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.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Hugh Masekela: Waiting for the Rain



Poor Hugh. He seemed such a decent man. He died recently of prostate cancer a year or so before his 80th birthday. BBC4, bless 'em, repeated a concert from somewhere like the Barbican to celebrate his 70th birthday and around half a century spent in the musical limelight. 

He was supported on this occasion by an orchestra and a huge community choir along with his own band and backing vocalists. One hell of a lot of people to assemble on one stage. The choir was full of rather earnest-looking mainly white and probably middle class choral types, who sang out with gusto but just under-whelmed me slightly because it seems such an incongruous thing to see so many cheery white faces from places like Stoke Newington singing Zulu refrains. Well, that's my issue – and probably something to do with the fact that I've not sung in a choir since primary school.

Had I been born a few years earlier, my introduction to African music might have come from something like 'The Click Song' of Masekela's ex-wife, Miriam Makeba, or 'Wimoweh' – which appears in the adapted form of 'The Lion Never Sleeps' as part of a medley called 'The Seven Riffs of Africa' on his first album for Jive Afrika in the '80s, Techno-Bush. The medley also includes a re-recording of 'Grazing in the Grass', which Masekela originally took to number 1 in the US charts, where it kept 'Jumping Jack Flash' out of the top spot for a couple of weeks.

No, my introduction to African music really came with Osibisa, the group of British-based Nigerian exiles whose 'Sunshine Day' and 'Music for Gong-Gong' still figure on my party compilations. I remember playing on my father's Ekco gramophone what I think was their first UK album, complete with Roger Dean's flying elephant cover, at an intimate party (by dint of my parents' proximity) in the back room of our second house in Belfast. That was the mortifying party where I had to turn away the whole familiar crowd of Malone Road party-seekers on the grounds that my mother's nerves wouldn't stand for that many strangers in her house. It wasn't cool of me. I don't think my 'rep' ever recovered from the slur.

However, Hugh Masekela came about next, admittedly a dozen or so years later. He was part of the early days of what would soon become labelled 'world music', along with such other African luminaries as Manu Dibango, King Sunny Adé and the Bhundu Boys – and a few years before I embraced Fela, Youssou N'dour, Baaba Maal and Salif Keita. During my brief interlude in central London, my Trinidadian friend and work colleague Pedro and I would go cruising for vinyl in Soho. I picked up both Techno-Bush and Waiting for the Rain in the insalubrious Cheapo Cheapo Records. And a few short years and one geographical move later, my good wife and I caught the great man live in Sheffield Polytechnic's Student Union (called, inevitably and appropriately, the Nelson Mandela Building). It was a memorable concert, with energy levels, unsurprisingly, rather higher than for his 70th birthday.

This would have been a couple of years or so after he took part in Paul Simon's Graceland world tour, circa 1987. Like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela probably benefited more than most from the tour. Always a fervent critic of apartheid before and after leaving his native South Africa soon after the Sharpeville massacre, he didn't bleat about the finer parts of the cultural boycott but acknowledged that the diminutive minstrel 'brought the music of South Africa to ten million ears – that's never been managed before'.
It's significant that Masekela chose to open Waiting for the Rain with a version of Fela Kuti's 'Lady'. During his long self-imposed exile, he spent years in London, New York and West Africa. He socialised and played with Fela in Lagos, and he described playing with Africa 70 as like 'being on a big fat cloud. You couldn't fall off'. He was reputedly particularly taken with 'Lady'. Fela took him to Ghana, where Masekela fell in with Hedzoleh Sounds, who played a kind of stripped-down Afrobeat/highlife hybrid. They recorded a number of albums together and from what I've heard of Masekela, Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, our Hugh never sounded better. 

By comparison, Waiting for the Rain is quite a polite affair. Recorded for Jive Afrika during his time in Botswana, frustratingly close to the mother country he couldn't go home to, it is coloured by the predominant synth-etic sounds of the era. 'Politician' follows 'Lady' and it encapsulates the different approaches to protest that Masekela and Fela Kuti took. Having fled his native country, the former could do little more than protest via his music. While the lyrics and the playing are just fine, it lacks the brooding menace of Fela's long, simmering rants and the excoriating ridicule that he aimed directly at Nigeria's military and body politic. Fela was brave and confrontational to the point of suicidal recklessness, but undoubtedly not such a nice guy as Hugh Masekela seemed to be. 

If the first side of Waiting for the Rain is less than memorable, Masekela makes up for it on the second. Sandwiched between the relentless opener, 'Run No More (A Vuo Mo)', and the suitably celebratory closer, 'Zulu Wedding', there's a fine 'Ritual Dancer' and a re-working of what might be remembered as his masterpiece. 'Coal Train (Stimela)' is the story told in his rich reverberating tones of the train 'from Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe... and the whole hinterland of South Africa' that brings the young men and the old men conscripted to work 'in the gold mines of Johannesburg and its surrounding metropoli'. Masekela's voice drops 'deep, deep down into the belly of the earth' where the conscripts are mining 'that mighty evasive stone'. It's chilling and thrilling, and when Masekela's beautiful burnished flugelhorn soars over the female backing vocals, it's guaranteed to send shivers down your spine. It does mine, anyway. Every time.

