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

Friday, August 24, 2007

Just as I get to the point where I can, with some persuasion, tolerate the efficient idiocy of broadsheet music writing, the Guardian always seems to find a way of raising the bar to a new low. I present for your aghast anti-entertainment this
truly sad display of towel-flicking, tongue-sticking sarcasm which Mike Love would have been proud to have written.

For a start, note the description “harmless ditties” applied to songs like “The (sic) Wichita Lineman” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” two of the most tortured expressions of scarcely alloyed grief and self-hatred to grace the Top 40 (at least in America; “Phoenix” surprisingly didn’t chart at all here) – no doubt as opposed to the Vanilla Fudges or Iron Butterflies whom Queenan presumably considers Real MAN’s Music. The antecedents of loss are already evident through Webb’s previous work, while the sneer that “MacArthur Park” had no sequel displays a level of historical ignorance which perhaps should be expected from the hangers-on, failed TV presenters and Buggin’s turn occupants whom the Guardian prefers to employ as writers – for instance, the entire second Harris/Webb album The Yard Went On Forever acts as a sequel, but also the record inspired a wave of five minute plus epics – “Hey Jude,” “Those Were The Days” and “Eloise” being but the most immediate 1968 beneficiaries – and helped further demolish the notion of the pop single as three minutes of primary coloured toothpaste (though of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with that).

As far as “no one can say for sure what the song is about,” a cursory reading of Webb’s own sleevenote to Harris’ Webb Sessions compilation reveals that it was about a lost love, and by extension a lost innocence which couldn’t ever be recaptured (he doesn’t explicitly say that it was about losing his virginity but has suggested it strongly in other interviews over the years). From there, though, it is easy and understandable that the metaphor could and should be extended to cover the lost utopia of ’67 and the burning angst of ’68; although written before the King and Kennedy assassinations, it can hardly be denied its posthumous effect when it strode semi-imperiously onto the airwaves. To suggest, in triplicate rhetoric, and especially as a joke (because Lord help us if we start taking anything seriously again), that Jimmy Webb, nobody’s idea of a Republican, should have been responsible for Nixon’s re-election is the sort of ninth grade brain candy which properly belongs in the pages of the late, lamented Weekly World News.

Queenan’s assertion that “given the relative sophistication of the genre, being one of the most complicated songs in the history of pop music is like being the zaniest stand-up comic in Estonia” betrays his underlying contempt for pop, mentally still stuck in his 1968 dorm, laughing at Lester’s Count Five album and blasting out Butterfield and Clapton all fucking night. This is only reinforced by his jibe at the Association, a far more complicated group of musicians than is usually and lazily assumed by Queenan and his ilk; Webb wanted to offer them a 20-minute “MacArthur Park” to cover one side of Birthday but the group were doubtful, not so much because of the song but for the same reasons that they had split with Curt Boettcher as arranger and producer; they were suspicious of being manipulated or moulded into somebody else’s vision, however innovative, and wished to preserve their autonomy – and listening to the rather fabulous Birthday album itself, one can’t really say that they were wrong to do so.

And so it wears on – Donna Summer’s “bouncy cover” (just under eighteen minutes in its uncut 12-inch version, nearer to what Webb had originally envisaged, and as stark a curtain pulled down over the disco era as “Good Times”), endless sarcasm, a complete misreading of the Wu-Tang’s usage of the tune as the bloody climax to their brilliantly and intentionally overblown Wu-Tang Forever, and did he mention “Dreamy Days” by Roots Manuva? What a surprise that he doesn’t. Of course I am biased; the song’s emotions radiate with me in ways which the Queenans of their world could never hope to understand (especially as it is about Los Angeles…”there will be another dream for me, someone will bring it”…it’s you and me, L…). All more ammunition in the Guardian’s continuing war against anyone and anything which doesn’t fit into their tidy, spoken-for, media empire arm-friendly demographic. Dated, pathetic and lamentable even by the standards of 1968 music writing; but then I suppose that’s the difference between “real journalists” and writers like me; they write in what they think is the correct way to write, whereas I write me.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The obvious thing to say is that it doesn’t feel as though a full year has passed since we made it official at Marine Ices, although I suspect the next few months may feel like a couple of years in terms of everything I have to cram into them. But it is worth all the cramming - more than worth it. Last summer was the first summer in five years which I had been looking forward to rather than dreading; it was the turnaround which made all the five years of work here, and elsewhere, worth doing.

