Saturday 7 December 2013

An A-Z of the Blues

A is for Africa, which is where it all began, and for Angola, the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary which rang with prison worksongs, an echo of African call-and-response. 

B is for Blind, a prerequisite for any self-respecting bluesman, and also Bullfrog, as in, “I got those Bullfrog Blues”, a mysterious ailment common in parts of the Deep South and Ireland (Rory Gallagher, you dummy).   

C is for Cripple, probably as a result of hopping all those trains (see also H for ‘Honky Tonk Train’). And also Chicago, of course. 

D is for the Devil and the deep strain of hellfire and brimstone that permeates the country blues. Think ‘I’d Rather Be the Devil’, ‘Me and the Devil’, 'Hellhound on My Trail’, etc. 

E is for Estes. Sleepy John. Broke, Hungry, Ragged, Dirty yet Undefeated. 

F is for Furry, as in Furry Lewis and the effect of moonshine whiskey on the larynx. 

G is for Gutbucket, which is as low as you can go. 

H is for ‘Honky Tonk Train‘ and the eternal steam engine, an enduring symbol of romance and escape. Great Railway Journeys of the Blues include ‘Bald Eagle Train’ by Bukka White, and ‘Travellin’ Blues’ by Blind Willie McTell. 

I is for the first person singular, as in “I Feel So Bad”, or, more unusually, “I’m So Glad”. which brings us neatly to… 

J is for James. Skip James. For his ethereal falsetto voice and startling individuality. J is also for Jug, the poor man’s bass fiddle.  

K is for King. BB, Albert, Freddie. In fact, all sharp electric blues guitarists are called King, except for Eric Clapton, who isn’t. 

L is for Lucille, the name of BB’s guitar, and also Lucille Bogan, who explored the far frontiers of filth with the incomparably obscene and surreal ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’, recorded in 1935. 

M is for Memphis. Home to Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Bobby Bland, BB King, the Memphis Jug Band, Nathan Beauregard (see ‘O for Old’), Willie Mitchell, Elvis Presley and the Ancient Egyptians (oops, sorry, that’s another Memphis). 

N is for Nawlins, the cradle of jazz and romper room of R’n’B, as demonstrated by Professor Longhair, Guitar Slim, Huey P Smith, James Booker, Dr John (not to mention the Crescent City Soul Brigade: Irma Thomas, the Dixie Cups, the Meters, Allen Toussaint &tc &tc). What a town! 


O is for Old, as in Old-Time Blues, Old Friends and Old-Timers like Nathan Beauregard who made his record debut - on The 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival (1968, Blue Horizon) - at the age of 102. “It seems amazing that no-one should have recorded this unique artist before” wrote the sleeve-note writer.  

P is for Pony, as in ‘Pony Blues’ and ‘Stone Pony Blues’ and Patton, Charley, the Founder of the Delta Blues and creator of the Pony Blues tune family. I also remember Gus Cannon exhorting “Mule Get Up in the Alley”. A similar beast and the same idea.   

Q is for Queen of the Blues, that’s Koko Taylor, as opposed to the Empress of the Blues (Bessie Smith) and the Mother of the Blues (Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey). 

R is for ‘Rolling Stone’, the Muddy Waters tune that gave the popular UK combo their name. 

S is for Smith. Just as early religions worshipped women, so did early blues fans. And an unfeasibly high number were called Smith! Notably Bessie, but also Mamie and Clara and Trixie.  

T is for Hound Dog Taylor. The infusion of raw punk energy into the blues, generally credited to RL Burnside’s 1996 record A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, has an earlier source in the eponymous album by Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers, a waxing on Alligator Records in 1971. Hound Dog Taylor radiated chaos and ramshackle charm up to his dying day (December 17, 1975).   

U is for Underdog, which is the root of the blues condition.  

V is for Victor. That’s Victor Brox, the veteran UK bluesman. When he found out I was writing a book about Bill Leader, the folk producer, and not Victor Brox, the veteran UK bluesman, he took it on the chin. “Did you know I used to sing with the Spinners?” he said, referring to the popular Liverpool folkies. No, I didn’t. “Of course they weren’t called the Spinners then. They called themselves the Sheep Shaggers.” Typical Victor. I might get round to that book yet.  

W is for Williamson, Sonny Boy. He appropriated another singer’s name and adopted the pinstripes and bowler hat of the London city worker of the time. He was foul-mouthed (“Little Village, muthafucker”), never sang a song the same way twice and played blues harp like no other.   

Y is for Yazoo, a peerless label founded in 1960 by Steve Perls, and dedicated to early US blues, country and even a little jazz. Robert Crumb cartoons graced some of the covers, as in the celebrated 'Truckin' My Blues Away' (above).    

Z is for Zydeco, the Louisiana offshoot of the blues. 

