Friday 30 November 2012

GoGo Penguin, Matthew Halsall Trio

GoGo Penguin, Matthew Halsall Trio
Band on the Wall, November 29, 2012 

The first tune was characteristically frenetic, full-on and storming, but GoGo Penguin are nothing if not dynamic, and calm entered with a springy bass solo by Grant Russell. The occasion is the official launch of GoGo Penguin's debut album, Fanfares (on the Gondwana label), and the trio are cooking. 

What is the secret of the distinct GoGo sound? It might be that each player reaches their point of flammability at a different temperature. No matter how voluble drummer Rob Turner and bassist Russell get, Chris Illingworth is never less than measured and graceful on piano. And just as temperatures collide in a positive way, so rhythm is also mercurial and unpredictable. Rob Turner's absorption of urban hip-hop rhythms gives a modernistic sheen. Then there's Illingworth's confidence in melody, and a sense of dramatic structure that owes more to prog-rock than straightahead jazz. They also insist on giving listeners something to feel - a real rock 'n' roll imperative - and every piece is a journey into mystery. The strangely freaky bits that est used to achieve by electronic means are here deployed on strictly acoustic instruments, using skin and ivory, which is another plus. 

Whereas the Matthew Halsall Trio harness the full panoply of electronica, with Taz Modi simultaneously manipulating a bass synth and electric keyboards. A box of wires enables Halsall's trumpet to vault the gates of heaven. Or, at other times, a ghost Halsall spars with the flesh and blood Halsall. The music flits between inner-directed reverie and spellbinding grandeur. Listeners either surrender to mesmerism or vote with their feet, with the latter a definite minority, and mainly from the mouldy olde fig camp. 

Two covers indicate the expansiveness of Halsall's vision: 'Acrid Avid Jam Shred' by Aphex Twin and 'Ode to the Big Sea' by The Cinematic Orchestra (indeed, The Cinematic Orchestra's own Luke Flowers is on drums). "I love this tune," said my neighbour, as 'Big Sea' was announced. So it's not all Miles and modalism as Halsall's recorded output suggests. If I didn't surrender completely, it was only because Flowers comes from the John Bonham School of Jazz Drumming. Possibly I'm turning into a mouldy olde fig myself.

Sunday 25 November 2012

The Golden Age of Comedy Records

Some thoughts on British Comedy (circa '59-'61) occasioned by the listing of four comedy LPs on one-for-every-fair-and-rainy-day, my little eBay trading post -

‘The Blood Donor’ (Hancock, NPL 18068) is immortal, but  do writers Galton and Simpson have to be so cruel and pitiless while dissecting the petty vanities, hopes and fears of one ineffectual little guy. Poor Tony Hancock is so vain he wants a medal for donating blood; he’s a casual racist, bragging of his pure British stock, and crows in conceit when he finds he belongs to a rare blood group. He’s also self-pitying (“A pint, but that’s an armful!”) and cranky (“it might be a prick to you, but it’s life and death for somebody, mate”). 

The humour of Hancock’s Half Hour is savage. And bitter too, as you’re expected to mock the pretensions of this poor, self-deluded fool. But why shouldn't Hancock wish to improve himself with Bertrand Russell or escape the rat-race to fulfil his creative potential (as in the feature-length film, The Rebel)? 

Tony Hancock’s genius was to instil dignity to the character. His identification was so complete that the comic creation and the actor/comedian actually shared the same name, blurring the boundary between fiction and reality. There was always a clear delineation between Phil Silvers and Sgt Ernie Bilko, even if one was self-evidently a projection of the other. But Hancock wasn’t allowed that fig-leaf, even as Galton and Simpson heaped weakness and misfortune onto his frail psyche. His end was tragic. Remember the suicide note? “Things just went wrong too many times.” There’s a pithy summation of the human condition for you. 

Which is why the laughs of ‘The Blood Donor’ don’t come cheaply. 

But at least there are laughs, which is more than can be said for Peter Sellers. 

