Eric”) – with a grand Tatum-meets-Bill-Evans pastiche of a soliloquy by Byard; though at the tune’s close, Mingus tests his players once again as he speeds up and slows down the tempo like a rebellious steam train, eventually clearing the way for a brief, closing drum assault by Richmond (and what a player he is, the Sancho Panza to Mingus’ Quixote; the faithful retainer, but very often taking the rhythmic lead in terms of increasing or lowering the intensity of the music).

Called back for an encore, Mingus suggests, as the concert was being given on the day after St Patrick’s Day, trying “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” as a feature for “Johnny O’Coles…the only Irishman in the band” (to much audience laughter). The rhythm section nearly make it work as a transition into the frantic 3/4s and 6/8s of “Better Git Hit In Your Soul,” but Coles’ solo is perhaps a little too reticent and introspective, whereas the approach really required a young Lester O’Bowie to come and seize the tune by the scruff of its neck, and run with it.

The closing piece, Dolphy’s arrangement of Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” (see how they have squared the circle?), ranks among the least typical of all Mingus performances. Led by Dolphy’s flute and Byard’s piano, the tune initially threatens to turn into the signature tune to a seventies BBC sitcom (Richard Briers?), but Dolphy soon discards any notion of politesse by launching into a furiously floating solo, to which Mingus immediately responds. Giving way briefly for a fine, swinging tenor solo by Jordan, Dolphy and Mingus return at the end, and Mingus’ fearless double-stopping and octave leaps indeed confirm Giddins’ assertion that “Mingus’ bass all but levitates the ensemble” as he leaps in tandem with Dolphy before a final, swift reading of the melody brings the performance to an end. Finally, sweetness and light enter Mingus’ world unconditionally. The group did not last; Dolphy left for Europe and premature death that summer (there is no indication anywhere on the Cornell performance - nor on his playing on Andrew Hill’s Point Of Departure, recorded a mere three days later - that Dolphy’s is the playing of a man with just over four months to live), Coles fell ill, and Jordan also made his exit. Mingus put a new band together for that year’s Monterey festival, and eventually that band metamorphosed into the UCLA octet with its attendant snags and traps. But Mingus At Cornell captures a musician, composer and bandleader genuinely happy (he becomes so elated that he provides a virtual non-stop commentary throughout “So Long Eric,” endlessly exulting, prompting and cheerleading his players) on a rare evening for him, when everything went right.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Monday, July 16, 2007

Most British readers will already be aware of the controversy which has raged over the decision of the legendary American recording artist Prince to give away a copy of the newspaper The Mail On Sunday free with his new album, Planet Earth. The star has in turn argued, probably rightly, that in an age of increased competition from the internet, newspapers have to find different ways of communicating with their existing readers as well as finding new ones; and besides, the still considerable financial and business resources of Associated Newspapers have managed to cut Prince’s overhead costs to such a stunning degree that Planet Earth is retailing for a record low price of £1.40. “That’s a good 59p less than you’d expect to pay for a near mint copy of Sign ‘O’ The Times in the Putney branch of the Trinity Hospice Charity Shop,” the singer quipped. There has been added controversy, however, that the album will only be available to buy for one day. Already the legend, 49, has been accused of trying to hype his way into the charts. Commented one senior industry spokesman, “Just because John Otway did it doesn’t mean the floodgates should open for every Tom, Dick and Victor who hasn’t had a hit for the last fifteen years.”

Casper Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the 49-year-old editor of rival publication Observer Music Monthly, expressed outrage at what he describes as the star’s “unreasonable attitude towards the press. Just because the Mail topped our offer doesn’t mean Prince should have gone with them. What’s wrong with our magazine? Why, this month we have a cover story on somebody impersonating Elvis had he lived to be…um, researchers?…72 as well as a feature on pop group impersonators and lots of dead people. How up to the minute is that?”

But does the legendary newspaper live up to all these expectations? Or is this simply a desperate, last-ditch move on the part of an ailing, ageing journal to retain its dwindling base of fans? Here we provide our exclusive, never-to-be-repeated review of today’s legendary team-up.

When Time Out remarked that “The Mail On Sunday is Right,” they spoke for masses of readers who considered the newspaper to be an increasingly anachronistic representation of the conservative – both with a small and a capital “c” – Middle England readership which forms its demographic base. After all, with Labour now in power for over a decade, the newspaper has sometimes seemed as marooned as, some say, The Guardian would have been in 1983.

The first surprise on scanning today’s unprecedented free edition, therefore, is that the Mail’s writers seem to have gradually “crossed the floor” to support Gordon Brown’s “New” Labour! The front page headline of ‘GONZO’ BBC HITS BROWN breaks several crucial barriers for the Mail – can you imagine a Hunter S Thompson reference getting on the front page in the days of, say, George Gale? – in that it attacks the BBC, not for the customary reasons of favouring the political Left, but for manipulating news footage to suggest a bias towards Conservative leader David Cameron. Two more pages inside the newspaper gives details of the supposed falsifications on the part of upcoming thrusting Thatcherkid television personality Jamie Campbell.

As one delves further into the paper there are other indications that the Tories are no longer the Mail’s party of choice; on page 17 we read of how the Tory election candidate for the upcoming Ealing Southall by-election donated £4800 to Labour last month, even attending one of their fundraising functions. Two pages later, Cameron’s new shadow minister for ‘community cohesion’ is attacked for publishing two separate sets of 2005 election leaflets, one aimed at Muslims and the other at whites. Despite changes in political allegiance, it would appear that the Mail’s attitude towards Asians in politics has remained steadfast; no doubt a comfort to its older readers in, say, Crinkley Bottom (Upper) as they read the two detailed pages of reportage describing how Afghan refugees are paid £200 per day “to pose as Taliban.”

Otherwise the paper settles comfortably in the ever-competitive world of celebrity news updates. On page 3, Hugh Grant and Jemima Khan are seen in the same photograph in Paris. Page 7 finds ex-Arsenal star Thierry Henry turning up alone at a “star wedding.” Four pages later Victoria Beckham is wearing a pink frock with a matching pink handbag, above a noticeably smaller item about the slaughter of a Stars In Their Eyes contestant and her family. Overleaf Carole Caplin, posing smugly in a grey suit, “paints a devastating portrait of Alastair Campbell” which from the accompanying evidence is so realistic that it is practically a photograph. It is extraordinarily generous for the Mail to give so much space to this fulsome account by Mail On Sunday columnist Carole Caplin.

Two more pages are devoted to the arresting tale of Jack Nicholson failing to attract a seagull to his yacht with his empty pizza box. Quipped leading lifestyle guru Carole Caplin, “He’ll try it with anything that moves! Really!!” Mrs Bin Laden states that “I’m broke and need a good lawyer” as her ex-husband waxes explicitly about her organisation Satan’s Slaves. Kylie Minogue and Olivier Martinez are seen in the same photograph in Paris and have therefore had “secret Paris trysts” (it is a continuing marvel of British newspapers that they continue to use words and expressions which no one has ever used in real, breathing life, such as madcap, romp, funnyman, tryst, quizzed, quipped and bedded as an active verb. Perhaps it’s a Masonic code of recognition). On the Comments pages, Roger Graef doubts that a lying BBC will have much of a future. “Winston Churchill” gives “his own damning response” to being removed from the National Curriculum, deploying such curiously uncharacteristic expressions as “There is only one of us in heaven who can see the future, and He isn’t telling.” The paper’s editorial issues a muted damnation of political parties merging on the middle ground: “If there is no disagreement, no division, there will be less and less room for free speech and independent thought,” it muses. And less and less justification for editorials and soapbox opinion columns, it might have added; since overleaf we find Peter Hitchens, a free-speaking, independent thinker if ever there were one, and he gives a typically robust verdict on the new National Curriculum, ferociously arguing that “This system is plainly designed to create a nation of ignorant, deluded serfs, whose function is to work all day in call centres and then go out to buy Chinese-made goods until the country sinks giggling into the sea,” which seems a pretty fair assessment of the purpose of the “education” system as it has been in post-Industrial Revolution Britain (Thomas Carlyle would have identified and gone along with every word), even though it is historically the creation of the Right rather than the Left; I think Hitchens is secretly in love with us – anyone who attacks that fervently must be hiding something (and I don’t mean Christopher) – and his sense of humour is intact: “Didn’t anyone, anywhere, wonder what a bunch of bearded Muslim men wanted to do with gallons of hair bleach?” And there’s Suzanne Moore, about whom I’d forgotten some decade ago, comfortably ensconced in the Mail, avowing that “The decline in marriage is caused by the refusal of women to accept sub-standard men. Twenty quid cannot fix that.” Inflation’s a bugger, it must be said.