Peter Bocking... is a Jazzist: The Bocking Memorial Blog #5

Ever since I was 14, I have felt different. Oh yes, I played in skiffle groups like the other boys and later soaked up the culture-crunching music of rock 'n' roll. Never again will there be such an assault on a generation's musical perceptions. Nobody will hear "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom" the way we heard it for the first time, but whilst everyone was looking at the cove with the pompadour and mascara moustache, I was watching the band.

Yet there was a sense of something missing. Something nobody was telling me. Surely there were more than three chords? I'd counted the frets. There were definitely twelve. They must be there for a reason, but what?

As I grew older, I still played with the chaps in what were then known as groups (bands implied at least five or more), but still I knew I was different from the others. From books and records, available only at a certain type of shop, I learned that there was a whole new world of forbidden delights: chords with exotic sounds and even more arcane names - Bb13b5b9. What to do with them? You sure as hell couldn't play them all the way through 'La Bamba', though I tried.

Discovering the kind of club where other people like me went was a liberating experience - everybody played D13#11 through everything and even had a set of matching scales.

Slowly I came to terms with the newly awakened me, trying everything that was on offer, even to the extent of some really hardcore jazz-funk. My unempoyability grew with my proficiency and I would go anywhere just to improvise, devouring new and abstruse scales daily. Finally the mere sound of a chord would induce a response akin to Tourette's Syndrome: "ah-fazily-diddly-do-dah". This is where we came in.

My name is Peter Bocking, and I'm a Jazzist...

Dedicated to Maureen Glaser (d. 23.11.13), a true friend and a rock for Peter, and also his erstwhile singing partner. 


Wednesday 4 December 2013

Advice to my brother, who was wondering whether to buy Silence by Michael Mantler for £15

I'm not sure you'll like Silence (text by Harold Pinter). Edges strongly towards the avant garde. What are your feelings about Escalator Over the Hill? That might be the nearest reference point. On the other hand, if you have a yen for great British eccentrics like Robert Wyatt and Kevin Coyne, it's indispensable. 

I'm not sure if it's not a specialist taste (I like it though: I remember playing it in my Willesden bedsit. It's got a very seedy Willesden bedsit feel and I strongly related to it). I don't think collectors have latched onto Michael Mantler (they haven't latched onto Kevin Coyne beyond the Dandelion period, though Robert Wyatt has a cult following, I'm sure). 

A check on popsike indicates that the CD issue coupling two Mantler LPs, Silence and No Answer (starring Jack Bruce, and even more unlistenable: Sam Beckett text) fetches more than the original LP Silence. My hunch is that £15 is over the odds. 

On further investigation...

My records - based on an analysis of prices gained or not on eBay - show that within the past year a copy of Michael Mantler, Silence, didn't sell at the asking price of £15, whereas Michael Mantler, The Hapless Child (w Robert Wyatt, with Edward Gorey text, and more accessible than either Silence or No Answer, in my opinion) fetched £7.

There you go: I know the price of everything and the value of everything. 

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Julie Sassoon – Land of Shadows (Jazzwerkstatt)

Land of Shadows is a suite of solitude for just Julie Sassoon and her piano (obviously that just is inaccurate). The music doesn’t exist outside the world, an argument sometimes made by theorists who favour the idea of music as pure abstraction; rather, it contains the world inside it. 

The CD documents a trio of concerts made in Germany in April 2012, and makes for a coherent, unified statement, as well as simulating the free flow of an inner reverie. From the very beginning (‘Just So’), when silence is broken by spare notes ranging from touch sensitive to ringing velocity, the prevailing introspection is challenged by Sassoon’s need to track her emotions to their raw source. Tranquility is habitually over-toppled by overwhelming feelings.    

As a description, ‘hypnotic’ errs towards cliche, but it fits, because Sassoon’s music is always marked by intense concentration, complete surrender to the moment and manages the trick of suspending time for her listeners. Phase and rhythm are her chief means: melody is almost an accidental byproduct, albeit a stunningly beautiful accident.

In 2009 Julie Sassoon followed her muse from Manchester to Berlin. Her adopted home, with its violent past and special history, has inspired her best work yet. Like the best improvisers, her work is susceptible to the influence of place, and the move seems to have awakened an awareness of her Jewish identity. On pieces like ‘What the Church Bells Saw’ and ‘Forty-Four’ she bristles, rails, and finally submits to the flow. Her art is to conquer disquiet with a sense of the sublime. Similarly, something equivocal and momentous occurs during ‘New Life’, which is not a straightforward celebration of motherhood but acknowledges suffering as well as joy. ‘Land of Shadows’ offers her wordless, keening vocals, which are more affecting than Keith Jarrett’s grunts. Jarrett, incidentally, is an artist with whom Sassoon shares a language and a tradition. Indeed, Land of Shadows might be thought of as The Cologne Concert after Jarrett’s The Kรถln Concert. It deserves (and, given a chance, will receive) the same kind of recognition and adulation. 