Some of the good points of Songs for Swingin’ Sellers (PMC 1111)and Peter and Sophia (PMC 1131). Ah, Matt Monro does a nice Frank Sinatra impersonation on the former. Sophia Loren is thankfully under-used on the latter, and the co-credit was presumably just a gambit in Seller's vain wooing of the Italian starlet. The funny Clousseau voice first appears on ‘Shadows on the Grass’ (from Swingin’ Sellers), that’s if you think French accents are inherently funny. The latter sketch is written by, and co-stars, the wonderful Irene Handl, who brings a bit of humanity to (another) study in self-delusion. There might actually be a real person in there. 

And because a lot of the material spoofs the contemporary music scene, it acts as a vivid snapshot of its time, blithely evoking trad jazz with ‘Ukelele Lady’ (and borrowing the Temperance Seven to do it), and targeting skiffle with ‘Puttin’ On the Smile’, although the irritating Lonnie Donegan defies parody. 

And, ah, that’s all the good points. 

Well now, The Goons. We’re back in drab, grasping, penny-pinching post-war England again, redeemed by a sense of the absurd, albeit tinged with desperation.  The Goons were (are) worshipped by jazz musicians for the way they used sound to suggest 101 impossible things before the inevitable moment when Eccles got "drownded in the water". But ‘Tales of Old Dartmoor’ and ‘Dishonoured’ (The Best of the Goon Shows, PMC 1108) seem ill-supplied with sonic and engineering innovation, and Ray Ellington and Max Geldray have been excised from the proceedings altogether. Talk about mean-spiritedness.   

(I guess I'm not alone in my opinion: nobody's bidding on them.)  

Thursday 22 November 2012

Confessions of an eBay Trader #1: A Festival of Lessons and Carols

So there was I, keying in today’s offering for one-for-every-fair-and-rainy-day, my little eBay trading post. This is what I typed:

"KING’S COLLEGE CHAPEL A Festival of Lessons & Carols OVAL ARGO 1959 orig RG 190 mono 

On offer is the 1959 LP A FESTIVAL OF LESSONS AND CAROLS as sung on CHRISTMAS EVE, 1958 in KING’S COLLEGE CHAPEL, CAMBRIDGE, directed by DAVID WILLCOCKS w SIMON PRESTON, organ.  On ARGO, catalogue number RG 190." 
I scrupulously noted the details beloved by record collectors: 
"This is the FIRST PRESSING mono release, with the FULLY LAMINATED FLIPBACK THIN ‘CLARIFOIL’ SLEEVE, and the 1ST LABEL ARGO - dark blue, with the Argo motif enclosed in an OVAL design with a groove inside the perimeter." 
The record was playing as I wrote, “ From the arresting opening, a lonely boy chorister emerging from silence with a hushed ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, it’s evident that this is the ultimate Christmas record, and trounces Phil Spector’s Christmas Gift to You. In comparison, Wizzard and Slade are barbarians.”

I was warming to my task now, soaking up the atmosphere as the sweet little angels of King’s College Choir chirruped ‘I Saw Three Ships’: “Redolent of dusty chapels, dreaming spires, Choral Scholars in white altar gowns.” Now came a Lesson, a reading from St Luke. “The establishment at prayer,” I typed. Then another carol, ‘Gabriel’s Message.’ I deleted the previous line and entered: “A dream vision of Christmas from the dream city of Cambridge, preserved in aspic from Christmas Eve, 1958.” I pondered the significance of the date. At the time of recording, I was precisely two days old. 
Then I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll give them Sgt Pepper instead,” and hoped I wasn’t being disloyal to the cause of women bishops.  

Monday 12 November 2012

A Brief History of Donal Maguire

Donal Maguire was born in 1948 in Drogheda, County Louth, and, in his own word, “interned” in Berkshire in 1963. Paradoxically, the move awakened awareness of his Irish heritage. In the early seventies, he bumped into Ewan MacColl and was part of the radical theatre group Combine, formed by disaffected members of the Critics Group. His first recording was made in Paris in 1977 - he contributed ‘The Bold Tenant Farmer’ to Folk Pirate Bis (ES54), for the French label Expression Spontanée.  

