Saturday, 21 July 2018

The Gladiators: Naturality


A delivery man arrived the other afternoon with a box full of whole-foods from the UK. I congratulated him on finding us. He said that he'd had to ask around, but I was known around these parts – a creator of BDs, wasn't I? Bandes dessinées, or strip cartoons. I laughed and told him 'nothing so glamorous; just a plain-old writer'. Chinese whispers at work even in the heart of the countryside.

If I were a creator of BDs, and weirdly it was my first creative flowering (as a very young child, I used to draw strip cartoons of Western characters I dreamt up), The Gladiators would make rather a good subject for a cartoon book for adults. This strange genre is popular in France and Belgium), and The Glads were popular in France well into this century.

Apparently, the future reggae vocal trio met up as masons on a building site – perhaps even a government yard in Trenchtown – and they would harmonise songs over their sandwiches. What a lovely place to start that would be: lead singer, Albert Griffiths, trying out his self-penned songs on acoustic guitars with future bass player, Clinton Fearon, and future rhythm guitarist, Gallimore Sutherland. Later, Griffiths takes his songs to the legendary Studio One and records them with an early version of The Gladiators. When one of the original members leaves soon after 'Hello Carol' tops the Jamaican charts, Griffiths remembers the singing masons and recruits Clinton Fearon. Then, when the other original member also leaves, along comes Mr. Sutherland, sans hard hat and sandwiches.

Soon after, the new Gladiators are discovered by Virgin, as reggae fever breaks out in the British Isles. Which is where I, the author, come into it. I'd caricature myself, R. Crumb style, drooling over a copy of the Virgin Front Line sampler, with a thought bubble from my head as I greedily read the sticker, An album for the price of a single. (This'll be the best 69p I've spent in ages!). I fall in love with the two tracks from Trenchtown Mix Up, 'Looks Is Deceiving' and 'Know Yourself Mankind', and go to see them twice in quick succession in different venues in Brighton, each time dancing holes in my shoes to the stream of simple, irresistibly catchy reggae. Along with the Bhundu Boys from Zimbabwe, a decade or so later, the two concerts will prove possibly the most joyful, infectious music ever witnessed on stage.


After four great albums for Virgin, the boys make the mistake of recording a fifth with Eddie Grant and Aswad in London. The label decides that the magic has gone and cuts them from their roster. But does that stop them? No, it does not. They find another label and cut Back To Roots. My first wife and I change the song 'We are the warriors' to 'We are the worriers' and adopt it as our theme song. They go on producing easy-skanking 'reggaemusic' all through the '80s and '90s, but while my first marriage goes down the pan, I have weightier concerns than the steadily waning career of The Gladiators.

I catch up with them again in Cash Express, Brive, around 25 years later – in the form of a defective boxed set of three-rather-than-four of their 21st century releases, plus a DVD of a live set in Montmartre, Paris. It's good solid stuff that lacks the memorable quality of the Virgin albums. And the live concert has rather too much audience participation. Clinton Fearon has left, never to return, in the mid '90s to record a succession of fine solo albums, but Griffiths, Sutherland and a core of brilliant reggae musicians – including Ansel Collins and 'Wire' Lindo – have continued to tour in Europe ever since. When Griffiths' health packs up, along with his distinctive lead voice, he hands the baton on to two sons, Al and Anthony. Gallimore's son Vernon joins sometime later and, in 2013, this almost unrecognisable gladiatorial group records an album featuring Droop Lion, whose uncle is... David Webber, the first of the original, original Gladiators to leave back in their Studio One days. Whereupon, I could wind things up in a final drawing – with old man Sutherland looking like the wreck of the Hesperus – headlined by the Jamaica Observer, 'The Gladiators back in arena'.

Naturality has only just entered the family fold, courtesy of the local junk shop. But I've been dancing with a wide grin on my face for longer than I care to remember to the title track on an indispensable compilation CD, Dreadlocks The Time Is Now. Ever since consulting my friend and junkiest vinyl junkie, a leading expert on Jamaican phonetics, I've heard 'Naturality' as 'Naturally tea' (slightly elided to 'Nat'r'lly tea') – which probably explains why Griffiths sings 'Nat'r'lly tea makes me the man that I am'. Certainly something there for the Tea Marketing Board to consider using as a strap line.