So I am not too concerned about Saturday; I acknowledge the loss but the important thing now is to continue to acknowledge the future – it is the only way to live. When we return to Oxford at the end of October there will two renewed people entering that city, rather than the pale, solitary ghost of hitherto.

Expressions of intimate gratitude are by necessity private, but all that really needs to be said here is that I’m listening to and loving music with the old passion, six years after I thought I could never bear listening to music again, that all which had previously constituted a shrine now lives and breathes once more, that life has been restored when once restoration seemed hopeless – and it is she, the noble she, who has made me complete again; I think it safe to say that this writer, in terms of a fully functioning human being and about-to-be happily married man, is open for business once more.

Thanks and love to the one who did not turn away and dared to kiss the scars so that they might heal even more soundly.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Monday, August 13, 2007

It was all about playing. Playfulness. Having the ability to play, leaving time for play, realising that work is the most refined form of playing imaginable, and thereby reintroducing the word “imagination” into work – do you see what he did there? You were never going to see him hosting The Apprentice since that systematic deconstruction of the work ethic demonstrated its ultimate failure on account of its inability to admit concepts like flair and play into its scrupulously monitored and costed anti-world. Would you want Sugar’s 800 million (800 million what, exactly? Holes in Borough, SE1?) if you saw how miserable and monodimensional it made him?

Tony Wilson realised, too late to save himself maybe but not before he managed to save others, that none of it mattered; what cost resources, or assets, against the importance of making an indelible stamp, not in the Hitler sense but in the sense of changing the atoms of the world through which some of us still walk such that we’d be affected by the chain which this absurdist antecedent of Richard Madeley initiated. I recall childhood holidays in Blackpool, watching Granada Reports at rainy teatimes and already noting the Situationist waiting to break out of his flared suit, and then late at night, there he was again, on a journey somewhere from Alan Freeman to Jonathan Meades, on So It Goes, a flailing mess of a show; I saw the one with Patti Smith, and also the one with the Pistols, and also the one with AC/DC after the Whistle Test had laughed them away from their door; Clive James and Peter Cook sat around talking about nothing as though it were everything (mercifully); Alain Stivell strolled his lute, Stephan Micus, obscure even to ECM buffs in 1976, was there with his treated flugelhorn, chimes and chamberpots.

He waited for his moment, grabbed it when the Pistols played the Free Trade Hall, and everyone laughed at him for doing so in a Richard Madeley-doing-the-Twist-to-Wiley sort of a way, including possibly even Richard Madeley, and then he bounded around like a COBRA Group John Noakes, signing up bands, promising worlds to others, treating Vini Reilly like his no-longer-wayward son…

…and Factory was it, the ECM, Ogun and Incus of punk combined, catalogue numbers for people, thoughts and elements of the air as well as music; A Factory Sample I bought, complete with stickers, for the then exorbitant price of 79p out of Bloggs’ Record Shop in St Vincent Street; despite my three decades of Saturday music shopping since then, nothing has quite equalled the intense thrill of those Saturday mornings, going through the new singles boxes (in those days it was hardly ever albums), picking up exotic or cheapskate sleeves housing absurdly or improperly named acts and yet you knew you could pick them up on trust, that there would always be a new dynamic, a new perspective on the world to cover. It was the equivalent of going to a record shop and never knowing what you’d come out with in exchange for your pocket money; there was no satellite PR industry excitedly emailing me four months in advance about their prized new clients, whereas I have always favoured the music I’ve managed to find by myself, or the music my dad, or Laura, or Lena, helped or help me to find where I would otherwise have overlooked and overstepped; and A Factory Sample certainly came under that territory and thus onto mine – Durutti Column, a guitarist seemingly reading from a John Abercrombie Play In A Day manual as he worked his sumptuously inexpensive instrumental songs out, Cabaret Voltaire as though Berio had singlehandedly hauled Joe Meek out of the grave, John Dowie the necessary comic relief, and Joy Division, the former Warsaw whom I kept getting mixed up with Warsaw Pakt who recorded and released an album in 24 hours, but “Digital” and “Glass,” this wasn’t exactly Sham 69, nor quite yet Situationist 68…