An accompanying DVD, of an alternative performance of ‘What the Church Bells Saw’, affords an opportunity to unpick the constituents of composition and improvisation in Sassoon’s work.

Monday 28 October 2013

Peter Bocking… on the scales: The Bocking Memorial Blog #4

For a musician, teaching serves several functions: one is to hide the fact that there isn’t a living to be made out of playing; and two, to expiate the excesses of a self-indulgent life. It is the atonement, the mea culpa of a misspent youth. 

It is also a little fragment of immortality – some other poor wretch will carry a small part of your music into the future. 

But hell! They don’t want to play like you or your dead heroes. They want to play like Whammi Palmute, the Swedish metal ace, or Vince Spaghetti, a product of The Institute of Playing Really Fast and Loud With No Shirt On.  

“Look at this scale, Melvin,” you say as you proffer it like a bauble to a child. “You can use it in the blues, jazz, rock, metal, country – it’s a really useful scale.” 

“Widdly, widdly, widdly, widdly weeee!” says Melvin (or rather, that is the sound that emanates from his guitar). He has been sat there tapping the fingerboard, eyes glazed, mouth working like a cement mixer for the last twenty minutes. 

“Look, Melvin, it’s a nice scale, there’s a good Melvin, just try it. I’ve written out examples in all the major styles.” 

“No, don’t tread on the music, just stop tapping for a minute.” 

“Ernie, Ernie, Ernie, Ernie,” replies Melvin. 

“This scale is the key to all those solos,” you say, handing him a list that flutters unheeded to the floor. 

“Whee, whee, whee, beeeeeeyooong, plink!” says Melvin’s guitar as finally a couple of strings commit suicide in desperation and the whole instrument detunes. Melvin thrashes on obliviously. 

Finally you bellow, “Earth calling guitar hero! Please look at the scale. If you learn this you can work the solos out yourself and I can stop listening to this shit!” 


Saturday 26 October 2013

Peter Bocking… Slings His Hook: The Bocking Memorial Blog #3

Remember the little signs that identify you with other members of your tribe. Drummers always carry a pair of sticks with which they perform extraordinary callisthenics or rotate in an alarming fashion. In extreme display mode they also carry a cymbal under one arm. There is no mistaking drummers. 

The badge of office for a trumpet player (other than a small tapir-like projection on the upper lip) is a trumpet mouthpiece with which to imitate duck calls. All very jolly, if somewhat predictable. 

However, for saxophone players it is the sling, to be worn in all licensed premises and very probably in bed. This can lead to sling envy, because saxophonists are forever weighing up each other’s hooks. The bigger hook, the bigger the instrument. For example, the bass saxophone has to have a big hook and the alto saxophone’s is somewhat smaller. In Darwinian terms the bass sax should lead the herd, but in fact it is the alto who calls the tunes. 

Slings of course, are open to abuse. When such things mattered, civilians have been known to pose as saxophone players by wearing one. “Oooh, are you in the band?” came the desired response. “Lead alto, darlin’,” was the shameless reply. On the positive side, wearing a sling would get you into a late night watering hole. “Just finished the gig,” you say to the 800lb gorilla on the door, diffidently displaying your sling. “Sling your ‘ooh,” he would retort until money changed hands. However the advent of jumping-up-and-down music has washed away these icons of the past. Wear your sling with pride but don’t forget your tambourine. 

Thursday 10 October 2013

Peter Bocking on… Drummers: The Bocking Memorial Blog #2

Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends have been drummers, and they do hit things for a living, but the fact has got to be faced that drumming is the most atavistic of all the musical professions. It probably started off when, as an infant, the nascent drummer threw his rattle out of the pram, and a perspicacious mother noticed there was a certain rhythmic regularity to this. “He’s got rhythm, has our Dean.” And the die was cast – little Dean Beast was to become a drummer. 

Now there are two main types of drummer: drummers who can keep time and drummers who can’t. In the latter set fell an unfortunate young chap called Novelty Skins who had the largest drum kit then available and was constantly taking metronomes back to the shop because they wouldn’t keep time with him. There used to be a saying among musicians: “Don’t be a mug in a pub and never trust a drum break.” Wise counsel. 

There is also a subset of ‘solo’ drummers who have the percussion part from the ‘1812 Overture’ off pat. This they insert into all gaps. They are just waiting for the rest of the band to go for a drink so that the real meat of the performance can commence – The Drum Solo. This device is used: 
a) To cover the fact that the band is dying on its arse. 
b) To reduce the testosterone level in the drummer. 
c) When the band is gagging for a drink. 

Remember a drummer is someone who at the sound check goes tappety, tappety tap with a fairly light touch, then on the performance turns his sticks butt end round and unleashes millennia of primal passion. 