It's already fast becoming a reggae favourite high up on Mount Zion with the likes of the Mighty Diamonds' Right Time, Burning Spear's Man In The Hills and Culture's Two Sevens Clash. Powered by a band that includes one of the greatest drummers on the planet, Sly Dunbar, the first side is concentrated riddimical nourishment, while the second side is only slightly diluted by comparison. Clinton Fearon contributes 'Get Ready', which featured on the third Virgin Front Line sampler, an evident victim of '70s inflation as 69p rocketed to £2.15. The final track of the album continues the gladiatorial tradition of covering Bob Marley songs: a lolloping six-minute version of 'Exodus' gets a slight lyrical make-over as 'Africa, the country of Jah people'. Otherwise, the songs are all Albert Griffiths'. This was the man who once wrote a song called 'Mr. Baldwin'. I've never heard it, but love to think of it as a reggae homage to that most inert of British prime ministers, Stanley Baldwin. Well, his 'Counting My Blessing' contains the wonderful quirky couplet, 'I'm counting my blessing/I'm counting it one by one'. Figure that.

Griffiths also takes the lion's share of the vocals, his slightly pinched timbre a little akin to that of Lee 'Scratch' Perry. Fearon and Sutherland contribute what the former described as 'an answering kind of choir harmony'. Their falsetto answers to the musical questions posed by Griffiths is indeed 'a sort of trademark there' – as are the relentless rhythmical drive, the heart-stopping key changes and the catchy melodies. They add up to something musically very special. 


The dedication in my BD of the mighty Gladiators might be Griffiths' delicious words of admonishment from Trenchtown Mix Up, 'Chatty chatty mouth, be wise and know your culture'.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Donald Byrd: Black Byrd


The inner sleeve boasts, 'Blue Note hits a new note'. Pictured are artists new to the great jazz label's catalogue – like the Texan saxophonist, Ronnie Laws, and the borderline muzak-al guitarist, Earl Klugh – and artists old, like singer Carmen McRae, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Gene Harris and trumpeter Donald Byrd, all trying to re-invent themselves for a new era of 'mini-skirts, maxi-skirts and Afro hair-dos'.

Gone now is the label's trademark blue and white motif at the centre of the record – to be replaced by an uninspired solid dark blue with black lettering – and gone, too, are all those marvellous, strikingly simple but graphically bold covers by Reid Miles and others (even Andy Warhol contributed some distinctive etchings, if that's what they were). By contrast, this photograph of what looks like an old-style church meeting framed in a clunky green and red design seems heavy-handed and inelegant. What's more, there are no personnel details to be found, the sine qua non of jazz albums. Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion, the label's founding fathers, would have turned in their retirement homes – and not in a euphoric way.


But let not that take anything away from the music. Throughout a long and varied career, Donald Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II was, as his name suggests, a class act. The year was 1973 and it was his first album of a few more with the Mizell brothers' production team, who were at one point everywhere in the Blue Note stable buildings. It's Larry and not brother Fonce who wrote each of the seven tracks on the album. The tunes and the hooks stay in your head, but the lyrics are not complicated. 'Get in the groove and move,' is a representative sample. 

Coming two years after Ethiopian Knights, which did the rounds while I was at Exeter University, it's a more obviously funky affair than its serpentine, exploratory predecessor and the influence of Sly Stone, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield et al is there for all to spot. It gave me, for one, the more instant kind of gratification that I needed at that time. Unsurprisingly, it was at one point – maybe still is – the biggest selling album in Blue Note's distinguished history.

As a trumpeter, Byrd was less of an individual stylist than the likes of Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, but unlike them he wasn't cut off in his prime. Less individual perhaps, but longer lived and more ubiquitous. There was a time in the mid 1950s when he seemed to be on just every record released. If you're looking for some great straight-up-and-down small-group hard bop, the sides he made with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce and a little later with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams are as good as it gets.

For all his ubiquity, he was often somewhere near the cutting edge of what was happening in the wonderful world of jazz. Not as close as, say, Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock, but always thereabouts and always ready to try things. A New Perspective in 1963 was one of the first jazz albums to use a gospel choir and the point when Byrd's trumpet cuts through the voices on 'Christo Redentor' has to be one of the most spine-tingling moments in modern music of any denomination.