My thoughts on Joy Division and New Order are beyond the range of public writing – some things you have to keep to yourself, or to those closest to you, and the one brief paragraph I have previously written on them in CoM is all that needs to be said about them here – but beyond the FACT that Factory were putting out some of the greatest music of all time (my CoM paragraph should have been FAC 812) was the truth that their records were as cherishable as any Rothko or Bonnard canvas; Peter Saville who, encouraged by Wilson, turned every Factory record and gesture into true art (if art is to be regarded as the subtlest of untruths), just so that those of us who lived through Factory know in our bones that the White Stripes calling an album De Stijl is the contemporary equivalent of Swinging Blue Jeans, The, naming one of their long-players Karel Appel.

Then there was the club, the openness, the biggest-selling 12-inch single ever which lost Wilson and Factory millions, the Durutti, ALWAYS the Durutti, A Certain Ratio reopening the road between “Family Affair” and “Breakout,” even the flipping Crispy Ambulance and Stockholm Monsters who certainly added to the gaiety of indie record shop basements of their day, especially to Bobby Gillespie and The Wake, to Section 25 and especially Sumner’s remix of “Looking From A Hilltop” which was the missing link between “Pink Moon” and “Jack Your Body,” even unto the Wendys and the Adventure Babies if you must, leaping over the James which Wilson kept only briefly, and the Roses and Pulp and Oasis which he never got in the first place (but then there was Quango Quango)...

…and the Mondays, the anti-group’s group who became so fused together with their own blissfully determined non-reason that they were the intact link between a Britain of 1967 and a different but broadly similar Britain of 1990; I listened last night to “Reverend Black Grape,” a top ten smash from a number one album which existed after Factory and the Mondays had ceased to exist, and marvelled that such an honest bullshitter like Wilson had somehow enabled this…

Was Tony Wilson the most radiant example of how to run a socialist business? His obtusely heroic refusal to tie his company to his artists was, financially, his undoing; the Hacienda prospered, then lost money, then Shaun and Bez took too long as Tina and Chris shook their heads and it all went bust and eventually – despite all of this, still holding down his Granada Reports day job – so did he. But so what if he lost everything? It was all in his head; the memories, the still vibrant realities. And of course, even if he lost every thing, he didn’t lose anyone, not even the musicians who reluctantly left him for absorption into larger corporations. But Engels was in his head, too, never left the head of Mr Manchester; how could it? He didn’t want to be a Northern McLaren stuck in Little Venice, shuffling it out with the other blue ghosts in the capital; he saw what happened with punk and wanted to make it happen in Manchester – and as a teenager growing up in Glasgow, I wished to Marx that we’d had somebody like that, so shameless, so visionary, so useless, so indispensable, to make Glasgow matter – and what he made happen by necessity became greater than anything anyone could have achieved in London.

Even after the business collapsed, he carried on, an In The City partner and spokesman who didn’t hesitate, in 1988, to remind the likes of Derrick May where Techno and House had really come from; the man who, in a spotless, crease-free cream suit, stood proudly in the 1991 city centre on TV and welcomed rave as the future (he pinpointed “Rhythm Is A Mystery,” a top three hit for Manchester’s K-Klass, as the true spirit of punk continuing and self-refreshing). He remained affably available for outraging comments as a media pundit; he could live with ruination since what he had inspired was indestructible. He was a nitwit who couldn’t run an egg and spoon race, let alone a record company; he was the greatest record company boss who ever lived. He made no money out of it but money wasn’t the point. It was a life curtailed, in large part because he didn’t have the money to spend on the new cancer-relieving drugs and neither did his primary care trust, but he was an artist, a charlatan without the capital C, one of the only socialists in the media I can think of who lived absolutely as he meant life to be lived, and without an aorta of bitterness inside him. A knowingly naff TV personality who enabled some of the greatest of all music to be voiced. An eejit and a genius. A glass or two to him tonight, and label those FAC 682 and the man himself FACT Eternal, though no doubt he would have preferred FAC Off. What a player.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