On pages 36-38 we read of one Willy Feilding, an “artist and raconteur” of whom I had never previously heard but who has had doubtless plenty of ribtickling tales to tell of everyone from Princess Margaret and Christine Keeler to Kate Moss and Fergie, though it is unclear whether the latter is the erstwhile Duchess of York or the Black Eyed Peas’ passport and it is equally unclear whether he has actually “bedded” any of these exalted names of days of yore. A rather more touching story appears eight pages later, that of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, reminiscing on his 1954 conviction and imprisonment for homosexuality, a case which proved the deciding lever for the subsequent Wolfenden report and decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Typically, he seems to have been framed when he reported a stolen camera to the police and was promptly arrested and charged with sexual offences against one of the Boy Scouts who had temporarily set up a camp on his estate – he was acquitted but the “witch hunt” continued, and this indeed proves that little has changed; then, as now, justice and logic recklessly and happily ridden roughshod over by ravenous ministers and bureaucrats anxious to make a name for themselves. It is also entirely logical that this story should be run at length in The Mail On Sunday, recalling the paper’s highly charitable and generous attitude towards the first wave of Aids patients, and gays in general, in the early eighties.

The Review section equally leads off with a suspiciously “Lefty” article by Lib Dem MP John Hemming arguing against the Family Court system which, it would appear, arbitrarily takes young children away from their families with a view to meeting Government adoption “targets” and thus increase council revenue. Even the veteran Conservative commentator and ex-Times editor Sir William Rees-Mogg weighs in with a cautious word to Gordon Brown about ensuring that sufficient housing is built over the next quarter century to house an increasing population, including immigrants.

Consistency is happily resumed, though, with an extended remembrance of the Mail’s late gossip columnist Nigel Dempster which I am sure is ribtickling to those who wish to read it. A centrespread on Prince, written by legendary astronaut Neil Armstrong (there’s an unexpected fan), treads its water carefully. Roger Lewis, the anti-biographer of Sellers and Burgess (note: being an “anti-biographer” is no bad thing), reviews Keith Allen’s autobiography with a verve which makes me wish he had written, or will write, Allen’s definitive biography (the byline photo to my delight reveals Lewis, whose picture I had never previously seen, to resemble a cross between a young Churchill and a stouter Stuart Maconie). Craig Brown tackles the Campbell diaries and finds them a good read, though I think they’ll be a better read after Gordon Brown’s reign when all the GB entries can be reinserted; strange how the best and most telling political diaries are written by “AC” (A Clark, and now A Campbell). In her TV column Jaci Stephen proclaims “I’m a slave to Rome’s gods of lust and death”; I used cautiously to read the Mail’s Saturday supplement in newsagents to look at her hilarious soap opera updates. I wish she’d write for a paper I agreed with. Nice also to see David Bennun, of whom I have heard neither hide nor hair since the days when he routinely made me Letter Of The Week in Melody Maker, still earning a crust as the Mail’s pop critic, and he’s pretty spot on about Interpol (“If you hanker for a ruler-wielding governess of a band, then you’re probably a fan”). David Mellor will “never plump for this Tosca”; you provide the punchline of your choice.

There are the usual holidaying, gardening and sports pages – Patrick Collins also sounding Suspiciously Socialist as he blasts the Wimbledon authorities for not letting Borg present this year’s trophy to Federer (“Instead, he found himself making small talk with one (i.e. the Duke of Kent) who knows precisely how it feels to stand 23rd in line to the throne. Game, set and match to Ruritania”) – as well as financial and property supplements wherein I note that Warner are “to bow out of EMI race,” that Amanda Holden lives a very pleasant life in Richmond and that, “EastEnders gave me the money to buy here. I’m selling to revive my TV career,” says TV’s Sid Owen about a French property, though with tales of “appearing in pantomime in St Albans last Christmas,” there are probably colder, rationalist reasons for his giving up what looks like an outsized collapsible shed.

However, the highlight has always been the Letters page, largely written, if legend proves correct, by bored Mail staff. Take, for instance, this anguished contribution from one V Johnson of Leicester: “I wrote to my MP asking for the return of the death penalty, and received a letter from the Home Office saying Brussels had banned all forms of capital punishment. Our freedom has gone.” It is akin to a haiku in its poetic brevity and symmetry. Meanwhile, Jill Howick of Nottingham ate half a frog at the British Home Stores restaurant in Truro and is none too happy: “Should anything like this ever happen to me again I intend to scream loudly, alert all within earshot, faint, bang my head on the table, go to hospital, suffer flashbacks and claim huge compensation.” I don’t know how the French cope. Maybe she could do a property swap in France with TV’s (“This month I start filming a guest appearance in four episodes of The Bill, playing a drug dealer”) Sid Owen.

There are also two glossy magazine supplements. One, the women’s magazine You (“THE BEST WEEKLY GLOSSY”), has among its features, “She was a freewheeling foreign correspondent, looking for adventure in dangerous places. He was an army colonel, cool and academic.” Cue Cinema Trailer Voiceover Man, no doubt, with “WHEN THEY GOT TOGETHER, IT WAS A WAR…HE COULDN’T WIN.” On the cover actress Rosamund Pike is trying to be Merle Oberon.

Then there is LIVE ® (SEE IT ® DO IT ® SOMETHING ELSE BUT BLOKE OUT OF KEANE’S RIGHT ARM IS IN THE WAY IT), a magazine cleverly designed to resemble a failed 1985 music glossy, down to its “Alive & Kicking” cover strapline (does anyone else remember the nine issues of The Hit?), with another Bloke Out Of Keane looking scarily like shadow Tory cabinet minister Liam Fox in his sensible funeral suit. Inside, Dylan Jones doesn’t like Crocs; Jon Wilde talks to Keane about Tom “Don’t Call Me Carole” Chaplin and his battle with Drink and Drugs (the opening sentence, “Keane are about to step out on to (sic) the Isle Of Wight stage to perform in front of a rabidly excited 75,000 crowd (sic),” suggests that the legacy of post-Morley music writing has not been continued here). In the column with the excitingly original title Tracks Of My Years, Lemar says that he would like “My Way” played at his funeral. Jon Wilde does a Matt Groening PR release cut-and-paste job on The Simpsons Movie (the opening sentence, “We’ve had to wait a (sic) long time, but The Simpsons Movie is finally about to hit the big screen,” suggests that David Thomson need not yet worry). There is a Suspiciously Left-Leaning feature on Columbus, Georgia, and the continuing legacy of the KKK, and the sort of delineated and glorified adverts which give me a headache just thinking about their pseudo-dazzle. On page 58, Piers Morgan talks about what he’s been up to (“I did a photo session today with Jade Goody”). He meets Pharrell Williams in a club in Piccadilly and reminds him that they had previously met “last summer, in a lift at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles. We got on at the 11th floor,” before pleading with the Neptune to “pretend you remember me, it would be good for my image.” Henry Pooter lives, if not clearly.

But the last word, briskly skipping past the TravelMail pages (“An island for the beautiful people, where Adonises are two a penny” – is this Mein Kampf? No, it’s ex-Labour MP Oona King, who of all people you would have thought would, or should, have known better), the Prize Crossword (a top prize of £1500, but when you know that a million readers are just going to Google the general knowledge answers then there’s not much point), and Charlie Dimmock’s gardening column (how nice to see the Mail employing someone whom a few years ago they rubbished routinely on the basis of some admittedly tacky publicity photo shoots), must go to the admirably succinct track-by-track summary of Planet Earth by an unnamed writer. Here we learn that we can expect, amongst other delights, “A brilliant anthemic rock track,” “a fun song,” “a foot-stomping rock number,” “feelgood soul,” and, best of all, “A happy, hippy psychedelic Seventies sound.” Over-wordy bloggers take note! The Mail On Sunday’s July 15, 2007 issue represents a stunning return to form!