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Arun Ghosh

 Band on The Wall, Manchester, October 8, 2013 

The night is essentially a confrontation between Indian spirituality and Madchester high spirits, with more of the former in the first set, devoted to new album A South Asian Suite, and more of the latter in the second set, where exuberance prevails over exhilaration, if the two can be separated (Arun Ghosh doesn’t make the distinction).   

Actually he makes an impact before the first note is played, as he and his musicians take the stage resplendent in Asian dress. Ghosh rejects the traditional jazz dress options of both the zoot-suited hipster and the scruffbag muso. More than a fashion statement, it’s a gesture that conveys singularity, smartness and pride, all qualities of the music.  

South Asian Suite presents a tapestry of original jazz tunes cast in traditional Indian folk styles. It’s pan-Asian, ranging from the tenderness of ‘River Song’ to the clamourous urgency of ‘Sufi Stomp’. 

The music is marked by the striking complementary teamwork of Ghosh’s skyrocketing clarinet and Chris Williams’ earthy alto saxophone. Each a compelling voice, they cast a mesmerising weave in unison. Zoe Rahman’s piano, so sensitive yet brimful with joy, is perfectly suited to the high altitudes of A South Asian Suite, as she scatters rippling arpeggios on ‘Mountain Song’ or rhapsodises rapturously on ‘River Song’.  

And then there is the pure visual appeal of a Ghosh performance, and it’s always rewarding to try and puzzle the twin roles of conductor and dancer in the leader’s body language. So, a graceful flap of the hand seems to mean “bring it on!”; a gentle wave of the left hand means “be gentle”; a downward motion of the right hand alerts to an imminent change of dynamic; a nod  to a colleague says “yes, come in now”. Whereas whirling hands amid back and forth swaying, or an outstretched arm pointing heavenward simply indicates that a trance is beginning to take hold. 

The second set presents the greatest hits, adapted to the organic style of the new ensemble. The energy of ‘Caliban’s Revenge’ and ‘Longsight Lagoon’ is terrific, interrupted only by the smoochy delicacy of ‘Come Closer’, but resumed in full for a tune described only as “the anthem” (in a nod to Ghosh’s Manchester roots, it turns out to be ‘Come Home’ by James). Zoe Rahman is a benign and distant presence now, endorsing the laddish high spirits with a deft touch here and there (it may be the sound mix at the front of the stage, of course), whilst the lads in the rhythm section are staggeringly forceful and tight. Dig the whooping, sliding chords when Liron Donin slaps on electric bass for ‘Longsight Lagoon’. Pat Illingworth swings the group with power and even aggression when called for, whereas Nilesh Gulhane on tabla supplies the non-Western colours and rhythms. 

It’s a measure of his mastery that Ghosh forges a true individuality out of the struggle for identity. I was going to write ‘maturity’, for there’s an ease and authority in the syncretism of A South Asia Suite, which affirms Ghosh’s steady artistic development. Of course, a concert in his hometown is always something of an event. From a conversation between two middle-aged guys overheard at the bar: “I saw Arun the last time he played Band on the Wall. Have you seen Arun before?” “Yes, I’m his father.” 
Pictures by Eva Navarro 

Sunday 15 September 2013

Shepherd’s Stories by Asaf Sirkis Trio

Asaf Sirkis Trio 

Shepherd’s Stories 

An album characterised by floating melodies, given added grace by singer Sylwia Bialas (on ‘Traveller’), and flautist Gareth Lockrane (‘Together’), but mostly held by the seamless blend of the trio. The guitar of Tassos Spiliotopoulos is gorgeous in itself, a refinement of the jazz-rock pyrotechnics of John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell. Yaron Stavi is always superb, providing the anchorage that prevents the drift from aimlessness, but providing plangent countermelodies when he steps up to solo himself. But it’s the drummer/leader who lifts the performance with his astonishing accurate, nuanced rhythm-keeping. Sirkis, in the notes, mentions the ability of melody to connect directly to the soul. Melodies as luminous as ‘Meditation’ and ‘Shepherd’s Stories’ achieve this aim with quiet, understated brilliance. 

Mike Butler 

Thursday 5 September 2013

Great LPs Going For a Song on eBay #3: Walk Me to the War by Andrew Calhoun

I don’t think anyone (not in this country at any rate) knows about this genius Chicago-based songwriter. Calhoun is also the label chief  of Waterbug Records, which specialises in acoustic roots music. But no-one on Waterbug is as talented as its owner. This is his third album (I think), released on Flying Fish in 1986, and dipping into a songbook that was already quite extensive, with some songs from his teens (he scrupulously dates songs with the year of composition). So this swings between innocence (like the title track, a lyrical evocation of a child’s wonder at horror) and existential angst, deploying a songwriting technique open to free association and primal therapy. In short, he can rant with the best. Simple observation is apt to spiral into full-blown neurosis. ‘Jack and Jill’ is as unhinged and idiosyncratic as anything by Mark E Smith. He is also a master of John Cheever-style glumness, and there’s also no-one like Calhoun for mingling the numinous and quotidian, as on ‘Rye, New Hampshire’. Like I say, a genius.
Anyway, no bids at 99p. The auction closes 18:25:41 on Sept 8. 

