Voltarol - related music

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Gary Burton Quartet Revisited - at The Lighthouse, Poole. 28/7/08

Left to right - Pat Metheny (guitars); Antonio Sanchez (drums); Gary Burton (vibraphone); Steve Swallow (electro-acoustic bass)

This was a gig that I had been looking forward to for some time. I first saw Gary Burton and Steve Swallow play in 1969 at the Hammersmith Odeon with his original quartet (the other members being drummer Bob Moses and guitarist Larry Coryell) and I have long been a fan of Pat Metheny. I had previously seen Antonio Sanchez playing with the Pat Metheny Group at the Poole venue a few years back. (Incidentally, Richard Bona - see Mama Africa part 2 - was also part of the group: that was my first introduction to his extraordinary talents.)
I like The Lighthouse. It's big enough to make events like these a paying proposition but small enough to retain a feeling of comparative intimacy. The acoustics are good, as are the lines of sight. I was feeling slightly anxious about the sound, given our recent concert experience (see Maria Rita at the Barbican) but I need not have worried. The mix was excellent from the start.
The band's opener was 'Reunion', a Mitchell Foreman composition from Burton's 1990 album of the same name. A smile plastered itself on to my face and stayed there for the rest of the evening (removed only temporarily when a somewhat po faced lady member of staff informed me that photography was 'not allowed'. "Then I'll stop taking photographs." I said. "I said 'photography is not allowed.'" she said, somewhat testily. "I said ' Then I'll stop taking photographs.'"I reiterated. "Oh" she said and then, after a brief pause, "Thank you". Anyway, despite all this I managed to get the picture that you see at the top of this page).
Where was I before I so rudely interrupted myself?
Oh yes. I know, as a fairly seasoned musician, that the first few numbers that one plays are part of the 'warm-up' process and it takes a while to really get 'up to speed' as it were. With musicians of this calibre they seem able to start at the top of their game and maintain the standard all night. There might be highlights but there are no lows. This band just kicked into gear and stayed there for the whole concert. That the first number was as much of a stand-out for me as the last encore (which I think was 'General Mojo Cuts Up' from the 1967 'Lofty Fake Anagram' album) illustrates the point. They weren't too big on announcing titles - they were far too busy playing.
So - I can't give you a 'tune by tune' account but I can say that all four musicians worked in total harmony (in both senses of the word). It was another example of 'gestalt'. Whenever one player took a solo the other's slotted effortlessly into providing the optimum backdrop for that that solo to stand out against. Yes - I know that that is what's supposed to happen but mostly it only seems to happen at this level amongst groups of musicians that have played together for a very long time. But then again, I suppose they have. Metheny started his career with Burton and has collaborated on projects a couple of times over the years. Steve Swallow is a long-time Burton collaborator and Antonio Sanchez has been with Metheny since 2002. Also, this is their second tour together (the first one was in 2006) and at the time of writing they had been playing together nearly every night for a month. At this stage in a tour, playing a set must seem like the resumption of a temporarily interrupted conversation.
The middle of the set was given over to a duo section. Gary Burton is a particular master of this format and he and Metheny bounced ideas off of each other beautifully, with long interweaving lines alternating with accompanist/soloist roles - except that they were never quite as straight ahead as that would imply. Burton sets up the most intricate back-drops without ever getting in the way of the other player, ducking in and out of the soloist's lines in a way that always enhances and never obscures. Metheny utilised his 42 string Pikasso guitar to great advantage, as well as bringing his unique strumming sound to bear on a superb 6/8 version of 'Angel Eyes'.
All in all it was a great night's music and two encores and a standing ovation testified to the audience's pleasure. Afterwards I was not at all surprised to bump into my old friend Pete Oxley in the bar, despite the fact that he lives near Oxford and could as easily have got to The Barbican, where the group had been playing the night before. But the Lighthouse is a great venue and given that kind of choice, most musicians will opt for the Lighthouse every time.
The group at the North Sea Jazz Festival, earlier this month, playing Falling Grace

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Jazz, delicious hot, disgusting cold

When Mole (see The twang's not the thang) turned up at Dave's house with a bunch of his brother's LPs, I little thought that I would still be listening to some of that music 50 or more years later.

Dave's family lived in the flat over his uncle's greengrocery, which was next-door-but-one to my dad's hardware store. On a Saturday night my parents would go out for a drink (Gin and tonic in my dad's case and Schweppes Bitter Lemon in my mum's). My younger brother (G the D) and I would be left watching TV, with strict instructions to go to bed as soon as 'Gunsmoke' or 'Wyatt Earp' or 'Paladin' had finished. My older brother, Alcohol, was doing his National Service at this time. Dave's parents would follow a similar pattern (although I can't tell you what they drank), leaving him in the care of his grandmother, who lived with them.

Needless to say, G the D and I would stay up far beyond the agreed hour and would only turn the TV off and dash upstairs to feign sleep when we heard the family Morris Traveller Estate pulling up outside. ( We were finally caught when my parents came home unexpectedly early and went into the living room to see the slowly diminishing white dot in the centre of the TV screen, which in those early days of cathode ray tube technology lingered for a good 40 seconds or so after the set had been switched off.)