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Friday, July 13, 2007

Rihanna, take three, starts with the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle – it is only available on British copies – with the initial precipitating tragedy. “My mind is gone, I’m spinning round,” she quivers quietly on the song “Cry” over circuitous piano as she watches the one she thought was The One curtly walk out. She casts herself as the victim, but there is a residual defiance which will remain with her, and in her: “I’ve got all the symptoms of a girl with a broken heart, but no matter what, you’ll never see me cry.” At the end she adds “…all my life.” Following this, the quietest song on the record, the ensuing story depicts how hard it will be to live up to that pledge.

From its opening, querying string swoops – like “A Day In The Life” in reverse – “Good Girl Gone Bad” sees Rihanna predicting her own fate, if she’s not careful, while outlining the carelessness on the part of others which could lead to it, namely “We wuz at home ‘cos you left us all alone”; so they go out and try to wash it all away with momentary thrills – “Now she’s in the club with a freaky dress on” and still coming across as the victim. There is a menacing threat to her warning of “You’d better learn how to treat us right” since “once a good girl’s gone bad…we die forever,” followed by a terrible low synth drone already set in stone.

“Question Existing” is a warped waltz, its detuned electronics not that far away from Some Deaths Take Forever – and what an album title that would have made for Rihanna had the story been told in a slightly different order – with its joyless grind of bass and inhuman handclaps, all circling like video vultures around the singer as she contemplates the literal existing question of “Who am I living for?” and the partly rhetorical question of “Can I endure some more?” “Sometimes,” she remarks, prematurely exhausted, “I feel like they want me to lose,” before she goes into a Dear Diary section which the Shangri-Las would have understood immediately (remember that she is only nineteen and this is how nineteen-year-olds think), and it’s not even particularly about celebrity: “Entertainment is something I do for a living,” she intones, “It’s not who I am.” She could be anybody in a freaky dress, or anyone in a day job, since we all have to “act” and “entertain” in order to hold onto such things. “I hurt…I think I suck sometimes,” she double-entendres, immediately followed by an unconvincing, offhand “ooh yeah.” Finally she addresses her soul, and therefore the world: “Who wants to date me for who I am? Who wants to be my friend for who I really am?” Bear in mind that “friend”…it will mean everything later in the story.

With “Rehab,” whose pledges, rhetorical or otherwise, are no more convincing than those of Winehouse’s, she seems to have reluctantly taken “him” back but has almost immediately regretted it – “I guess that’s what I get for wishful thinking,” she sighs, slightly the wiser but none the less hurt. The male voice will appear in several hidden, ungraspable disguises; here Justin Timberlake portrays the inarticulate brute with his mirthless “uh”s and “ladies,” sniggering at her both in front of her and behind her back.

She then tries to find solace in materialism; “Lemme Get That” has a disruptive brass band stumbling through Timbaland’s blotched beats as she curls in her Florida drawl, drooling over “five car garages” and “all them Versaces,” snidely wanting new furniture, things, money, pretending that she doesn’t give a damn, that money is all that matters, that that’s the way everyone else does it so why shouldn’t she? But that New Gold Dream synth quietude at the end indicates second thoughts. “Sell Me Candy” seems to go down the same sex and monetarist route but halfway through she seems to awaken from a trance, beginning to betray her real self again: “I wanna live for both of us,” “I wanna warm you and not get colder,” and the eight different ways in which she twists and stretches the word “love.”

“Say It” finds Rihanna caught between two worlds; the whirligig of the crazed synths, like an R&B ballad mis-looped by Stock, Hausen and Walkman, on one hand, and for the first time on the record, the classic soul ballad template on the other. She’s interested but she’s trying to get him to break down and be honest; note the unusual insistence on the “baby”s of “Baby, baby, don’t be shy.” As she tells him that “Some things, baby, are not worth hiding,” we increasingly wonder who’s doing the real hiding here; with her increasingly intense entreaties to “Tell me what it is you like” and “Maybe you could stay the night,” she’s the one who’s sounding as if she’s hiding, trying to justify her lust, or conceal some shame at same…or maybe she’s just been chiding herself all along.

The record’s one fully-fledged duet, “Hate That I Love You,” is likewise carefully weighted, since Ne-Yo’s androgynous high tones initially make it difficult to decipher who’s singing what, and really it still sounds like Rihanna singing to herself; but let’s presume that he’s broken his emotional barrier and she’s become sufficiently convinced to go off with him, and yet it’s not really working out. There isn’t much evidence of real joy or give and take here (“You know the power that you have,” insists Ne-Yo, “You’re the only one who makes me laugh.” But in this situation, is that enough – and anyway, what, if anything, is he laughing at?). The final exchange of “so”s sounds like a suicide pact in the making.

She’s far from settled. “Shut Up And Drive” finds her mind stuck in an April 1983 oldies radio show; in between filters of “Little Red Corvette” and “Blue Monday” she nevertheless gives a confident demolition of all the corny car/sex metaphors you ever heard, even taking a sideways swipe at Gwen (“What you waitin’ for, for, for?”), but despite the cartoon police sirens and closing car crash the honesty still smuggles itself out (“You keep sayin’ that you will, boy – I wish that you would!”).

It’s all symptomatic of her having been betrayed again, having fallen into the exact same trap. “Breakin’ Dishes” is Beyoncé’s “Kitty Kat” in hell; he’s out all night (relish the bitterness of Rihanna’s “3.30!”) but instead of silently mocking him for what he’s missing, she’s lost it altogether, and in contrast to the reluctant acceptance we saw in the first few songs she is now sick of sitting down and taking it (those opening “Ow! Ow!”s). She extends the “cool” of “supercool” into five Satanic syllables, and instead of just getting up and leaving (“Good Girl Gone Bad”) or saying that her mind is going (“Cry”), her mind has now definitely gone (“I ain’t demented – ha! Well – just a little bit!”), her rage red as she smashes the place up, bleaches his clothes (“I ain’t gonna stop ‘til I see police lights!”) and eventually settles into a chant of “A ma-he-ha-ha-an!” which after a while begins to sound like an elongated “Amen,” and thus the song takes on the robes of a ritual prayer, just as the world is being systematically destroyed from both sides. “I don’t know who you think I am!” she howls…but does that necessarily mean she still knows who she herself is, since otherwise who is she living for?

After that catharsis there’s nothing for it but for her to go back to that selfsame club, with or without a freaky dress – or, like the heroin(e) of “Angie Baby,” is she only imagining she’s at the club, while in reality the same 1983 oldies show is playing in her mind? “I wanna take you away,” she proclaims on “Don’t Stop The Music,” though the “please-don’t-stop-the!” loop becomes manic. She still seems to be entertaining, and dancing with, and pleasing, herself (“This is a private show”) – but what if, just perhaps, she isn’t? What if there actually is someone there, patiently waiting for her to notice him noticing her, and what if after a while she is actually dancing with him, touching him, feeling him? Note how the beat seems at the beginning of the song to be emanating from some distance away, as though she’s standing, confused, outside the club, wondering whether or not to go in; and how, by the song’s end, she inhabits the centre of the music, which throbs like prime Underworld and refracts the ghost of Michael Jackson (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”) through the trick mirrors of identity as if, possibly, just possibly, she’s found the right person.

There is definitely somebody else present in “Push Up On Me,” even though you hear only her, and it’s still 1983 megamix time (“Running With The Night”). “We break…break” (or should that be “brake”?) she whispers, “We breakin’ down.” Now she has not only the confidence to respond to somebody true but also the openness to recognise that truth. “And let’s play a game/I won’t be a tease!” And once again, she urges him, now far more passionately, to open up to her: “I wish you would light me up and say you want me.” She doesn’t want to put him off, but is anxious for him to realise that despite all the accumulated pain, she’s no pushover: “You wanna get me out of my dress!” she winks knowingly at him…and then the buried emotions of Rihanna come to the surface, as they have always threatened to do, with her now anguished “I wish you would!” And yes, this time, this time…she might just do it.

And they do it, and it is done. For the only clearly defined male vocal performance on the album, Jay-Z comes on stage as a one-man Greek chorus to sum up the tale and introduce the liberation of “Little Miss Sunshine” as raindrops of synthesisers pitter and patter around the beat. Now Rihanna is grown; she sees “magazines” and “shiny cars” and “these fancy things” as detours, red herrings, ultimately destructive things; she has found The One; she knows neither he nor she can ever be perfect; but then they are human beings, not gods, and she believes in him deeply enough to swear an oath.