The use of voices on Black Byrd (the Mizells again) makes the record even closer to the mainstream and helps to account for its commercial success. 'Flight Time', the opening track, starts with the sound of a 707 jet (courtesy of Elektra Records, apparently) before segueing into an insistent single note picked out on a keyboard and the kind of pulsing rhythmical refrain that lodges somewhere deep in your nether regions. Byrd's trumpet states the hook on the title track that follows and feeds it through a wah-wah when 'we listen to the horn, carrying on'. This was the age of the wah-wah pedal and Byrd vies with the guitarist to get the most mileage out of the device. It probably dates it as much as anything on the album, but the funk is pure and irresistible. 

'Love's So Far Away' is taken at a lick that prefigures the Places and Spaces album a few years later. It was the album when jazz-funk tipped into disco and I still play the compelling 'Change (Makes You Want To Hustle)' at parties. It's also very reminiscent of flautist Bobbi Humphrey's Harlem River Drive, another artist in the stable who was 'steered' down the same path by the Mizell Brothers. 

There's more hard-driving motorway funk on the second side. As someone on YouTube commented, Donald Byrd's 'always giving eargasms' and he's at his most eargasmic on the opener, 'Mr. Thomas'. His trumpet is crisp, bright and clean. He plays in unison with whoever's on flute for 'Sky High', which is as pretty a melody as the final 'Where Are We Going?' – which was covered, seductively and gorgeously of course, by Marvin Gaye. In between is another funkin'-for-fun track, 'Slop Jar Blues', which has always alarmed me a little. 'Sitting on a slop jar...' What is a slop jar? Does it have anything to do with water closets? As Marvin might say, 'What's going on?'


Donald Byrd not only appeared as a leader or a sideman on too many albums to list, but he also taught at Howard University and around the time of Black Byrd, he would nurture the brief but successful career of his student protégés, The Blackbyrds. I picked up three of their albums at the time, including City Life with its classic 'Rock Creek Park' ('Doin' it in the park/Doin' it after dark/In Rock Creek Park...'), but abandoned them around the same time as I abandoned Donald Byrd, after Places And Spaces.

But in The Donald's case, abandonment was only ever going to be temporary. I went back in time and discovered those wonderful small-group recordings with Gigi Gryce and with Pepper Adams. And every now and then, I spin Black Byrd and its successors to remind myself of just what a funky dude Donald Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd could be. As someone else on YouTube commented, 'Byrd just knew how to make great music'.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Lester Young Story vol 3


Many, many moons ago I spent nine months or so in the 6th Earl of Harrowby's minor stately home: a big crenellated Victorian barn of a place where I would smoke my daily menthol cigarette as I lay between a pair of Wharfedale speakers listening to one of my few records at the end of another unreal working day.

From time to time, the Earl's granddaughter would come to stay. Her name was either Suzan or Suzanne. I can't be sure now because his lordship pronounced it Suzarne – which could have served for either variation. She must have been in her early twenties: a nice jolly-hockey-sticks type with no airs and graces but gracious enough to befriend a youth from Belfast who was working as her grandfather's assistant archivist. I reckon she would have married simply but happily and would have been a good mother to three or four children. She probably took them on picnics when they were young and encouraged them to learn some obscure musical instrument like an oboe or a bassoon.

If I remember correctly, she drove a black Morris Minor – or something very similar. One dark winter's evening, she proposed driving us both to the little nearby town of Stone, Staffs., where there was a tiny cinema that was showing Lady Sings The Blues. I knew nothing at the time about Billie Holiday, but realised that Diana Ross was once the lead singer of The Supremes. I believe Richard Pryor played 'Piano Man', probably as a comic and genial guy who bore no relation to the misogynistic brute that Billie seemed to attract. I can't remember; I've never again seen the film – partly, I suspect, because I know enough now to recognise that Diana Ross could neither act nor sing like Lady Day. Besides, I can never forgive her for turning Berry Gordy commercially against the more gifted Mary Wells.


I'm pretty sure, too, that the film was tinted with enough Hollywood gloss to conceal the reality of Billie Holiday's truly wretched abused and drug-addicted life. Did it, I wonder now, cast someone to wear a pork-pie hat and play his tenor sax at a jaunty angle? If it did, I wouldn't have appreciated who Lester Young was and why the man whom Billie dubbed 'Prez' was almost as mythical as Bird. It was the diminutive boyfriend of a truly elfin friend who later introduced me to another of life's abused and drug-addicted stars. 