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Peter Bocking on… Pianists: The Bocking Memorial Blog #1

To pianists, pianos are always: 

1. Dirty. Pianists are obsessively neat and clean. A well-known British pianist always wipes the keyboard before he plays. 

2. Out of tune. Even though I’ve only met one who carried a tuning key and could use it. This doesn’t stop them moaning about the intonation of the rest of us. “Trumpets are a bit flat.” So would you be, pal, after 15 pints. 

3. In the wrong place. If you notice, pianists like to be on the right side of the stage (from the stage). This could be because their right profile is the better one, or that the hand that looks best is on that side, the one with the bling. 

4. Never good enough. Pianists complain about the action, tone, volume, tuning, height of the stool, make, colour, shape, condition, age and the carving on the legs. 

Pianists are lofty creatures far superior to the rest of the band. This comes from having the only instrument you can rest music on (try resting it on your bugle). 

In addition, pianists turn up with a briefcase and spend their time at the bar chatting up the talent while the rest of us toil up the backstairs with the gear. Pianists always regard themselves as the natural leaders of the band. This could be due to the fact that they can play more notes at one time than the rest of us. “I’ve got ten digits, they are loaded, and I’m not afraid to use them.” Or because they’re the only ones who can play with one hand, and thus are able to conduct. It’s either that or a royal wave. 

And pianists want to play everything - every part and twiddle. They assume that their interpretation is the one arranged by the Almighty and orchestrated by St Peter. 

(By the way, none of the above is to be construed as applying to anyone living or dead or in-between. Nor can it be attributed to pianist envy.) 

#1 in a series of Peter Bocking memorial blogs, selected from his prolific email correspondence to the author. Peter Bocking (1942-2009), a genius guitarist, wit and free thinker, "conquered America without leaving his armchair". See also: -

Saturday 24 August 2013

Confessions of an eBay Trader #3: Three Week Hero

So there was I, contentedly playing a newly acquired copy of Three Week Hero by PJ Proby, when I became aware of shouting from the next room. It was my partner, and what she was saying was, “Why are you torturing me?” “But Lozenge [pet name],” I said, “this is Three Week Hero by PJ Proby, and the backing group are Led Zeppelin.” God bless her, she responded with the undeceived clarity of a music-lover innocent of such phrases as ‘1st pressing red/plum Atlantic’ and ‘turquoise lettering first album’. She said simply, “That doesn’t make it better.” 

Actually, I own to quite liking his droll equation of femininity and elemental forces in ‘The Day That Lorraine Came Down’, but, yes, I knew what she was getting at. The big ballad, ‘Refections (Of Your Face)’ definitely tipped the balance. It was only the BGO reissue, and not worth the pain.  

Friday 23 August 2013

Some Thoughts on The Lost Chord

What have Jimmy Durante, Arthur Sullivan. Phil Minton, The Moody Blues and Michael Giacchino, composer of the soundtrack of Lost, have in common? Each in their own way was preoccupied with the search for The Lost Chord. Or, in the latter case, the Lost chord.  

‘I’m the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord’ by Jimmy Durante nearly made me choke on my Welsh Rarebit when I heard it as a lad on the radio. Since then, I’ve developed an immunity to comedy records and Welsh Rarebit, yet it cracked me up all over again when I tracked it recently on a copy of The Very Best of Jimmy Durante (1964, MGM C 985). And, after obsessive replays, the song still has the ability to make me laugh out loud. 

Was there ever a more accurate evocation of the euphoria of making music? This, with a barbed hint that such euphoria is tinged with madness?

Mental health is a running theme of the song, established from the very first line. “Sitting at my piano the other day, my mind was ill at ease”. Aside: “They were coming to take it away that afternoon…” And, later, “They said Mozart was mad…” (I’m pretty sure they didn’t). “They said Puccini was mad…” (ditto). “They said Louis was mad”. Voices off: “Who’s Louis?” “He was my uncle, and he was mad.”   

And what is the lost chord that so enraptured Schnozzle? I might be wrong, but to my ears it sounds like an F minor with a diminished fifth. It would hardly give Messiaen sleepless nights, but it was sufficiently outre to blow Durante’s mind. 