With that pledge a true rainbow of keyboards swells into the picture as the camera pans outwards and she realises the real meaning of “freedom”; “When the sun shines we’ll shine together,” and that she’ll be his friend – “Told you I’d be here forever,” “Gonna stick it out ‘til the end.” It is now “raining more than ever” as they stand on the roof of a world ruining and destroying itself – but of course it can be “raining more than ever” inside a woman, too. “Know that we’ll still have each other” (and note that subtle case against the isolationism of Nick Drake’s “Know”) she sings with kind authority, and yes, he can stand under her umbrella, ella, Ella, ey, ey (such extended syllables! Such definitive and positive decisiveness – the vocal equivalent of Levon Helm’s snare drum) because actually he’s not that confident, maybe not confident at all, and doesn’t he feel pain too, even if it is necessarily of a different nature to hers? That shyness was, after all, real: “Together we’ll mend your heart,” and over the swirling middle eight she reassures him, “You can run into my arms, it’s OK, don’t be alarmed!” because when everything is said, done and sung, it is always the truth, we are not here to see through each other but to see each other through; the world seems to rise above the sun with Rihanna’s “I’ll be all you need and MORE!”

And then, anticipated at 3:43 but consummated at 3:49, that almighty aposiopesis, that glorious chord change/modulation/enhancement/deepening which I have not heard in any pop record since the days of prime Thomas Leer, that moment of holy deliverance which really we have been awaiting for the whole record, and in my case for a quarter of a century, since I have imagined it on countless underperforming pop records but now the impossible virtue becomes a triumphant reality…”Ooh baby it’s raining, raining…Come in to me…Come into me!” The shelter and the relief, the spiritual and the carnal, the delayed happy ending to Johnnie Ray’s “Just Walkin’ In The Rain,” maybe the last great pop song before the world drowns…and in that final fadeout, when she’s singing “It’s pouring rain!” in that suprapunctum of a Southern voice, it sounds as though she is finally admitting herself the permission to cry, but it is unmissably a cry of joy, of trembling awe…the only possible ending to Good Girl Gone Bad, made all the more miraculous by the fact that the record appears to tell its story backwards.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Last week I found, second hand, a record which I had not heard for more than a quarter of a century. It’s at times like these when terms such as “a quarter of a century” really hit home. I owned Some Deaths Take Forever on vinyl for a couple of years, mainly 1980-81, having bought it on the strength of a rave review by Lynden Barber (now, whatever happened to him?) in Melody Maker. I admired it but never played it that much, was in several senses reluctant to play it because emotionally it touched several particularly sore pressure points at the time. As I recall I bought Holger Czukay’s Movies at the same time and played that over and over; a similar soundscape but filled with more fun, coming across as more mischievous.

So I kept Movies and either let go of, or lost, Some Deaths Take Forever (I can’t quite remember which) and got on with the rest of my life. I didn’t think too much about it until 2004, when the Tigersushi compilation So Young But So Cold: Underground French Music 1977-1983 came out, and contained the album’s opening track “Welcome (To Deathrow)” as well as both sides of the single Szajner cut with Karl Beer under the name of The (Hypothetical) Prophets in 1982, the remarkable “Person To Person”/”Wallenberg.” “Welcome” struck me as a phenomenally prescient piece of music, virtually laying out the template for post-House French dance music, though as befitted its subject matter (since Some Deaths is a loose concept album about imprisonment and execution) it was rather spikier than the Motorbasses and Daft Punks which followed a generation later (not to mention the likes of Carl Craig, who would occasionally cite the album as one of the great landmarks in electronic music), its frenetic pulse accompanied by scores of grandiose piano chords and increasingly agitated guitar, finally easing out of tonality over a beat which resolutely refused to settle in the centre.

Even then the quest to find Some Deaths whole did not stay at the forefront of my mind – until, as I say, last week, when I found, for a fiver, a used CD of the album in mint condition (inevitably, as happens with all my best finds, when I wasn’t looking for it – they just turn up in the racks, their covers smiling as if to say, “well, what took you so long?”). I had no idea that the record had even been released on CD, and in view of the fact that it was a 1999 French reissue, on the Spalax Music label, its current availability is doubtful. But then, I was clearly meant to find it.

The largely black cover features a stick of dynamite clenched in an iron gauntlet; the reverse lists the credits on the screen of an ancient computer, again black with green Wordstar Database lettering (though there is a conspicuous message in white type near the top right hand side: “ALL HUMAN IS ERROR”). Inside we see Szajner solemnly engaged in his work, amid banks of synthesisers and spaghettied junctions of tangled wires, and this is not the only indication that the record sometimes looks back to Vangelis or even Mike Oldfield as well as forward to the future it will enable.

Certainly side one of Some Deaths – or “Phase Un” as the album calls it – is in its largely instrumental bearing one of the most convincing anti-capital punishment arguments his side of Kieslowski. After the abovementioned “Welcome,” we move into the uneasy reverie of “Ritual,” as the condemned prisoner awaits his sentence; over a moody electro pulse we hear stalagmites of water leaking through the cell roof, and somewhere else an acoustic guitar picks out some improbable blues figures. Then the sequence culminates in “Execution”; over a sombre melody which anticipates Black Dog, Plaid and Aphex at their sedate doomiest, rivets of percussion gradually infiltrate the track, radiating all around the mix as the prisoner is taken to his end, as though cups are being banged on all of the cell doors surrounding, above and below him; the central synth motif becomes harsh and fuzzy until the whole (d)evolves into an unbearable drone which slices through one’s head. To this feedback screams and whines are added – you can practically smell the leather and straps of the electric chair, ready to smoulder – and as the dread reaches its peak the track, and the side, automatically cut off.

Phase Deux concerns itself with imprisonment from another perspective; this time the prisoner has not been sentenced to death but simply waits patiently in his cell and dreams visions with the aid of his pocket radio – some say Szajner had Mandela in mind. In between regular sweeps of the dial, taking in such then-contemporary concerns as the “hobgoblin of minds in the Kremlin,” New Body Form and Harrisburg (and a momentary but telling snatch of the “dream” of the Everlys’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream”) Szajner offers slightly more reflective melodies. “Ressurector” is another hypnotic piece of proto-trance (which manages to sound danceable even without the addition of drum programs) which drifts patiently, as Pierre Chereze’s very Oldfield-ish lead guitar twins with Marc Geoffroy’s Polymoog to give us some very seventies-sounding unison figures, and then mutates into a repeated motif which locks in with the unspecified groove. Michael Quartermain’s wordless vocal roves around the environment, taking the piece out with a sob which abruptly mutates into a mad cackle of laughter. “The Memory” cuts between bustling 6/8 synth/guitar lines and a solemn, slow waltz of John Barry harpsichord – the recollections of the past melting into the coldness of the present. Eventually, this mental vacillating causes disorientation in the prisoner; “Suspended Animation”’s central seven-note synth line wobbles in and out of tonality and recognisable pitch before crawling down to a sinister nothing.

And then there is the final “A Kind Of Freedom,” the tune so elegantly sad and simply poignant that I couldn’t bear to listen to it at the time – 1980, when I had finished school and realised that a phase of my life had ended; everybody I had known for a decade had begun to wander off in differing directions and I suddenly felt coldly alone (so you can see how those regular letters from, and to, Oxford were a lifeline in more ways than one), or 1981, after my father had died and I felt more isolated than ever. Sentiments such as “Take a lighter look at life/Take your eyes into the white/Take another bride to wife/Take your time outside the night” (used here to depict the prisoner’s mental transformation into thinking about and anticipating real freedom) weren’t easy for me to palpate at such times.