Before he left South Africa, way back in 1959, Masekela recorded with the great pianist, Dollar Brand (as Abdullah Ibrahim was then known) in the Jazz Epistles. They were the first black jazz group to record an album in the country and it's not for nothing that Masekela has been called 'the father of South African jazz'. He managed to assemble a pretty decent group in Botswana to record in the mobile studio and one of the highlights of the album is the interplay between Masekela's warm flugelhorn and Barney Rachabane's more strident alto sax (that reputedly 'blew away' the likes of Archie Shepp and Weather Report when he played in New York). Another is the presence of Bheki Mseleku, the self-taught multi-instrumentalist who died far too young at 53. Mon épouse et moi witnessed the incredible sight of him playing tenor sax and piano at the same time in a concert at the Brecon Jazz Festival in the early 1990s, around the time of his wonderful Celebration album. Roland Kirk managed three saxes at once, but never with a piano to boot.


Poor Bheki. Poor Hugh. At least the latter almost made it to 80: a goodly age for a jazz legend. And they managed to play together at least once. In Botswana. While no doubt waiting for the rain.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

M: New York London Paris Munich



While trawling charity shops on the English south coast (it might have been appropriately Help the Aged), I came across Robin Scott's Life Class. As a mint as a Polo and signed by the musician, a double CD for the princely price of £1.99. I guess that previous browsers weren't aware that Robin Scott once had a group – or an alter ego – called M. Or maybe they knew this and therefore gave it a wide berth.

Pop music is not everyone's cup of tea, but there's something so seductive, so warm and cosy about the best. And Robin Scott, or M, has often come up with some very good pop music. Which is why he should not be confused in any shape or size with Matthieu Chédid, a French singer who also calls himself M, but adds a dash either side to avoid too much confusion (as in -M-): a plagiaristic transgression for which the man should be soundly guillotined. Coincidentally, both have dabbled too with African projects. French -M- did something in Bamako's renowned Studio Bogolan, which does slightly cheapen an otherwise fairly flawless Bogolan Music boxed set. British M recorded with Shikisha, a trio of female vocalists from South Africa, on Jive Shikisha, an album from 1983 that is one of the most joyful, danceable and surprising EurAfrican collaborations you are ever likely to hear.


Life Class sent me scurrying back to 1979's New York London Paris Munich ('everybody's talkin' 'bout... pop muzik') – which I bought on the strength of 'Pop Muzik', one of the cleverest pop songs ever to hit number 2 in the UK and number 1 in the States. ('Dance in the super mart/Dig it in the fast lane/Listen to the countdown/They're playin' our song again...') In fact, Scott was probably too clever for his own good and there's an air of pastiche about his music that probably stalled his career and prevented him reaching the dizzy heights of fellow art school graduates like David Byrne, Brian Eno, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend and David Bowie. It's indicative that the back cover of the album is a quadrant of portraits of Albert Einstein with prominent tongue (not for once in cheek) as if screen-printed by Andy Warhol. 


Nor is it surely any accident that during the album's recording in a studio in Montreux, a temporary resident of the Swiss town, who was probably still recovering from his addled Thin White Duke period, came along to contribute some hand claps on a song I haven't yet identified. Yes it's all very knowing and very referential, in the way of Scott's fellow Croydon graduate, Malcolm MacLaren, but it's also very good. The album yielded two other (lesser) hits in the first two tracks of Side 2: 'Moonlight and Muzak', a delicious hummable tune awash with melodic synthesisers, and the irresistible 'That's the Way the Money Goes', which reprises the territory of 'Pop Muzik' at a jauntier tempo. 

Scott lived and worked in London and Paris at various times and it wouldn't surprise me if he also spent time in Munich and New York. He brings the ironic humour of the London scene and a sense of smart New York street-cool to the album's signature Euro-disco feel. There's an element of Kraftwerk in there, too, and he clearly likes the idea of himself as a kind of disciplinarian Teutonic master of ceremonies. On the fabulous 'Made in Munich', his girlfriend of the time does much of the singing, while Scott barks out the dance steps as if through a megaphone like some kind of dystopian square-bashing caller. 'Do not resist!' he commands in a cartoon Germanic accent – even though it's fairly impossible to do so anyway.

While there's no one significant lyrical theme on the album, Mr. Scott definitely had a penchant for spies, paranoia and the Cold War. On 'Moonlight and Muzak', he encounters 'a Cold War baby from behind the Iron Curtain' with whom he thinks they made contact but cannot be certain. And hidden away among my 7" singles is a copy of a later minor M hit, 'Official Secrets' ('fiction or fact?').


'Marching, marching to the music/Music, music made in Munich...' It's all good fun and it probably adds up to Robin Scott's finest hour. Well, it would be hard to top something like 'Pop Muzik'. It's little surprise that among the other clever-clogs that Scott would work with – including documentary film-maker, Julien Temple, and ex-Japan collaborator, Ryuichi Sakomoto – was one Thomas Dolby, whose 'She Blinded me with Science' seems cut from a similar arty-farty pop fabric. Jive Shikisha aside, much of Robin Scott's work is funny, frivolous and ultimately somewhat flimsy. I bought New York London Paris Munich over 40 years ago, but I still like it. I still listen to it without prejudice and bracket it with pop music like the Chiffons' 'He's So Fine' and the Shangri-Las' 'Leader of the Pack': if it is fluff, then it's rather glorious fluff. 'Shooby dooby do-wah, wah wah, pop pop shoo-wah...'