At the time of recording, in the fifties, USA was so straight-laced  that an F minor with a diminished 5th could only be the product of an outsider, a nonconformist, or a lunatic, or all three combined: a jazzman! Durante was not a jazzman: he was the the last incandescent bloom of the vaudeville tradition. His delight at the freaky chord he’s stumbled across is clearly an aberration, a symptom of his unhinged mental state. The brassy Hollywood razzamatazz that accompanies ‘ITGWFTLC’ represents the norm from which he’s deviated.

Interestingly, his professed style of “improvising symphonies” anticipates modern, techno-enhanced methods of music-making. As he describes it, “My right hand was playing Mozart’s ‘Minuet’, and at the same time, my left hand was playing ‘Have A Banana’ from Carmen, and at the same time my mouth was whistling the sextet from Luicini [?], and at the same time, what do you think my foot was doing? While keeping time it was cracking walnuts. See, I had to eat too.”

If it’s not giving away trade secrets, I myself used the GarageBand app of Facebook to make a new creation by splicing Sandy Denny’s ‘Late November’ together with James Booker’s ‘Junco Partner’. I feel as happy with the result as Jimmy Durante did with his Lost Chord. There’s still work to do. The first bars of the Denny song need to be re-harmonised, as there’s just a faint chance they might be recognised, which will get me in trouble with the publishers. 

The song that Durante was referencing was, of course, Arthur Sullian’s ‘The Lost Chord’, which is at once sentimental, pious and bonkers, like the best Victoriana. 

Seated one day at the organ, 
I was weary and ill at ease, 
And my fingers wandered idly 
Over the noisy keys. 

Among the significant performances of ‘The Lost Chord’ – and it was the song used for demonstration purposes when the phonograph was unveiled at a press conference in London in 1888, and Enrico Caruso sang it at a benefit concert for the families of the victims of the Titanic in 1912 – the most unexpected is undoubtedly the interpretation recorded by singer Phil Minton and pianist Veryan Weston on Ways (ITM Records, ITM 0020, 1987).

It emerges from a stream of improvisation, hence the title ‘A Wayfarers Prelude to the Lost Chord’, with Weston frenetic and grandiose on keys, and Minton burping, gargling and squalling in the unique Mintonesque style. This leads to a relatively straight account of Sullivan’s ‘The Lost Chord’, which, paradoxically, celebrates improvisation in a formal way, and follows strict musical conventions. Minton can be as stentorian and declamatory as the best (this side comes out in his Mike Westbrook collaborations), and this version of 'Lost Chord' gives a practical demonstration of the interconnectedness of improvisation and insanity. 

I might mention that the Moody Blues had an album called In Search of the Lost Chord. I would expand on this, but I can't presently be bothered to dust off my copy. Suffice to say, this was the record that inspired my friend Alan Parry’s one-liner,  “That chord wasn’t lost, it was mislaid on purpose.”

The chief thing mislaid in the fifth series of Lost (we're catching up with it on Lovefilm Instant) is the plot, although the appeal of the TV fantasy always did rely on a certain suspension of disbelief, critical faculty and mature taste. The scariest thing is the spectacle of so many talented people strung out on coffee, as the suspicion that they’re-making-it-up-as-they're-going-along crystallises into they-don’t know-what-they’re-doing. It transpires that the corporate TV monster, insatiable in its appetite for a hit formula, is far more rapacious and lethal than any lame fog monster on an unchartered, deserted island (albeit, one with a population as large as Manhattan). 

The only person who did know what he was doing, I would suggest, was Michael Giacchino, who composed the soundtrack of Lost, and was chiefly responsible for ensuring that the chief emotional state of the audience was fear, rather than confusion. 

The Lost chord here comes up over the screen title ‘Lost’ which always comes up about seven minutes in, after the bite-sized summary – “Recently, in Lost…” (“We’re going to have to move the island!”, "Son-of-a-bitch!") – and after several scenes of preposterous action with bewildering flashbacks and puzzling flash-forwards. And it’s not so much a chord as a drone that swells to an ominous crescendo, splintering into metallic harmonics. In this culture, as conformist as fifties USA, the only place you can get away with discord is in the soundtrack of a thriller, and Michael Giacchino seizes the opportunity with gusto, aware that uneasy listening is more fulfilling than easy listening.   

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Manchester Jazz Festival - Some Reflections

The Teepee

The Teepee was still up when I passed by yesterday (Monday). It blends nicely with the masonic architecture all around, it’s triangular shape in harmony with the larger triangle of the three-sided Town Hall and complementing, noughts and crosses-style, the circle of the Central Library. 

The Magic Hour on a long hot summer day in the Teepee is around 8pm. That’s when the rays of the declining sun are in the right alignment to project the silhouette of Prince Albert under his canopy onto the white canvas of the Teepee. His stolid presence graced part of the first set by township jazz group Taiwa on Thursday night. But, like his consort, he might not have been amused, because he departed soon after. 