I listened to the tune again this weekend, and it all came back; and just as I had suspected, with that sublime sweep of electronic melody, that wracked Vocoder vocal and that crucial sprinkling of electric piano flurries on top, Bernard Szajner invented Air, and I smiled with inward recognition, knowing what such a song and such words meant such that I should find them again a lifetime later and they would sing to me the things I couldn’t hear then but was destined to hear now, when I was ready. Szajner is careful not to lurch into sentimentality; after the song drifts away, there is a little more radio tuning before a sudden, shocking buzz of static sounds – reminding us that the whine of the executioner’s chair was only a recent memory – and then the cell door abruptly slamming shut to bring the album to an end. I presume that he has continued to develop his music in the intervening quarter-century, though none of it has reached my ears yet. But yes – finding Some Deaths Take Forever again was an emotional event, and in complete contradiction of its title, it reinforces the rightness of living, living and still living. With the right angel, all virtues are possible, and magnificent.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Almost alone among sixties acts, DDDBM&T have yet to be admitted to any sort of canon. Even though with thirteen straight Top 40 hits between 1966-9 they were among the most successful of all British pop groups of that decade they have routinely been dismissed as teenpop fodder, a mere vessel for the increasingly strange fantasies of their managers, writers and producers, Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. Yet that very strangeness, in both creation and execution, and the coexisting underexposure of all but a few of their most familiar hits, have conspired to ensure that theirs is one of the most awkwardly adventurous of all chart careers.

Howard and Blaikley first came to prominence as authors of the Honeycombs’ “Have I The Right?” a song which its producer Joe Meek took as an instant metaphor for suppressed gayness, and something of that permeates virtually all of DDDBM&T’s records. Although less celebrated than their improbable chart cousins the Troggs, they arguably went further, beginning with their introductory hit “You Make It Move” which begins with a portentous piano introduction before blazing into a scuzzy “Hang On Sloopy” stomp over which Dave Dee ponders about being “on my own with no one to help or guide me” before he sees the light – and the musical thrust makes it clear that the title is intended literally; Meek would have been proud of the mid-song duet between submerged piano and wasp fuzz lead guitar.

“Hold Tight,” aside from lending its basic rhythm to forty years of England soccer fans’ hands, is directly intent, from its immediate ray gun of fuzz guitar in the intro to its enormous bass undertow, on fucking: “Make me feel what you say is for real,” urges Dee in the midst of uttering arbitrary words like “calibrate” and “carousel.” The final, extended monochord drone is quite terrifying. “Hideaway,” the follow-up, made the homoerotic subtext as explicit and unambiguous as 1966 would allow – “Come on baby, they’ll never find us here/Made sure the coast was clear/There’s not a thing left to fear” Dee proclaims, even though they’re heading towards a refuge “far from the light of day.”

And while all the fuss was made over “Wild Thing,” “Bend It” – also a number two hit in ’66 – got a curious free pass despite its title (what did radio producers think it meant?) and its repeated accelerandos and pauses which could only signify one thing; note the artful onomatopoeia of Dee’s frustrated “Pizzle pazzle, what’s the hassle?” and also his chuckling after that line’s reprise. Meanwhile the music builds up and, shall we say, flows, Tich strumming his balalaika with Mick’s sideways drums to create what one might term Zorba ska. Finally, as the balalaika echoes into infinity, orgasm is attained.

Thereafter DDDBM&T went slightly mad as 1967 dawned. “Save Me” with its breakbeat-driven Yardbirds calypso feel (it’s possible!) finds Dee on the verge of dementia as he hacks out staccato lines: “Stop what you’re doin’!/You’ll be my ruin!/Rootlessly wand’rin’!/All my time squand’rin’!/Feel that I’m drifting!/Images shifting!/My mind is going!/Where there’s no knowing!” as the music fizzes into a stoned blur. After a brief sitar-like guitar solo, Dee yells out these lines again, or variations on them, while some barking unaccountably occurs in the left channel. A low feedback whine makes its way into the track as Dee lets out a final terrible, Jim Morrison-anticipating/outdoing scream of “Save me from my-SELLLLFFFFFFF!!”

“Touch Me, Touch Me” continued on the latter-day Yardbirds freakbeat line with its impossibly fast 12/8 verses and remarks to the tune of “Life has lost its meaning” and “approach you or reproach you,” Dee all the while still begging for it; feel the drifting nirvana of the “let’s make it – let’s touch” refrain. “Okay!” with the return of the balalaika and the addition of accordion, signalled a move away towards exoticism and storytelling, though on closer examination the song appears to be about a one-night stand which the frustrated singer wishes would become permanent – there is more than a hint of catty bitching about Dee’s climactic sneer of “Go and live your life and let him treat you HIS way!”

Whereas “Zabadak!,” their last and biggest hit of ’67, along with several of its successors, still sounds like nothing else in pop, or indeed on Earth. A very familiar sounding percussive refrain (I’m sure it’s been subsequently sampled but I can’t quite figure out where or by whom) comes into focus, out of a landscape of chirping birdsong and rolling waves, as the band starts a percussion-dominant chant in no particularly discernible language. Eventually a half-speed vocal harmony line comes into view as the band, stoned, drawl about feelings being more important than words (“love is all we feeling” with its syntactical echoes of the Stones’ “We love they,” and later, “Love-I’m-sure-will-rule-the-world-and-try-to-turn-an-ocean,” the melody line later recurring on the Family Dogg’s ominously chirpy 1969 top ten hit “A Way Of Life”), before a mirage of strings shimmers briefly into view and the group launch back into their love chant, complete with false ending and an uneasy return to peace at the end. It wasn’t all Engelbert and Tom at ‘67’s end.

They followed that with their only number one, 1968’s “Legend Of Xanadu,” which in tandem with the parallel hits Howard and Blaikley were providing for the Herd (“From The Underworld,” “Paradise Lost”) shifted the group into a mythical and more-than-slightly-drugged past; “Xanadu,” though, was dynamic absurdist pop with its “black baron land,” its furiously compressed trumpet section and, of course, the punctum of Dave Dee and his whip, which scared the life out of this four-year-old TV viewer (not yet knowing camp theatre when I saw it).

However, its follow-up, “Last Night In Soho” is one of the most avant-garde of 1968 hits, so much so that its ominous bass/fuzz guitar unison figure resurfaced over a decade later as the foundation for Wire’s “A Touching Display,” though here Howard and Blaikley additionally lay on paranoid strings and Cage-like organ cut-ups as Dee fearfully narrates the tale of the criminal trying to reform and build a new life with his love before his former masters catch up with him and compel him to do just one more job (“But boy don’t get above your station/If you don’t want aggravation!”). In between his decline, Dee shrieks “I’m just not worthy of you!” before jumping into the terrible abyss of “Last night in Soho, I let my life go,” sustaining the “go” as though already having fallen off the cliff, as the backing vocals swoon upwards around him, all leading to a chilling final sustained ‘cello chord.

“Wreck Of The Antoinette” achieved the impossible feat of going even further; after an astonishing introduction of musique concrete keyboards and scraping improv guitars under which Dee solemnly intones “Full fathom five, on the seabed she lies, the Antoinettttt-te!” – it sounds like the meeting point between Peter Grimes and The Drift – the song unexpectedly turns into sprightly bubblegum (though get that floating Sun Ra-esque organ) from which Howard and Blaikley methodically extract every sea/sex metaphor they can conjure up – “Ocean’s big and you don’t wanna see me drown,” “She goes down with a sigh,” “Deep she lies” and so forth. Meanwhile the piano break invents “Oliver’s Army.”

They had two final hits in 1969 before splitting; “Don Juan” revisits “Xanadu” territory, though this time Dee is a brave (or idiotic) matador, and rather than turning into an antecedent of Tom Jones’ “A Boy From Nowhere,” it inexplicably becomes a football chant, a dry run for “Back Home” (and that trumpet figure has definitely cropped up elsewhere). Inevitably, by the end, he dies – or does he? – and the music once more dissolves into acid drops. Their last hit “Snake In The Grass” was possibly their most disturbing; over a cheerful, flutey MoR tune which sounds like the theme to an unmade Reg Varney sitcom, Dee sniggers at the hapless lady taking the morning air in the country as it quickly becomes apparent that he is portraying a rapist. Perhaps both group and writers realised that they couldn’t really take the template any further; Dee left the band thereafter to go solo, achieving one hit with the clever if unsettling ambiguity of “My Woman’s Man” (another Howard/Blaikley composition) before settling into A&R work at WEA, while DBM&T soldiered on for awhile, also scoring one further Top 40 entry with the amiable sub-CSNYisms of “Mr President.” Eventually both sides embarked on the international cabaret/oldies revival circuit. However, their canon of hits was a very singular one and needs urgent rescue from the airing cupboard of disregard.