His debut album, The Star of Sunday’s Well (MUS 001) was released on his own label, Rossendale Records in the same year. It sets the template for future releases: stirring ballads and rattling reels. It’s successor, The Clergy’s Lamentation (Rossendale, MUSCD005) from 1980, added some beautiful Carolan tunes, with harp promoted to dominant instrument. 

Then came Gilded Chains & Sordid Affluence (Rossendale, MUSCD006) from 2001, and this might be my favourite, in terms of choice of material and feel. But it’s not for the purist. Maguire enlists the support of jazz guitarist Mike Walker. This, more by propinquity than grand design: Walker happened to move across the road from Donal’s place in Haslingden. The guitarist brought his saxophonist buddy Iain Dixon to the sessions and they play reels with a freedom that is utterly exhilarating. 

In 2006 Michael Davitt - The Forgotten Hero? gathered several songs with a connection to the Irish nationalist hero. It can be warmly recommended for both seriousness of purpose and ease of execution. About a third of the songs are sung unaccompanied in the traditional, timeless style. 

“The crucial note is that I’m a revival singer. Therefore, I couldn’t get up and sing songs from Connemara all night. Actually singers from Connemara never sang songs from Connemara all night,” Donal told me.  

“ I’m taking it from Darach Ó Catháin. He was born in Connemara but he worked in Leeds for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years. He died in the eighties, not that old. Darach was the greatest singer I’ve never heard in the flesh. I knew that he existed and he knew that I existed but unfortunately we never met, which was a great tragedy. 

“But I don’t want to be a Darach Ó Catháin tribute band. After a few renditions Donal Maguire will take over, I hope.”

I tried some names on him, wishing to benefit from his expertise and experience.  On Tom Lenihan: “A great singer from Clare, yeah.” He offered another Tom by way of response: Tom Costello, a singer from Connemara. “I sat at his feet in a metaphorical sort of way. His timing was wonderful.” 

To bring it all home, his latest is a pure expression of Irish traditional singing - Louth Mouths From Drogheda (Rossendale, MUSCD009) - being Donal and two old friends, Sean Corcoran and Gerry Cullen, swapping songs and singing unaccompanied. It’s at once casual - nothing could be simpler than letting rip with the bare voice - and a labour of love. Corcoran collected some of the songs first-hand. Donal is in fine form, and Gerry Cullen likewise impresses. It’s a disc that combines vitality - reflecting the excitement of the revival as it gained a foothold in County Louth in the sixties - with integrity. 

This brings us up to date, except that one disc has gone unmentioned. By The Hush (Rossendale, MUS003), from 1981, captures a cross-section of singers and musicians from North West England performing Irish music. “I lost my shirt on it,” Donal says, in a manner that pre-empts further discussion.

Saturday 10 November 2012

All good rock stars...

It's strange how everything leads back to Bill Leader, once you're in the mind-set. So Bill had an engineer at Leader Sound in Greteland called John Gill, who went on to become one of The Three Johns, and just now I was hovering over a Three Johns LP on a second-hand stall. It had a good quote from Richard Neville on the back, which began, "All good rock stars take drugs, put their penises in plaster casts and collectivise their sex..." and went on for a bit more in this vein. Now that I can't find the quote anywhere on Google, I might have to go back and buy the record. 

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Alan Turing’s Teen Tragedy and the Difference Between Electro and Rock-Opera


Alan Turing satisfies quite a few of the criteria for Jesus Christ. Tick them off: he saved the world (or hastened the end of WWII by cracking the Enigma code), he foresaw the coming of a second kingdom (the kingdom of computers; he came up with the prototype), probed the secrets of creation (morphogenesis), and was put to death (hounded for his homosexuality) and rose again: only now, a half century after his death, are scientists and biologists beginning to appreciate, partially and inadequately, the full range of his ideas. 

And now he has his own rock opera, or rather, a glittery synthpop tribute. Un digito binario dudoso comes from Hidrogenesse, an electronic pop duo based in Barcelona. It translates as A doubtful binary digit. The subtitle is recital para Alan Turing

And it’s entirely enchanting.