It’s true. When someone of stature dies, then it always seems to happen that two others follow suit soon afterwards. And it always seems to happen at the weekend. First, Art Davis, who vied with Henry Grimes for the title of jazz’s forgotten bass maestro, and was latterly a doctor of psychology, passed away from a heart attack aged 73. I felt rather guilty at hearing about his passing since he was one of those musicians so withdrawn from the general daily bustle of the music world that firstly I didn’t realise that he was still alive, and secondly I imagined him to be far older than he was. But there was a failed racism lawsuit regarding his day job with the New York Philharmonic in the seventies, and the blacklist kicked in.

Prior to this he is probably best remembered for being Coltrane’s second bassist whenever he chose to use two basses – a practice which soon became obligatory in most post-Coltrane large jazz and improvising ensembles. His other experience, however, was unusually wide-ranging; a regular member of Max Roach’s groups (heard to especially good effect on Percussion Bitter Sweet and Abbey Lincoln’s Straight Ahead), he also worked with everyone from Jack Teagarden to Quincy Jones, from Bob Dylan to Pharaoh Sanders, and most points in between. But Coltrane opened up something within him; on albums like Ole and Africa/Brass he begins to improvise, using his bass as a virtual horn, leaving Reggie Workman to maintain the basic pulse. On Ascension Coltrane even listed Davis among the horn players rather than alongside the rhythm section in the sleeve credits, and the Davis/Garrison bowed bass duet which climaxes that particular beginning of time is a starkly inviting precedent of what was to follow in its wake.

Then Lee Hazlewood went at 78 after a well-documented, but strangely peaceful and accepting, battle with cancer; the man who effectively invented Duane Eddy and went on, with Nancy Sinatra, to form one of the unlikeliest but most permanent professional female/male relationships in all of pop. “Boots” still sounds strikingly modernist, even by 1966 standards – again, note the use of two basses - but even that premature feminist anthem was a mere taster for the extraordinary phantasmagoria of pulp Gothic and Southern whimsy which framed their best collaborations; “Lightning’s Girl,” “Sand” and “Some Velvet Morning” are indispensable pieces of the 1967 jigsaw, as though the Shangri-Las had been thrust out of Queen’s and placed in Skylab with a Brontë library hastily scribbled over by Burroughs. His “I doubt it” ad lib in the middle of “Jackson” is one of the funniest inserts in all of pop; he also gave Dean Martin a late hit with the song “Houston” which made even weary old Dino grin again.

After that he fled to Sweden in order to avoid his son being drafted, and his sequence of seventies albums – Cowboy In Sweden, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town and Requiem For An Almost Lady amongst them – are, if not quite the masterpieces they’ve been subsequently painted, a rather bewitching series of country noir miniatures, not that far removed from Scott Walker’s work of the same period (Stretch, We Had It All), and Requiem is nearly a roughneck equivalent of Drake’s Pink Moon – a compact sequence of minimalist songs, lasting less than half an hour in total, all circling around one absent centre. Largely ignored and ridiculed at the time – Charles Shaar Murray’s famous 1973 NME review of Poet, Fool Or Bum (“Bum”) springs to immediate mind – it was down to the Cockers, Caves and Tindersticks of the next world to revive his reputation, in logical parallel with latterday Johnny Cash; he did some more work with Nancy, played sellout concerts in London and was amazed that the youthful audience knew every word of his most obscure songs, bowed out gracefully with last year’s Cake Or Death? – not a great album per se, but a very dignified last statement – and died rich, respected and loved.