The challenge of all the musicians in the Teepee was how to deal with the loud bongs that emanate from the Town Hall Clock on the hour. There were different reactions. Lots pretended it wasn’t happening. Matthew Bourne of Billy Moon gestured for the music to stop, and patiently waited for eight tolls to sound before he started the song again. With nice serendipity, Laura Jurd finished a beautiful ballad at just the right moment: the reverberations of the last chord hadn't yet faded or the first clapping started when a portentous bong sounded. Best of all, Adam Fairhall played a chime-like figure in counterpoint. You can do that kind of thing with free jazz. 

I found myself worrying about MC Chunky’s drinks order of ten tequilas during the Riot Jazz performance. If I’m not mistaken, he offered to stand the round, which would almost certainly have wiped out his fee for the show (in addition, he promised a beer to the man in the front row, after snatching a spare tequila from his lips in order to gallantly present it to a woman neighbour, and I saw him fulfil the promise after the show). Of course, ten tequilas might have been on the rider of the band’s contract, or MJF may have met the expense, in which case there’s already a sizeable dent in the funding of next year’s Festival. The funding of MJF is ever more precarious, and I noticed concern beneath Steve Mead’s usual light-hearted banter when he appealed for donations. 

The VIP Launch Party, with Steve Mead, far right, and the Mayor of Manchester, second from left

If the worst happens, and MJF does go under, it will be an incalculable loss. The Festival has an identity that places it apart from every other music festival in the land. It strikes a nice balance between populism and originality, even if purists gripe about the absence of ‘proper jazz’. I think Mead’s instincts are right. Cynics may repeat the tired trope about never going broke by underestimating the taste of the public, but MJF prove that new music can find an appreciative audience. Even the difficult stuff, like the free jazz of The Markov Chain, received a generous response. It’s grotesque that music as immediate and universally attractive as the folk-jazz crossover of Times 4 should be relegated to Ken Marley’s shoebox on the grounds of obscurity, while the man himself pays the bills by endlessly warming over ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. But how would we know about Times 4, were it not for MJF? 

An appreciative MJF audience 

Monday 5 August 2013

Manchester Jazz Festival, final weekend - Kirsty Almeida, Riot Jazz, Iain Ballamy and Gareth Williams, Journal Intime

Kirsty Almeida & The Troubadours, Riot Jazz Brass Band 
Festival Pavilion Teepee, Saturday 3 August  

Kirsty Almeida and John Ellis 

On the debit side, I missed Kirsty’s longtime drummer Rick Weedon. Those tight funk rhythms, so expertly deployed by Bryan Hargreaves, have a way of closing possibilities rather than opening them up. 

On the plus side, every solo Arun Ghosh played on clarinet was a spellbinder. I recall the duo of Ghosh and John Ellis at the Royal Exchange a few years back, in which Ghosh explored the Asian folklore side of his heritage to sublime effect. The introduction to ‘You Make My Heart’, just Ghosh and Ellis, an incomparably sensitive accompanist, brought it all back. 

It surprises that this is the first public appearance of Almeida and Ghosh, despite both being active on the Manchester scene at the same time, and a week they spent making music on a course somewhere (unspecified, Take Five?). It’s a natural fit. Both share an aesthetic based on pure beauty, tinged with the exotic.      

All songs are Almeida originals, except for ‘Treat Me Like Your Mother’, which is by The Dead Weather, and rocks hard. Almeida plainly relishes this excursion into garage rock. Then there are old favourites like ‘Sweet Old Love’ and ‘If You Can’t Make Me Happy’ (which Arun’s clarinet moves closer to New Orleans), and a taste of songs from the new album, which, if the title track Moonbird is typical, is a real charmer. 

Tom Davies is suave in his adopted wildcard role, quietly edging towards anarchy with his free-form bottleneck technique and tapped melodies on the toy piano atop Ellis’ proper grand piano. An antique Spanish guitar is passed between Almeida and Ellis. Matt Owens, the heart of the band, is dependable and solid on bass. 

Kirsty, as ever, is seductive, intelligent, and generous-spirited. But the nerves of her adoring public were jangled by two grand screams. The first, on ‘Sweet Old Love’, possibly scored higher on the Richter Scale than the celebrated scream from ‘It Scares Me’. At such moments, the emotional punch is terrific, and the contrast with the trifling, eager-to-please side of her art couldn’t be greater (time to drop ‘Gather Round’, methinks). Without wanting to consign Almeida into a god-shaped hole, it strikes that at this stage in her career, and newly liberated from a major label, Almeida could productively cultivate her darker side. 

Riot Jazz Brass Band provide an energetic finale to the Saturday festivities, comprising three trumpets, three trombones, a reggae MC and dominating everything, musically and physically, a great big sousaphone. 