(N.B.: Currently available DDDBM&T material on CD comes in the form of endless permutations of their greatest hits in various and variable formats – beware of re-recordings! The handiest way of collecting them is The Very Best Of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, released on Spectrum Music/PolyGram in 1998 and still available; suboptimal packaging, but at least these are the original, unsullied recordings. The full-blown Rhino/Rev-Ola/Eclipse retrospective is awaited)

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I didn’t know what time it was when I came out of the Royal Festival Hall for a second consecutive, reeling night. All I know is that it was light when I came in and dark when I crept out. My body clock still hasn’t adjusted (the automatic pilot takes over in emergencies to look after daily routines). But then Ornette has done nothing if not stretched time these last fifty years, not to mention notions of melody (and his are some of the prettiest melodies in all of jazz), harmony (“harmolodics” – is it really that simple a combination?) and tonality. When listening to portions of 1967’s minimalist The Empty Foxhole or 1995’s maximalist Tone Dialing it is easy to imagine that one is listening to the first music ever made, invented from scratches of instinct and interaction, and the feeling, as ever, is how anyone else could possibly get confused or disorientated by this most natural and logical of musics (if logic emanates initially from the make-up of one’s own mind, if one’s mind can be made up, and Ornette asks why not). But then Ornette’s music was among the first music I ever heard, and everything I have thought and felt about music since has radiated as a by-product from him.

The confusion still happens. I recall Prime Time at the Bracknell Jazz Festival in the summer of 1980, post-punks sporting their Slits and Go4 Better Badges and pogoing at the front, much to Coleman’s manifest delight, while the sweatered real ale beards further back in the audience looked disturbed. Or the Tone Dialing group which appeared at the South Bank a dozen years ago, a seminal whirlwind of apparently random keyboard stabs, Bach quotations, dancers and rappers appearing and vanishing for no good reason (and reason is no good if you want to appreciate Ornette fully). Those who had gingerly become used to the early Atlantic sides looked as though a bomb had just hit them.

I didn’t notice too many walkouts yesterday evening, nor did I when Ornette’s current quartet played at the Barbican a couple of years ago, though I did notice that it was more or less the same audience (Morley included). There was the same befuddlement on the Today programme as there had been thirty years previously (for John Humphreys, read Jack de Manio). And experiencing the two or nine or thirty-eight hours that the quartet played, it was the same rush to both head and body, the delighted enmeshment in a self-contained and utterly confident world; if you can’t find it in yourself to enter it, is that our fault? Tunes came and went, more referred to than played specifically (“Good Old Days” and “Song X” both sped by), but the momentum was utterly of its own making; any feeling that this music is “wrong” leads us to examine ourselves to think whether we might be “wrong” – and in any case Ornette’s influence has spread so thoroughly and effusively through more or less all worthwhile music since Something Else (the business, of course, not wanting to admit his importance since that would dent their non-working model of “showbiz” and “stars” and “demographics”) that we breathe his music in, but never out, with little conscious effort.

Does Denardo at fifty know any more about playing the drums than the Denardo at ten who played on The Empty Foxhole? And what is “playing the drums” anyway when Denardo is so clearly the ideal drummer for his father’s music (the only other plausible candidate still living would be Maureen Tucker)? And what is “rhythm” when there are two bassists, one electric, one acoustic, the latter of which (Tony Falugia) effectively functioned as a second horn, or a second and third string when combined with Ornette’s free-form serialist country and western violin and it just sounds like stars turning into strawberry milk over Big Ben? The feeling is in the life, the life dwells securely within the music. By early exposure to Ornette I learned that everything is allowed, nothing is forbidden, justly or unjustly, that his world is open to all, and moreover that he swings like no other alto player left standing. He is now seventy-seven; the records will stand, but his living breath must be shared as much as possible while he continues to do everything with time save marking it.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Monday, July 09, 2007

Cecil Taylor has always been the musician I have most wanted to be. Not long after I started my after-school piano lessons I heard his playing for the first time, in the context of the 1961 “Gil Evans” album Into The Hot (issued under his name but devoted 50/50 to the works of John Carisi and Cecil; one participant famously stated that the most Gil did in the sessions was go out and get the sandwiches at lunchtime), and immediately I wanted to be like he was, fearlessly inverting every chord progression and harmony I had to that date been taught, even more fearlessly slamming his elbow down hard on the keys whenever the urge took him. Naturally I wanted to play like Cecil instantly and took very strong exception to dreary sessions going over “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” for the nth time, but of course, as another of last night’s Royal Festival Hall participants put it, you have to learn the rules thoroughly before you can break them. Otherwise you just end up making unspecified noise, and careful subsequent listening confirmed Cecil to be one of the most specific of all jazz pianists.

He has hardly considered himself a pianist; he has spoken endlessly of “88 tuned drums” and always strives to put the percussive elements of his music in the forefront – he is a keen follower of contemporary dance and also of all black pop from Motown to Kanye, and elements of those necessarily find their way into his work, however abstract it may seem on the surface. If Dave Brubeck was the most instantly accessible of “experimental” jazz pianists, and Bill Evans slightly more abstruse, then Cecil Taylor has achieved the rare double of exacting total, undiverted attention from the listener but also appealing to the listener on an elemental, dervish level. From the first bar of the first track of his first album – Jazz Advance, recorded in September 1955 – it is clear that he is going somewhere else; it’s a reading of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and from the first chord onwards Cecil manages the unimaginable feat of subverting Monk’s subversion, chordal, tonic and rhythmic. The listener is guided by the already expert soprano playing of the young Steve Lacy – a man who really did make Monk’s music a lifetime’s study – and the ska-anticipating rimshots of Jamaican-American drummer Dennis Charles.

In the subsequent half century Cecil has steadily advanced his jazz; after Into The Hot, his core trio of Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray carefully moulded his template down to its intense core of rhythm first, melody second, interaction the premium. The innate harmonics of his piano perhaps made him more accessible to the free jazz neophyte than the pianoless statements of Coleman or Ayler (and the track on the Ayler box set which sees him sitting in with the trio for a TV broadcast - ! – demonstrates that the great Cleveland tenorman wasn’t quite on Taylor’s wavelength; not just yet, anyway, but then, in tandem with Sunny Murray, he found his own solutions) but he continued to boil his music down to the essentials, just as his band expanded (seven musicians on 1966’s Unit Structures) or contracted (the Lyons/Sam Rivers/Andrew Cyrille quartet of 1969’s Nuits De La Fondation Maeght triple set) as the music demanded.

There has remained an innate formality to Taylor’s music through the years which, though partly classical-based, has yet been open enough to attract the widest possible range of curious improvisers, from Ronald Shannon Jackson to Derek Bailey, from Leroy Jenkins to Tony Williams. In contrast, Anthony Braxton’s music has concentrated on what one might call the formalisation of anti-form. One of the most high-profile graduates of Chicago’s AACM, from 1967 onwards Braxton has developed, with equal steadiness, his own forms of group interaction, combining composition and spontaneity as tightly and indivisibly as imaginable; he famously gives his compositions diagrammatic titles, consisting of illustrations and non-random number combinations, all of which represent a specific emotion or combination of emotions which he wishes himself and his musicians to explore. Perhaps most focused in his remarkable series of albums for the Arista label (he was, incredibly, the label’s second signing, after Barry Manilow) in the mid-seventies, he continued to flourish in what is perhaps his greatest group, the eighties quartet with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemmingway. Since then his compass has grown wider; he has written for larger and larger ensembles (even, in one case, a piece to be played by three orchestras on three different planets) and he has explored what he calls “Ghost Trance Music” (hauntologists take note) in which his own compositions can coexist simultaneously with compositions or motifs generated by the other participating musicians.

But there have been regular accusations of coldness in his work, particularly with relation to his readings of standards, as well as some technical instability (Lee Konitz, one of Braxton’s heroes, has offered some particularly penetrating criticism of this in the past). Yet, given the right conditions, he can emotionally explode; witness his extraordinary 1968 solo double album For Alto, or his Royal duets with Bailey, or the unsurpassed rage of the third track on side one of his 1977 Montreux/Berlin Concerts double, for searing proof.