The style pioneered by Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys has never sounded more delicious, tuneful or plain weird. The synthetic beats are groovy, the swooshes are silvery and not entirely from a human source (quite appropriately), and the fact that the sweet, heart-on-sleeve lyrics are mostly in Spanish adds another level of delightful dislocation. 

I can’t think of a better compliment than to say that Alan Turing would love this album, which mines his biography sensitively, yet with a frisson of camp. The first song, drawing on the Snow White imagery, conjures a kiss with which to wake Alan up. And ‘Christopher’ is not in the least exploitative but breathtakingly sweet, and, with one bound, Turing’s personal teen tragedy joins the pantheon of universal pop teen tragedies. 

Anyone who lives in Manchester, or works at Manchester University, whose field is Computer Science, who comes from Spain and what’s more contributed to the Alan Turing exhibition at Manchester Museum that’s going to close next week, is going to love ‘Love Letters’. Indeed, Eva Navarro was much amused and has been singing the chorus ever since. This bit is in English and it goes: 





The album closes with ‘Historia del Mundo Contada por las Computadoras (History of the World Told by Computers)’. Far from being impersonal and sterile, it’s a beautiful, melodic, quasi-pop excursion. Artificial intelligence, it seems, has crossed the line into romance and discovered heartbreak. Love and logic are no longer incompatible extremes. The machine has learned to cry. Divine! 

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Paddy on the Road Provenance

As I mention (monotonously) in each relevant listing, the records I'm currently selling on eBay come from the collection of the late Ian Chappell, and were acquired at Omega Auctions, Stockport, in late June. Amongst the more heavyweight lots at the Auction - far outside my pocket - was Paddy on the Road by Christy Moore (Mercury, 20170 SMCL), which was finally bought by a Manchester-based dealer called Nigel for the winning bid of £640. 

Donal Maguire, the great Irish traditional singer (the best, in my humble opinion), happened to be present because I alerted him to the event (he’s a fellow Oddfellows regular, and so, by definition, a friend). Maguire was flabbergasted at the price, and secretly thrilled, because he’s owned a copy since first release in 1969, and doesn’t particularly rate it. Indeed, he may have played it once, or twice at most. 

To make a hard story easy, after the failure of the ploy of distributing his card with a scrawled explanatory note amongst the serious dealers (suppressed by Nigel, I later learned), Donal asked me to sell it for him on my little eBay trading post, one-for-every-fair-and-rainy-day.

I'm not sure if Donal's stratospheric expectations of its value will be realised. It has, ah, three days left to run. 

Nigel finally sold his copy on eBay for £650, which represents a net loss after auction and eBay fees are taken into account. However, two Russian oligarchs looking for a new way of laundering money started a bidding war for his copy of Heavy Petting by Dr Strangely Strange, which finally sold for over £2000. Swings and roundabouts.

A Manifesto, Invisibles and Twenty Years-A-Growing

My politics? Not party political (of course). My manifesto would be a line from Robert Louis Stevenson: “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” That’s the ideal. My wrath is reserved for those who reduce them, or, worse, substitute with a number of horrific, horrible things, chief among them War, which fucks everything up in perpetuity. 

Eva has accused me of living in my own little world. “This is the difference in our worlds,” she said only this morning. “You live in an imaginary world. I live in the real world.” To which the only reply is, “But I’m very fond of it. Don’t knock my imaginary world.” 

So - here’s an illustration - we were each doing our own thing last night. She was watching Invisibles, a Spanish documentary, and I had my nose in Twenty Years-A-Growing, Maurice O’Sullivan’s autobiography about a childhood in Great Blasket, an island off the coast of Kerry, Ireland. 

Invisibles, produced by Javier Bardem, is a documentary in five parts by five different director. A synopsis of each section follows: 

1. A woman from Bolivia working in Spain receives a letter from her sister. As the film follows her in her daily round of low-paid work (nursery worker, cleaner), a voice-over reads the sister’s letter. The news is bad: her daughter has died from a virulent disease carried by bedbugs. The victims are so poor it’s not in the drug companies’ interest to develop a treatment. 