A marching band no less (if the impressively active drummer could be persuaded to downsize from full kit to portable snare), with the marching band propensity to mix diverse styles. There are echoes of mariachi, Hungarian gypsies, New Orleans second-line and the pasodoble from Spain. And that’s just one tune (the third of the evening, if memory serves), before they even begin to mash-up Guns n Roses (‘Living on a Prayer’) and Human League (‘Don’t You Want Me, Baby’). 

MC Chunky is a personable guide, offering freestyle, self-referential exhortations, ordering ten tequilas for all the band and later buying a pint for the man in the front row who missed out on the spare tequila. It sums up the evening really: less of a gig and more of a party. 

Iain Ballamy and Gareth Williams 
Festival Pavilion Teepee, Sunday 4 August

Gareth Williams and Iain Ballamy

A balm to the soul. Iain Ballamy always possessed an attractive tone, but lyricism and beauty are qualities that tend to deepen with the best saxophonists. For those of us who haven’t been keeping up, or who missed Ballamy’s performance with Richard Illes’ Miniature Brass Emprium at last year’s MJF, this set may have been a revelation.  

He pointedly called the first tune ‘Tribute to Alan Skidmore’s Tribute to John Coltrane’, out of admiration for a jazzman who has strenuously laboured to sound exactly like someone else. But has Ballamy entirely escaped this fate himself? Later in the set he offers ‘Giant Steps’ with the explanation, “We’ve been tortured by this tune all our lives, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t be.” 

But if Coltrane casts a long shadow over proceedings (again), Ballamy has assimilated the gentler side of Coltrane, a Coltrane shorn of God-bothering neurosis. Ballamy’s flights are swooping glides rather freefalls into the abyss. He is an artist in total command of his means of expression. He knows what he wants to say and how to achieve it; he does so with minimum fuss and maximum sensitivity. Another name springs to mind: Ballamy might have the loveliest tone of any saxophonist since Stan Getz.  

Of course, qualities that are special to the artist come out in his playing: a certain teasing, twinkling wit underpins these pristine arpeggio flights. 

And this is a true meeting of equals. Gareth Williams’ piano is the perfect foil for Ballamy’s incredible loveliness. A heartstopping ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’ recalls that Williams toured a Bill Evans Tribute. Bill Evans is to pianists what Trane is to saxophonists: the dominant influence that must be accommodated. He has the eloquence, the rich harmonic palette and the technique to sustain grace at unfeasibly fast tempi.  

‘All the Things You Are’ gets contrapuntal with Williams coming over all Bach as Ballamy stretches out, and then switches the roles, with Ballamy comping as Williams bounds ahead. ‘Floater’, a Ballamy original, is rather rapturous. The duo close the set with ‘Everybody’s Song But My Own’. It’s the song’s second appearance in a Festival with an ethos that encourages originality, vindicating Ballamy’s view that Kenny Wheeler’s composition is one of a handful of contemporary jazz standards. 

Journal Intime Plays Jimi Hendrix 
Festival Pavilion Teepee, Sunday 4 August

Journal Intime

On the face of it, it’s akin to re-arranging Led Zeppelin for kazoo, which actually has been done, and is a hoot. Journal Intime, however, transcend the charge of gimmickry by dint of formidable technique, boundless energy and a courageous sense of adventure. 

What one hears - the audacity of it is staggering - is the tumult of the Jimi Hendrix Experience (that’s the Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding parts too), compressed into intermeshed parts for trumpet, bass saxophone and trombone. Hendrix’s electronically enhanced state-of-the-art, ‘out there’ music is here transcribed for a pocket brass ensemble operating in an acoustic medium. The increased physicality compensate for the lack of technology.   

The parts are all meshed together, so, if trumpeter Silvain Bardiau and trombonist Matthias Mahler are naturals to play the Hendrix role, and bass saxophonist Frederic Gastard is well-placed to carry the rhythm, that doesn’t prevent the latter from occasionally swooping an octave higher to essay a line of melody, whilst pumping and parping at the same time. Silvain Bardiau, the one player who operates in the top register, comes down from the skies, as it were, with an intensity that communicates pure exhilaration. 

At one point, during ‘Loverman’, Gastard was simultaneously slap-tonguing, circular breathing and singing through the bass saxophone. He seems to possess energy far above ordinary human capacity, but then  Bardiau and Mahler each perform miracles of transformation. 

But do they sound anything like Jimi Hendrix? Lester Young, you may recall, always stressed the necessity of knowing the lyrics when playing a song. Journal Intime pass the Lester Young test on ‘All Along the Watchtower’. And ‘Angel’ is virtually played straight. It compares well with the Gil Evans version (Hendrix and Evans had plans to work together when the guitarist died). 

‘1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)’ is simply incredible, loyal to the other-worldliness of Jimi’s conception, and faithfully mirroring the complexities of the change from domestic deshabille to merman apotheosis. There’s some fishy goings-on with mouthpieces. Unbelievable!

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