The two met last night at the Royal Festival Hall for the first time, backed by the other two-thirds of Taylor’s regular Feel Trio – bassist William Parker and Godlike drummer Tony Oxley – and the expectations were intense; could Taylor melt down Braxton’s apparent cold rationalism, or could Braxton draw Taylor closer into his own tri-axial universe? The question really was a no-brainer; as listeners to the second half of Michael Mantler’s 1968 JCOA Communications double will attest – a project expressly designed to pitch improviser against orchestra – Mantler has no choice but to drag his music into Taylor’s relentlessly rhythmic world, and ultimately can only stand back and marvel at the pianist’s endless invention and boundless barrier-busting (I additionally note that both have in their time recorded duet albums with Max Roach, and that in both cases the percussion blend brought out the best and most concentrated playing from either participant).

Taylor began, as he usually does, with a deceptively plaintive ripple of near-aharmonic labyrinths, accompanied solely by Oxley, ticking away patiently at the back. Braxton entered eventually and tentatively. But gradually the enormity of the accumulated intensity overwhelmed, and the cruciality of Parker’s presence heavily underlined – where Oxley tended to lock in directly with Taylor’s rhythmic puzzles, Parker’s titanic bass pulled all the differing strains together. Braxton had no choice but to heat up, but he kept his countenance; as Jimmy Lyons intuitively understood, the secret for the Taylor saxophonist is to define a clear melodic line above the tumult but still sound indivisible from the rhythm and drive of the compositions. Compositions there were, or at least lines, but all welded into an eventually unstoppable avalanche over the next ninety minutes or so; the music was an earthquake of punk joy and yet so absolutely and bloody miraculously ordered – Taylor’s world-ending runs always precise in their definition and destination (no matter how frantic, the purpose and drive were always easily palpable), Oxley maybe the best drummer he has ever had, and “drummer” is such an inadequate term to describe the combination of plywood on metal, of found and round sounds, of endlessly divisible bar lines, of floating as easily and rapidly as any horn player – the world which he more or less invented, Parker solid, prowling and skyscraping, Braxton playing definitively out of himself, still proclaiming the “eve of the fall of Western values” which he promised in his notes to 1967’s Three Compositions Of New Jazz. Eventually the logical end was reached, the four men – aged, I should remind you, 78, 69, 62 and 55, in descending order – reaching a mutual and very glad-looking nod, the world once again altered; music-creating on such a high level that it humbled me, as a spectator – and rather than showoffs demonstrating how big their chops are, but contributing nothing in the way of meaningful musical discourse while doing so, the Cecil Taylor Quartet revealed, once again, the natural ways in which four people can combine and reinvent music with every stroke, blow and breath. I still consider it the paradigm for the ideal society.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Friday, July 06, 2007

More vital catching up to do. When the Fledgling label reissued the two RCA albums recorded by Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath in the early seventies a few months ago, I assumed that everyone who wanted to know about that would have known about it and not waited for me to herald it; besides, the writing I have done on the group elsewhere – or, indeed, that done on Amazon back in 2000 by a mysterious Oxford-based correspondent named “Mark Carlin” to whom I offer a pre-emptive, lawsuit-avoiding apology – seemed to obviate the need to do any more here.

But no, it, and they, continue to need to be heralded, even though for most of the leading figures involved it’s far too late to do them any practical good. Besides, with the possible exception of a certain group from Manchester who have traded under three different names, and periodic shifts in personnel, since 1977, the Brotherhood of Breath, as they existed throughout the seventies, are my favourite aggregation of musicians ever. The reason? They proved that radical music could happily coexist with catchy melodies and dancing rhythms; they were as tight as fuck yet also as loose as the softest of can(n)ons; their live performances proved that you didn’t have to be the Royal Marines Marching Band, all military precision and correctness, but that creatively could flourish organically and meaningfully in the preciousness of the improvised moment.

And the Brotherhood of Breath flowered in a period when, for one of the surprisingly few brief spells in post-Beatles British-based music, everything literally came together, or at least had the fortune of enterprising people like Robert Wyatt or Joe Boyd to help pull everything, and everyone, together. The comparison with the current Canadian/Arts & Crafts scene is inescapable; once again here was an environment in which everybody played with everybody else, irrespective of genres, where musicians would happily hop from band to band and back again, everyone pushing art in the same direction (from their varying perspectives), important and unbreakable links being forged in the process. Joe Boyd in particular was crucial; straight out of Harvard, mouthy and full of attitude, he sped to London and meticulously built up, and spoke loudly in favour of, musicians who couldn’t or wouldn’t always speak for themselves – the Incredible String Band, the early Pink Floyd, Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan were just a few of the musicians around whom Boyd started to build a microuniverse; interdependent, inter-collaborating, creative, flourishing.

The Brotherhood of Breath were also enticed into this utopia. The background history is well known, but just to recap; the original sextet that was the Blue Notes, nominally led by pianist Chris McGregor and featuring saxophonists Dudu Pukwana and Ronnie Beer, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo, came to London via Johannesburg and Zurich in the mid-sixties, fleeing the apartheid regime which didn’t look kindly on mixed-race collaborations of any kind. The cosy whitened British jazz establishment were generally as sniffy to them as they had been to Joe Harriott, though Ronnie Scott gave them the run of his Old Place in Soho’s Gerrard Street in tandem with the other various factions which were flourishing in British jazz and improv music at the time – the Little Theatre Club nexus of John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Bailey/Parker/Oxley groupings, AMM, Mike Westbrook’s variously-sized and themed ensembles, eventually the very young Keith Tippett – and the South Africans began to be recognised as the link which ran through all of these; in turn, the young British players were thrilled and shocked (in the best of ways) by the naked emotionalism of their playing, the flagrant and fiery disregard for conventions or known structures. When Ayler came to London in 1966 to play his only British concert, he stayed at McGregor’s flat.

The Blue Notes continued to exist on and off – the only album recorded by the sextet, Very Urgent, was released under the name of “The Chris McGregor Group” in 1968, and scandalously still awaits its debut on CD. But McGregor, a lifelong Ellington nut, had a hankering towards building larger bands. His first attempt, also in 1968, was shortlived but those who saw any of the band’s few performances still talk of them today in awe. An album, Earth Music, was cut for Polydor, but exists only on mortgage-your-house-20-times-rare white labels.

Finances and logistics brought McGregor’s first big band to a premature end, but he persevered, and in 1970 the Brotherhood of Breath was established. It was based around a nucleus of the Blue Notes – all of the sextet were present in initial line-ups, with the exception of a highly sceptical Dyani, so a fellow Johannesburg refugee, Harry Miller, was the obvious choice for bassist. Miller’s main gig at the time was with Westbrook, and he brought with him several other Westbrook regulars; on their eponymously-titled 1971 debut album, produced by Boyd, the sax section is augmented by the “S.O.S.” team of John Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore, and Westbrook’s chief trombonist Malcolm Griffiths is also present. From Keith Tippett’s band McGregor borrowed trumpeter Marc Charig and trombonist Nick Evans, and the line-up is completed by the hugely respected West Indian trumpeter, and sometime Mingus collaborator, Harry Beckett.

The first Brotherhood album appeared on CD on a couple of occasions in the nineties, but this new remastering is the clearest cut yet. It still sounds like the answer to most other music. The opening track, Dudu Pukwana’s “MRA,” was for many years used as the signature tune to Radio 3’s Jazz Record Requests, and is a blinding ensemble piece with a rhythm and central riff which is crying out to be sampled by the Dream Warriors, or their 2007 equivalent (K-Os?), the different horn sections playing ping pong with elements of the main tune in an arrangement which owes as much to Tadd Dameron as it does to the Xhosa tribal and kwela melodies from which the tunes themselves arise, with an immaculately thrusting drive from the peerless rhythm team of Miller and Moholo.

But it’s not all straightforward, celebratory pleasure, as the ballad “Davashe’s Dream” painfully demonstrates. A beautifully blossoming theme of, yes, Ellingtonian grandeur does not quite prepare us for the highly troubling solos which follow from Pukwana and Feza. They play as if trying to recall and recapture true beauty, but again and again (see also Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock) they collapse into screams, honks, disconnected atonal flurries – a catalogue of torment, fuelled by the hurting knowledge that this is their culture, but that they can’t return to its home; the midnight raids on the townships, the beatings, the ceaseless racism and unalloyed hatred – none of it can be banished. They try to rise and rise but seem to be cut down by invisible but palpable truncheons every time. Understand our history, they seem to say, and only then can you understand why we are playing as we do, it’s all in our heads, every horrible memory.