2. Women, travelling twenty or thirty kilometres in an isolated area of the Republic of Congo to feed and water their families, are systematically raped by police, army and rebels, sometimes by twenty-strong groups of men. The women organise together to combat the sexual aggression, but their vulnerability is highlighted by a cinematic device: they fade and become invisible before our eyes. 

3. In the north of Uganda, children sleep in communal centres organised by Médecins Sans Frontières to prevent them being kidnapped by rebel militia.  There is a civil war of some twenty years’ standing. Children kidnapped to become soldiers are commonly subjected to a trial of kill or be killed, and are forced to murder loved ones or siblings under pain of death. In this way, generations have been brutalised.

4. A sleeping disease transmitted by the tsetse fly is devastating areas of the Central African Republic, claiming up to a hundred victims a day. A side-effect of treatment seems to be hair loss on the upper lip: drugs are diverted to satisfy the demand of the female cosmetic market in the first world.   

5. The discovery of mineral wealth in an area of Colombia has led to ongoing conflict since 1948 and the displacement of the resident population. Now the community - led by strong women - are fighting to reclaim their homes, but the government offers no guarantee of security. This is the most hopeful of the episodes and it’s still as bleak as hell.

Twenty Years-A-Growing offers a contrasting side of human nature. An island childhood in the early decades of the twentieth century, it seems, offered unlimited freedom. Maurice and his best friend, Tomás, are as free as William Brown and his friends and the Swallows and Amazons children. So in Chapter V, ‘Ventry Races’, our hero rises early and slips away to the mainland on a curragh (a little boat) with Tomás on the occasion of the Ventry boat races. They encounter several adventures, including their first beer, a fight with a lanky fellow who tries to cheat them in a game of hoop-la, and the raid of a homestead for a loaf of bread. Then there is the triumph of the giant Tigue Dermod from the Cooas in the boat race, amongst cries of “My love to you forever, oh flower of men!” The grown-ups who come and go, ineffectual and benign, are all very demonstrative. “Musha, my heart,” and “God and Mary save ye, my treasures” are some of the milder endearments.  

Not that God and Mary were particularly effective either. Maurice O’Sullivan died in a swimming accident off the coast of Connemara in 1950, aged 46. Bill recorded his widow Cait, a fine Gaelic singer, but the tapes were lost. That’s a story I’m reserving for the book, which I hope will have some of the spirit of Twenty Years-A-Growing whilst giving the Invisibles their due. 

Sunday 4 November 2012

Not Counting Roberta Flack

I was thinking of significant versions of Ewan MacColl songs not by Ewan MacColl, and came up with the following:

'The Ballad of Accounting' by The Exiles
'Jesus Was a Carpenter' by The Johnstons
'Space Girl' by Shirley Collins
'The Thirty-foot Trailer' by The Watersons
'Sweet Thames Flow Softly' by Planxty
'Schooldays End' by John Faulkner and Sandra Kerr

This is only a provisional list, if anyone has any more.

The Gondwana Story: Retro and Future Jazz Sounds

A small jazz label doing adventurous work is as newsworthy as dog bites man, I know, but to the roll-call of the worthy independents ASC, Babel, Basho, Candid, Edition and F-Ire, can be added the name Gondwana, which came about when Manchester trumpeter Matthew Halsall sat in at Matt and Phred’s jazz club, and decided that the talent on display needed an outlet. 

Releases so far include four from Halsall, and three from saxophonist Nat Birchall. “When I first saw Nat play,” recalls Halsall, “he was playing ‘Journey in Satchidananda’, the Alice Coltrane tune, and I was [thinking], this guy’s exactly on the same wavelength as me.” The affinity between the two musicians is strong. They regularly appear on each other’s records and tend to draw on the same pool of players, including harpist Rachael Gladwin, bassist Gavin Barras, and pianist Adam Fairhall, giving the label an identifiable sound - the modal explorations of Miles and Trane reflected through Halsall and Birchall’s own deep feelings - and titles such as Birchall’s Sacred Dimension suggest a ready classification: Spiritual Jazz. 