A little further down the Sampson timeline, when I was still getting used to the millstone around my neck of full-time work, an unassuming man with a florid complexion and a fragile constitution, who hid away from the general public in the finance back-room of Brighton Unemployment Benefit Office, established that I was serious about my music. Generously and trustingly he lent me his entire collection of the Columbia recordings that Billie and Lester made together, often in the context of Teddy Wilson's 'orchestra'.

Some years later, I watched and recorded onto video the famous American TV special, The Sound of Jazz, which caught the pair of platonic friends together at the weary end of both their careers. The way in which Billie Holiday watched the man who had dubbed her 'Lady Day' touches me every time I re-watch it. As if she and she alone understood her friend the President, while he understood her as no other man had ever done before or since. In another two years, they were both dead. First Prez and then Lady Day.

For a while at 18 or however old I was, I was a little bit in love with Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. These days I'm still in love, but with the real Billie Holiday. Not in a physical way, you understand, but in a strictly artistic way. The same way that I'm still in love with Scott Fitzgerald. Reading his collected short stories now, after a gap of many years, I still marvel at the coolness of his vision and the elegance of his prose. Anyway, it sent me looking for a Billie Holiday record, because she had that unique gift as a jazz singer to transform into genuine art some of the frivolous pop songs one associates with the era of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

In fact, she sings on but the first three tracks of Volume 3 of The Lester Young Story. All my other classic Billie Holiday is either on cassette tape or courtesy of a 10-CD boxed set of her complete Columbia recordings that was cheaper than it had any right to be. So they can't count unless I subsequently change my editorial policy. 

'Everybody's Laughing' (not to be confused with the infectious confection cooked up by Phil Fearon & Galaxy), 'Here It Is Tomorrow Again' and 'Say It With a Kiss' all date from 1938, and all were recorded with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra, which contained much of the personnel featured in the 3½ Count Basie sides that complete Volume 3. Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer's 'Say It With a Kiss' is probably the best of the bunch, but it's hardly in the same class as 'Pennies From Heaven', 'These Foolish Things', 'Gloomy Sunday' or 'Back In Your Own Backyard'. 

Nevertheless, it's still instructive to compare them with the other two featured vocalists on Volume 3: 'Mr. Five by Five', the improbably overweight Jimmy Rushing, a fine but unsubtle 'blues shouter', and Helen Humes, a Basie hardy perennial, who does her stuff with minimal fuss. As Michael Brooks writes in his excellent liner notes, she 'comes in for her 32 bars then exits gracefully without disturbing the mood of the record'. Neither of them have that ability to transform a melody by inflecting the lyrics or disjointing the rhythm. Nor, of course, do either of them have that extraordinary timbre that can suggest both joy and suffering simultaneously. Only maybe Madeleine Peyroux of modern jazz singers comes close to approximating it – without necessarily convincing you that it might be anything more than a vocal affectation.

So the focus on this record is mainly on Lester Young and his deceptively light and breezy tenor saxophone. Given the constraints of the old 78rpm records, there's sometimes no room for anything more than a brief interjection. Eight bars or less. But sometimes, the orchestra takes a back seat while he is allowed to stretch out in 24, 32 or even – on '12th Street Rag' – 64 bars. Not that I'm counting, you realise. Whatever the duration, though, it's always uniquely and recognisably Lester Young.

It's that lightness of touch. Michael Brooks, again, makes a very perceptive comparison with the cricketer, Frank Woolley. My dad remembers big Frank and, having seen the infuriatingly talented David Gower, who could make batting look so easy on some days and so difficult on others (mainly by giving away his wicket in a way that any self-respecting batsman shouldna oughta), I understand the analogy: 'While other players used brute strength to thrash the ball, Woolley was all delicacy, timing and wrist-work. A relaxed motion towards the ball, bat flowing as gracefully as a ballet dancer's arm movement and the ball would be over the boundary... before the opposing players' reflexes could even respond. And Lester generates as much beauty and excitement without even seeming to perspire'.

Enter The Count, the album is sub-titled. So the listener can revel in the famous Count Basie rhythm section that powered a band including Young, Buck Clayton, Harry 'Sweets' Edison and Dickie Wells. However, if I hadn't been the kind of cheapskate to opt for a bargain in the sales, I would have picked Volumes 1 and 2, where the real gems of the Holiday/Young partnership are to be found. Thank heavens for CDs!