Finally, and closest to my particular bone, the trombonist Paul Rutherford died yesterday, aged just 67. In truth this was scarcely unexpected either; frequently his worst enemy when it came to health, there had already been a number of scares and several benefit gigs, and I still shudder to recall a late nineties performance by the London Improvisers Orchestra with a drunken Rutherford attempting to conduct and howling incoherent diatribes against Thatcher (who had stood down in 1990).

Nonetheless he was a player of exceptional vision, grace and unfettered expression. He did his National Service in the RAF, cooped up with John Stevens and Bob Downes; upon demob they had already got the Ornette bug, and Rutherford was an indispensable member of the very early line-ups of Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble; listen to his work on the Challenge and Withdrawal albums (both from 1966) to see how he negotiates the group’s move from George Russell-style modernist charts into total improvisation; the quiet but intense fleetness with which his trombone moves (and it is one of the most difficult of instruments to be fleet on) along with Bailey’s scurrying guitar and Stevens’ knitting needle percussive whispers already marks him out as a player of importance.

On sharing a bill with the SME, Mike Westbrook heard Rutherford and invited him to join his band – the tag team he formed with fellow Westbrook trombonist Malcolm Griffiths became one of the most enduring in British jazz and improv. Always rather bitter about how his German counterpart Albert Mangelsdorff got the credit for introducing multiphonic trombone playing into improvised music – that is, simultaneously playing notes on the trombone and humming or singing through the instrument’s mouthpiece to create chords and overtones – Rutherford actually provided the first recorded incidence of trombone multiphonics in his “Folk Song No 1” solo feature on Westbrook’s 1968 Release album. He stayed with Westbrook’s various line-ups for a decade, outstanding on the “Other World” movement of 1969’s Marching Song where he portrays the disorientated soldier staggering through a foreign and utterly alien battlefield, a founder member of his pocket-sized Brass Band (see 1974’s Plays For The Record) and superb in tandem with Griffiths on the second side of 1976’s Love/Dream And Variations. Much in demand by large ensembles for his selfless but penetrating playing, he enjoyed long associations with the Globe Unity Orchestra, the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, Keith Tippett’s various big bands and many other one-off projects including Manfred Schoof’s European Echoes (1969) and the Don Cherry/Penderecki Eternal Rhythm Orchestra (1971). He also worked to great, plunging effect as part of the great Tony Oxley group which recorded 1970’s Four Compositions For Sextet (even, at one stage in the proceedings, doing a remarkable impersonation of fellow band member Evan Parker!).