Halsall has no problems with the term. “I studied at the Mahareshi Meditation School, so I did a lot of meditation and studied a lot of philosophy and Indian meditation, and I’ve also studied Buddhist meditation, and Nat’s partner teaches Yoga, and he’s into all sorts of spiritual philosophies. So it definitely is a part of who we are as individuals, and it’s become part of the sound of the label.”

And, bucking the trend of the jazz economy, the venture is gratifyingly successful. “We haven’t lost a penny yet,” says Halsall. “We’re in profit on every single record and we’ve had enough profit to continue making future releases. The first ones from Nat and me made enough to get our money back and make another record. And then each time we’ve made another record it’s made more money, so we’re getting more and more money each time. Apart from slowing down, it seems that sales are increasing on every release.” 

It helps that the music is immediately attractive: serene, quietly yearning, marked by restraint and space. Halsall’s latest, Fletcher Moss Park, embellishes with the textures of flute and harp and string quartet. If it sounds bucolic, it may be because the pieces were composed in nature’s bower: “I like to make music in different environments, so I’ll make music in the park, or in a nice pub somewhere. Wherever I take my laptop, I’ll make music there.”

Hence, the title of the album: much of the music was actually conceived in Fletcher Moss Park, Manchester’s most prominent botanical garden and wildlife habitat. But does he favour the nicely cultivated garden or the wilder bits?  

“Both,” says Halsall. “Some of it was written in the top bit where the cafe is, because I like a good cup of tea, so I sit in the cafe area looking down on the botanical gardens, and then I’ll also write down in the wilder bits further up.”

Halsall elaborates on his working methods.”I tend to not think about what I’m creating. I just go with my gut instincts. If I’m liking the sounds of the notes I’m playing on the piano, or on a laptop than I go with it. Each month I’ll have ten tracks that really stand out and they’re the ones that I’ll take into the studio. They’re just ideas at that stage, bare melodies, bass lines and chords. Luckily, there’s always about six that work.” 

If I have a criticism, it might be that the music offers a gloss on Miles’ Kind of Blue, and Kind of Blue is now more than half a century old. Halsall concedes the point and explains: “The artists I listen to, they always started in something that was either of the moment or [distilled from] past moments, and then they start to mould it into their own thing, expanding their influences and listening to new music. I’m still finding my way with various technologies and all sorts of new techniques with my trumpet. I want to make a stand-out record that people will look back to like they did with Miles’ electric, groundbreaking projects. But I’m not rushing to make the new sound because I want it to be really special when it comes out.” 

Halsall’s trio project, utilising trumpet, electronics, Rhodes keyboard, and drums, is more obviously bound for the outer limits, but has so far not been recorded. However, the latest release on Gondwana, marking a departure for the label, does offer a future sound of jazz, and a crackling, vital future sound of jazz too. 

The rhythms heard on Fanfares by GoGo Penguin didn’t exist fifty years ago. Demonstrating that the piano trio is the most forward-looking vehicle in jazz today, Chris Illingworth’s rippling arpeggios vie with unexpected and spooky noises that can be traced to Grant Russell’s bass more by elimination than anything. Remarkably, Russell emulates electronic textures with just a bow, reproducing the shock without the synthetics. Drummer Rob Turner can turn rhythm on a hairpin, dividing and then sub-dividing the beat into discrete parts for spontaneous counterpoint. He is a marvel. Esbjorn Svensson is a reference point, yes, in the invigorating use of diminuendo and crescendo, but Queens of the Stone Age are in there too (their showstopping cover of ’Song for the Deaf’ is not included, alas). 

Techno and rock influences abound in a sound that is essentially simple, melodically-based and brimming with positive energy. How Manchester!  

The Complete Chris Ackroyd vs Vladimir Putin 1-61

Chris Ackroyd, who manages to lead a fulfilled life without a computer, asked if I could send a message to the world. Well, I sometimes have...