Friday, 23 March 2018

A Rainbow in Curved Air


There was a short but illuminating two-parter recently on BBC4 about minimalist music. The first part featured the enigmatic La Monte Young (whose famous pupil would play that haunting viola refrain on the Velvet Underground's 'Venus in Furs') and the reclusive Terry Riley, who now lives seemingly in a wooden cabin somewhere in the forests north of San Francisco. He's still making music and I'm still listening to A Rainbow in Curved Air. It would be another 20 years or so after buying my still pristine copy before I discovered the two composers featured in the second part, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.


These days, Riley sports a long white beard to match his thinning locks and looks like a shaman. Back then, on the cover of the LP, his prematurely balding hair frames a big smiling egg of a face that rises beaming like a human sun from the edge of a bucolic landscape. His benign words on the back speak of a time when 'The Pentagon was turned on its side and painted purple, yellow & green' and when 'The energy from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light/World health was restored/[And] an abundance of organic vegetables, fruits and grains was growing wild along the discarded highways'. If, as idyllic vision suggests, he is a vegan, he sure is an advert for the salubrious effects of renouncing meat and dairy.

Riley's Rainbow is a suitably bubbly, optimistic and vibrant piece that continues to surprise. I'd forgotten, for example, the passage half way through when the omnipresent electric organ sinks to a sonorous rumble and a tambourine mimics the sound of moths trapped in a paper bag. I guess that's why minimalist music has always (apparently) appealed to me. You immerse yourself in it like you would in a warm bath and all those subtle sudden key changes and harmonic twists keep you sufficiently alert to stop you sinking beneath the surface. It seems curious to suggest, but it is dramatic: like a film by Bergman or like the shadows cast on a landscape by scudding clouds.

And Riley does it all with an electric organ, an electric harpsichord, a rocksichord, a dumbec (whatever they are), a tambourine and endless tape loops. Almost 20 minutes of subtle variations on a very simple theme that leave you feeling curiously clean and energised. On the flip side, by contrast, 'Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band' is a darker repetitive drone created by the trusty organ and a soprano saxophone. Shades at times of John Coltrane and particularly the long introduction to Soft Machine's 'Out-Bloody-Rageous'. 

Being, as I was then, so immersed in prog-rock – as it would become known – I could probably hear Riley's influence in all kinds of places without even knowing it: especially on such organ-toting groups of the '70s as Yes, Soft Machine, Egg, Hatfield and the North. He must also have had an influence a little later on the likes of Vangelis and, emphatically, Mike Oldfield. And let's not forget that a group even called itself Curved Air. Yes, the genial Mr. Riley's to blame for all that pocket money I blew on a picture disc version of Air Conditioning that never played properly, presumably because of all the colour in the microgrooves. I couldn't listen to Curved Air now, but wish I'd kept that imperfect record. Must be worth a packet these days.

I'm surprised and rather proud to say that I bought Rainbow in 1971 as a mere 16-year old. Surprised because it seems so grown-up now in comparison to a lot of the stuff I was listening to. How did I come to minimalist music long before I even knew what it was? I was a subscriber to the Melody Maker and maybe they mentioned it in despatches. Or maybe I was influenced by my elders and betters at school. One Gavin McDowell in particular, an LP-carrying 'head' who was way ahead of the crowd. I suspect, though, that it was my love of Soft Machine's Third. I seem to have bought it in 1970, which suggests that I was looking for something on the same astral plane. I'd heard the imitators, so it was time to check out the source.


Despite my own love of the kind of jazz that inspired Riley, I never actually bought anything else by him – not even the legendary In C. Perhaps because Philip Glass and especially Steve Reich would later satisfy all my minimal needs. A Rainbow in Curved Air seems now just a little airy-fairy in comparison to something like Reich's magnificent Music for 18 Musicians with its bewildering interplay of yodelling voices, pulsing pianos, marimbas and oscillating clarinets.

The programme didn't really make clear the extent to which Riley influenced Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But of course he must have done. It's hard to believe that Glass could have written the soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi without Riley's Rainbow. These days, the piece seems a little like music for old hippies, but then I'm just an old hippy at heart. A little older and a little hipper every play.