But it is for his solo and small group work for which he is likely to be cherished; in particular, with the trio Iskra 1903, also involving Derek Bailey and bassist Barry Guy – their eponymously-titled debut album, originally released as a vinyl double in 1973 and subsequently expanded to its present triple CD status, is punk-improv a decade ahead of schedule; politically bold and proud (the name Iskra came from an early Lenin tract), the music remains insolent, boundary-breaking, dizzying, gargantuan, intimate, hilarious, solemn and one of the very few drop dead masterpieces of recorded European improvisation. And 1974’s entirely unaccompanied recital The Gentle Harm Of The Bourgeoisie is a virtual dictionary of what can and cannot be done with the trombone, though were it merely a display of pyrotechnics it would count for nought. What was most striking about Rutherford’s playing is that, while always committed, it never descended to the level of incoherent bombast which the layout of the trombone sometimes seems to demand; instead, there is an incorrigible composer’s logic to what he plays, as well as the high-speed technical mastery of J J Johnson, the inherent romanticism of Vic Dickenson, the melancholy of Jimmy Knepper, the same delight in exploring and sustaining the instrument’s wonderful tones as Jack Teagarden – as well as the Tricky Sam Nanton raspberry when the situation required it. 1983’s Gheim finds him especially concentrated, recorded live at the Bracknell Jazz Festival in a trio setting (Nigel Morris on drums, a young Paul Rogers on bass), on music which is unmistakeably jazz-derived but endlessly exploratory (at the end of the set, to an ecstatic audience, he announces the group as “the Kenny Everett Trio”), but there are many further delights and revelations to be found in his later work – the revised Iskra 1903 with Phil Wachsmann’s violin and electronics replacing Bailey, the eerily lovely Trio (London) 1993 with Parker and Braxton, his eloquent contributions to Kenny Wheeler’s Music For Large And Small Ensembles (1990) and the only album recorded by Elton Dean’s Newsense (1997) featuring a trombone dream team of Rutherford, Annie Whitehead and Roswell Rudd, not to mention his very late entry into the world of the South Africans (although he was a sometime member of Harry Miller’s Isipingo in the seventies, he never recorded with the group, and only played once, as a guest, with the Brotherhood of Breath, since they already had their own pair of bootboy trombonists in Nick Evans and Radu Malfatti, though he did contribute some very funny sleevenotes to the latter’s NicRa quintet album of 1977) – he appeared in the tribute big band the Dedication Orchestra (though I recall promoter John Jack virtually having to frogmarch him from bar to stage at their debut 100 Club gig on New Year’s Day 1992) with other surviving Brotherhood veterans and younger players and in the latterday line-up of Louis Moholo’s Spirits Rejoice! ensemble. An elegant and forceful player, a musician of justified international renown, my last memory of Paul Rutherford will be of him with the London Improvisers Orchestra in the spring of 2002 (the performance was recorded and issued on the Freedom Of The City 2002: Large Groups CD set), now sober by doctor’s orders, featured in Steve Beresford’s "Concerto For Paul Rutherford"; concentrated, intense and quietly devastating in the cumulative power of his playing – a man finally at peace.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Friday, August 03, 2007

There is a hint of "get him before he goes" about
this but no one can say that he doesn't thoroughly deserve it. However, remarks such as "early 1960s acclaimed (sic) jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis regarded Coleman's music as a direct affront to their years of training" suggest that it's probably not the best of ideas to let 19-year-old work experience trainees with a tenuous grasp of Wikipedia mores compose news articles for the BBC. Bird's views are particularly intriguing in view of the fact that he died in 1955; maybe Dominic Sandbrook and John Harris organised an impromptu ouija board session.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Thursday, August 02, 2007

There has been a tendency among jazz writers of recent times to sideline musicians like Keith Tippett, and perhaps even snigger at them behind their expensively gloved fingers; 2007, and he still thinks that free improvisation and rubbing wine glasses together constitutes the way forward – after all, it’s so old hat, isn’t it, all that revolution and unity talk, it’s so early seventies, all a bit of a childish frippery (pun intended), quite out of keeping with the happy and fulfilled society we have now (i.e. that this sort of thing was fine with Vietnam but makes us feel awkward in times of Iraq).

Or, as with Scott Walker or Kate Bush or any other musician of genuine worth, you could argue that Keith Tippett has simply pursued and developed his singular multidimensional line as rigorously and generously as possible. While the bulk of his work in recent years has concentrated on his solo piano improvisations/compositions, or his long-standing free jazz quartet Mujician, he has never stopped developing his ideas, and the comparative lack of releases from his larger ensembles has inevitably been due to economics rather than unwillingness.

For the last decade or so his Tapestry Orchestra has been his large ensemble of choice; he burst onto the scene in 1970 amid much curious publicity with the gigantic Centipede (100 legs = 50 musicians, although 55 players are listed on the published recording of Septober Energy and live performances would swell the numbers up even further), an assemblage of all the musicians with whom he was working at the time, that glorious time without boundaries or genre creeds, so that groups like Soft Machine, King Crimson, Nucleus, Patto and the Blossom Toes are represented either in greater part or in full, plus most of the British and South African New Thing contingents with whom Tippett was playing regularly and many others besides. While essentially an unwieldy beast – on the Septober Energy album there are among the personnel three drummers, six bassists, eleven saxophonists and a full classical string section – and while Septober Energy itself can now be viewed as a brave but only partially coherent sequence of “events,” it, along with the near concomitant Escalator, helped set my ideas of music in motion, and watching them in performance at the London Lyceum, aged seven, is an experience I have still not forgotten.

