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

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 I felt rather guilty at hearing about his passing since he was one of those musicians so withdrawn from the general daily bustle of the music world that firstly I didn’t realise that he was still alive, and secondly I imagined him to be far older than he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.

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