“The Bride” is another storming Pukwana riff piece which leads to a searing soprano sax solo feature for Surman, starting off very Coltranesque but nimbly dodging the various rhythmic challenges which McGregor and Moholo seem to put in his way; even so, his solo becomes increasingly more agonised, pushed by Miller and Moholo’s unrelenting rhythmic attack, until it ends up as a hoarse scream over hissing cymbals.

“Andromeda,” written by McGregor and named after his daughter, is the nearest and unlikeliest the album comes to pop, and it should have been and could still be a single with its instantly danceable and addictive theme, moving from percussive kwela rhythms to old-school Basie swing – but still there are bombs going off here, most notably Feza’s outrageous triple-tonguing solo, as askew as his contribution to “Davashe’s Dream,” although here his playing takes on a proto-punk stance of cheerful mischief. After an extremely short and surreal trombone solo from Evans, Pukwana’s bluesy screeches finally bring everyone back to the tune.

But the album’s main event is the marathon, semi-freely improvised onomatopoeic piece “Night Poem,” one of the finest of all large ensemble free jazz pieces which really does demonstrate the immense sonic scope of the group and whose instincts and power seem to defy any sense of rational musical gravity. Throughout Feza and Beer tweet away on their birdsong Indian flutes and McGregor carefully navigates the band from his African xylophone. Other various percussion and musical effects swoon in and out of the foreground focus, as eventually do most of the front line, most prominently an improvising trio of Beckett, Griffiths and Osborne (the latter on a rare clarinet outing). It alternates between apparent serene formlessness and (usually goaded by something that Pukwana does) violently vivid eruptions of glorious post-Ascension noise, all held together by another of McGregor’s catchy riffs which periodically also comes to the fore, the abstractions of the horn players balanced by the earthiness of Miller and Moholo’s grounded rhythms. Newcomers to this music will be astounded at how easily and quickly the players “fall into line” seemingly from nowhere, though repeated listenings do reveal the minute little cues and signals which occur amid the track’s dense but eminently accessible undergrowth. This remarkable performance is capped by a brief 200 mph canter through McGregor’s uproarious “Union Special” which sounds like the Bonzos playing Sousa at 78 rpm. A near-perfect record.

The revelation of these reissues, however, is Brotherhood, the group’s second album from 1972 – Boyd by now having returned to the States, McGregor both “directed” and produced the record himself – and hitherto unavailable in any format for the last 35 years (its value emphasised by the fact that, in over thirty years of browsing record shops around the world, I have never seen a second-hand copy). Noticeably briefer than its predecessors (it clocks in smartly at just under 35 minutes), it acts more as a guide to what they would do with these tunes onstage, since many of them will be familiar to those who know their subsequent quartet of live albums. By now Surman had left to concentrate on his own career and Beer had left music altogether and retreated to a life of boat building in Ibiza; Gary Windo comes in for Beer on tenor but the baritone chair remained unfilled for many years (unsurprisingly, since Surman was an impossible act to follow). “Nick Tete” is another riff-friendly Pukwana composition, easing the listener into the record, with Dudu himself soloing with his own bearing of immaculately ruined nobility.

However, it scarcely prepares the unwary listener for the explosion/meltdown that is “Joyful Noises (Of The Lord),” a completely free piece where McGregor, usually reticent to feature himself in his own band, cuts loose on piano against slow, gargantuan fanfares which sound like one of the Victorian hymns of his Transkei Sunday School youth rearranged and reharmonised by Michael Mantler, Moholo thrashing away at his kit like a rebel repossessed. McGregor’s solo, solidly in the Cecil Taylor percussion-dominant lineage, drums gloriously with sonorous wildness, and the fadeout at eleven minutes suggests that it could indeed go on forever (though it's a pity that Fledgling couldn’t unearth an uncut master of the track).

“Think Of Something” is a Mike Osborne tune, and finally we get to hear his beyond-superlative alto playing in the Brotherhood context, switching from Jackie McLean post-bop to Ornette freedom with absolute confidence and ease (and note how Miller and Moholo move immediately with his changes) and Evans also appears with a rather more generous space for his trombone playing.

“Do It” is another masterpiece; beginning with an anxious drum fade-in, Pukwana and Skidmore engage in a heated sax debate while the theme (Pukwana again) slowly melts into place behind them. It’s not long before Feza breaks free and runs off with one of his utterly inimitable wow-and-flutter solos, as the horns continue to riff enthusiastically underneath him, though Miller’s bass signals a break in action to allow Windo to enter and duet with Feza, snorting and scraping his fulminating tenor, again connecting instantly with the trumpeter’s rhythmic impetus. Eventually the full band re-enters and engages in a free scrum before Moholo’s locomotive engine drums command a slowdown, full of loopy call and response figures, gradually winding down to a halt before McGregor’s bright piano rallies everyone round again for another “That’s All Folks” high speed signoff with the Evans/Windo composition “Funky Boots March.” After the brief blast of the latter, various band members are heard to exclaim “Behold!” and “Wa-hey!” as well they might.

When you’ve bought, absorbed and savoured these, you would do well to proceed to 1973’s Live At Willisau, the debut release on Ogun Records and still available on CD; an hour and a quarter of quasi-berserk genius. By now the improv massive were taking hold; Skidmore and Griffiths are replaced by Evan Parker and Radu Malfatti, and Osborne didn’t make the gig due to illness, so this performance was particularly hardcore. The opening take on “Do It” certainly takes nothing in the way of prisoners; carried by the hearty breeze of the moment, Parker takes the tenor solo here, soon vortexing away into his world of cyclical runs and free howls, and the rest of the band rushes back in for a clamorous mass improvisation (in which, thanks to the placement of the microphones, the trombones are especially prominent). Still Miller and Moholo manage to marshal all of this activity such that it teeters on the brink of total chaos but never quite falls off the edge. “Restless” is a brief snatch of tortured avant bebop, very reminiscent of early Cecil, Pukwana storming away like Jimmy Lyons over McGregor and Moholo thunder. “Camel Dance” is a gorgeous, hypnotic 6/8 groove (this is where post-blues boom late ‘60s burned-out psychedelia comes in) over which Beckett flies with meticulous marvel. The version of “Davashe’s Dream” here is slightly more controlled than the studio recording, Feza keeping himself in check, but Pukwana’s alto still flustered with pain.

“Tungi’s Song” revisits the old Archie Shepp free marching band model (“Portrait Of Robert Thompson” etc.) with a cheekily gurgling trombone proclamation from Malfatti over determined riffs and rock(ist)-solid drumming. “Tungi’s Song,” despite some microphone feedback which sometimes makes him sound as if he’d borrowed Don Ellis’ varitone device, is perhaps Feza’s best recorded solo – rhythmically, harmolodically and emotionally on the absolute mark, his technique, expression and good humour unmatchable and unrepeatable, as Miller and Moholo swing robustly behind him. This slows down and segues into the ballad “Ismite Is Might” which features a beauty of a solo from Evans, testifying passionately over the massed horns like a Welsh Baptist Roswell Rudd (and it’s one of his best recorded solos, too). Then we climax with the explosive kwela kickback of “The Serpent’s Kindly Eye” again featuring Pukwana’s howling alto and a very brief cornet solo from Charig before the rest of the band, led by Parker and Malfatti, conspire to drown him out.

The version of “Andromeda” here is messy – you can feel McGregor’s audibly exasperated piano correcting yet another miscue by the band – though the solos here (Charig, then Evans and Pukwana again) are more straightforwardly boppish than on the original. But the accumulated experience of their performance is overwhelming; you can easily see Mingus, as actually happened, peeking round the back of the curtain at one performance to see where the hidden second drummer was, since he couldn’t believe that it was coming from one man. And the whole thing climaxes with thrilling runs through “Union Special” and a longer and deliberately more shambolic “Funky Boots March,” to which the audience, who have been cheering their approval all the way through, readily clap their hands as the band marches offstage. Value this band; they seared and sunned the skies as few others have done before or since.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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