Seven years later, at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, my parents and I saw his next big band, Ark, a far more manageable 22-strong ensemble (the name stems from the fact that there were two of each instrument in its line-up), performing his new four-part suite Frames: Music For An Imaginary Film. At the height of post-punk, here was an unashamed extension – not a throwback, but an extension – of 1967 ideals, full of drones, incantations and occasional outbursts of violence as well as surprisingly straightforward post-Ellington jazz voicings, sloppy in the Christian Wolff/Carla Bley sense, but airtight when it needed to be. The subsequent Ogun double album – like Septober Energy, still available on CD – is a work of unalterable but very touchable beauty.

Tapestry was formed in the nineties, and the 2CD set Live At Le Mans which has just been released was recorded in 1998. In certain circles this performance has been spoken of with a sense of awe comparable to Mingus at UCLA in ’65, but Tippett has until now been resolute about not releasing it; the idea was to get the band into the studio, smooth out the rougher compositional edges of the extended work (First Weaving) and put down a definitive recording, but this being an era of the coldest rationalism, economics again ruled this out of the question – as indeed, and far more sadly, did the passing of Tippett’s first saxophonist of choice, Elton Dean, early last year from complications arising from heart and liver disease, not yet sixty; and I suspect that this may have been the decisive factor in the performance’s eventual release.

While there are undeniably rough edges to the structure of First Weaving, both concept and performance are so strong on this record that it simply becomes a joy to hear Tippett heading and directing a large group in the way only he can. This is a comparatively compact twenty-piece line-up, though its resources are so skilfully marshalled that frequently the orchestra sounds as though double that number are playing, without causing the occasional logjams to which Centipede, even at their most powerful, were prone. There is also, as is similarly characteristic of Tippett, a decided focus on the orchestra as one unit rather than a collection of soloists since there are very few soloists throughout the work and quite a lot of collective improvisation work by individual sections, or duets and trios by various members.

Always a fan of Mingus, Tippett nevertheless catches the unwary listener off guard practically from the beginning of the “First Thread” where, after some call and response between the three singers and the two drummers (Louis Moholo and Tony Levin; now that’s what I call a battalion) – the singers uttering “ka-ta ka-ta” like a happier Fuckhead sample from The Drift, the drummers responding with stiff military rolls – the band launches into a joyful gospel vamp (very “Better Git Hit In Your Soul”) over which we have two ecstatic duets, by saxophonists Lee Goodall and Simon Picard, and then by Gethin Liddington (a student of Tippett’s who is aligned to the F-Ire Collective which also spawned Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland et al) on trumpet and trusty veteran Malcolm Griffiths on trombone, deliciously sliding over each other’s smears like sheets of chocolate satin.

Then the mood darkens for the “Second Thread,” one of Tippett’s great, slowly escalating incantations; over low, doubtful horns, the singers intone Julie Tippetts’ unrepentantly spiritual lyrics (memes like “Overpowering” and “Overwhelming” gradually mutating into “Oh! Forgiving” and “Oh! Relief”). Then Maggie Nicols is left alone, over a brooding improv trio of flute (Goodall), bass clarinet (Gianluigi Trovesi) and saxello (Dean), initially offering a disturbing mutation of “Lili Marlene” before dissolving into her sotto voce flurries of contained ecstasy.

The Third and Fourth Threads are very closely linked; both take Mingusian post-bop melodic/rhythmic heads as their starting point before developing in other unexpected ways. In the Third Thread this leads to a furious debate between three snarling tenors (Picard, Dunmall and Larry Stabbins) which is eventually resolved by a beautiful, balladic alto solo from Elton. The waltz fragment glimpsed in this section (reminiscent of “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too”) is developed more fully and sinisterly in the Fourth Thread, as various band members, including Dunmall on a squealing set of Northumbrian bagpipes, scribble and growl intensely in front of the backdrop; but this too leads (following a sighing duet between Marc Charig’s cornet and Paul Rutherford’s trombone) into a lyrical ballad section with a fantastic alto solo from Trovesi, the Italian perfectly capturing the sugar/poison blend which seemed to be a characteristic of the Dean/Pukwana/Osborne/Warleigh/Watts school of turn-of-the-seventies Brit improv alto playing.

The Fifth Thread, and the second CD, begin with an astonishing prayer for peace, written and lead sung by Julie Tippetts – and how this remarkable woman has suffered for following her husband into the world of contemporary improvised music; even now her activities arouse derisive reactions from cowering nonentities like Will Hodgkinson, side-sniping in broadsheets about sixties girl singers who ended up somewhere different, eagerly spoonfeeding the showbiz demographic necessary to preserve the façade that process and destination do not matter in music, as if they weren’t indispensable to an ideal society – “Almighty...” the trio quietly sing, “hear my breath on the wind…I can’t…” (meaningful pause) “…let you go.” It is breathtaking and transfers into the world of the holy when, as the trio begin to improvise, the rest of the orchestra begin to play wind-up music boxes; a forest, a blessing of an orchard of wind chimes underlying carefully controlled harmonies of which Brian Wilson would (if he’d followed up, or been allowed to follow up, the implications of “George Fell Into His French Horn”) have been rightly proud.

Towards the end the singers move into a medieval roundelay, which itself provides the segue for the dazzling Sixth Thread, which opens with a merry estampie sung by the third member of the trio, the great Vivien Ellis, in tandem with Oren Marshall’s tuba, even though its merriment is darkly ambiguous (“Scattering nightly a dream to the sleeper/Gathering lightly, she leans to the Reaper”) as her song is interrupted by crosscurrents of brass familiar from the beginning of the fourth section of Frames. The music then explodes into sterling, glistening beams of controlled chaos, which somehow manages to encompass a 500 mph trumpet solo by Pino Minafra – played through a megaphone (!) – which sounds like the ghost of Mongezi Feza trying to regain contact with Earth, an utterly beyond-bizarre vocal breakout into “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” a grumbling stomach of a conversation between the trombone section and Marshall’s tuba, dancehall chants of “Seven Eleven” and squeals, honks and howls aplenty. Throughout the double-drum approach is shown to work with brilliant force as Moholo and Levin hammer away as though typing with scythes.

After that Tippett can only tie the composition up, and Seventh Thread is perhaps the section which could have done with a little more work. Its opening promise of a straight 12-bar blues is alluring, but never one to rest for long, the orchestra immediately gives way to a gulping and roaring improvisation by the trumpet section, sounding as though they are hauling themselves up by their own rusty pulleys. Then the orchestra returns for some more all-out freeplay before Paul Rogers’ bass drags everyone back to the original opening statement of “ka-ta, ka-ta” and Edinburgh Castle drum rolls and we get a brief moment of collective swing before Tippett ironically – or possibly unironically - signs off with the old Count Basie flourish.

The audience goes wild, even if I suspect that the Seventh Thread was a work still somewhat in progress in 1998; I wouldn’t have minded a few more Brotherhood-ish shoutouts at the end. But Final Weaving is a tremendous listening experience, and the best illustration of the compelling power of Tippett’s music is the fact that so many of the members of Tapestry were also members of Centipede over a quarter of a century previously; there is an exceptional loyalty at work here which must prove heartwarming for the composer. Tippett’s remains a very singular but unbreakably collective compositional vision; I am not sure whether Final Weaving will alter my outlook on music so thoroughly as its predecessors did, but it is unmissable. As ever, Tippett’s sleevenote signs off with his lifelong motto: “May music never become just another way of making money” – and he does so with such a forgiving generosity that you know instinctively and instantly that it is Jools Holland’s fault, not his, that Tapestry haven’t appeared on Friday night BBC2. At least, not yet.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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