By the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I was allowed to go next door to Dave's house on a Saturday night (I can't account for G the D's whereabouts on these occasions and unfortunately neither can he) and there Dave and I would get together with Muff and Mole to play records, under the nominal supervision of Dave's gran, who was a fairly enthusiastic consumer of Carlsberg Pilsner and kept a crate of the brew under the stairs. Dave would generally dip into the crate and 'acquire' a couple of bottles, whilst Muff, Mole and I would pool our somewhat meagre resources and buy a bottle of cider from the local off-licence. The combined influences of Carlsberg and Television meant that gran tended to leave us very much to our own devices, emerging from her den only occasionally, to scream abuse at Dave (which he returned in kind) and to glower at us. Looking back on it I realise that she was probably a fairly unpleasant person and that Dave had inherited many of her characteristics.

Despite these random interruptions we would gather round the Radiogram and play whatever treasures we had brought to the gathering that week. At least, Mole, Muff and I would: Dave didn't actually own any records but he had the premises and the record playing equipment so that was all right. My Jai and Kai records ( see Slide by slide) had alerted us to modern jazz, so when Mole revealed that his elder brother had a lot of jazz records we encouraged him to raid the collection. This he duly did, turning up one night with LPs by Gerry Mulligan, Tal Farlow, The Modern Jazz Quartet and Dave Brubeck. Dave and Mole were not that thrilled with these records but Muff and I were both extremely taken with the new sounds. It was not long before these Saturday nights at Dave's ground to a halt. We continued to see Dave occasionally and Mole ( with his Claude Butler racing bike with centre-pull brakes and 10 speed Derailleur gears) less frequently, but music was getting to be a very important thing for Muff and me and in pursuit of it we had made friends with Paul, whose - to us - sophisticated middle class home contained a reel to reel tape recorder and a mass of recorded music (see Wonderful round, black, shiny things).

Meanwhile we were beginning to buy more records. Muff, pursuing his particular penchant for old things, purchased EPs of Ma Rainey and Victoria Spivey, and we were much taken with the accompaniments as well as with the singers. (It occurs to me that both these women could well have been included in my last posting - Little Jazz Birds and other related species) This led us to King Oliver and Lonnie Johnson, to Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson - in fact to New Orleans and Chicago Jazz - 'Traditional Jazz' or 'Trad' as it was soon to be called. Looking back on those times now I realise that we actually came to Modern jazz before we discovered the traditional variety but, unusually for then, found it all equally exciting and stimulating.

Paul's family tape collection introduced us to Josh White, Pete Seeger and The Kingston Trio. Those archives also contained recordings of Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and we were beginning to see how the lines between American folk music, blues and jazz were nowhere near as sharply drawn as most people thought. Within a short time we were also beginning to explore the folk music of these islands and seeing connections with the American folk tradition, but that's a strand for another posting. Mean while, that weird phenomenon, the British Trad boom, was about to manifest itself and I was beginning to acquire some political awareness. I had also acquired a guitar and despite my father's best efforts had even managed to learn a few chords ( see The twang's not the thang). My musical life was about to step up a gear.

Here are the relevant clips for this posting: until such times as I learn to introduce the YouTube stuff directly on to the page I think I'll stick with this format for the time being...

Gerry Mulligan - Walking Shoes

Tal Farlow - Fascinating Rhythm

Modern Jazz Quartet - Softly as in a Morning Sunrise

Dave Brubeck Quartet - These Foolish Things

Ma Rainey - Booze and Blues

Victoria Spivey - Handyman (?)

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band - Sobbin' Blues

Lonnie Johnson - Got the Blues for Murder Only

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five - West End Blues

Friday, 18 July 2008

Little Jazz Birds and other related species

Having waxed lyrical about Kris Gayle recently it occurs to me that I should give you, the readers of this ongoing farrago, a context for my opinion.

I have never been a big fan of vocalists generally and female vocalists in particular. Far too many of them tend to be of the view that it is 'The Singer not the Song' (to borrow the title of a Roy Ward Baker sixties Western), regardless of musical genre. The worst offenders are, to my mind, operatic singers, with pop performers running them a close second, and any singer that achieves 'Diva' status tends to be an ego on a stick.

OK, having got that out of the way - who do I like and why do I like them? Ella Fitzgerald was probably the first singer to catch my attention when I saw and heard her singing 'Summertime' on the TV programme Sunday Night at the London Palladium, around 1963. If ever there was a song that gets regularly slaughtered, the George and Ira Gershwin/Dubose Heyward classic is it. I have heard more truly appalling versions of this song than I care to remember: the worse the singer, the more convinced she (and it is generally a 'she') is that this song was created to showcase her. Ella was not like this - for her it was, as it should be, all about the music and she was one hell of a musician. In due course I bought several of her albums, with 'Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rogers and Hart Songbook being a particular favourite.

I had heard Billy Holiday a couple of years earlier, on a recording of a live performance that was made towards the end of her life, but I was not impressed. The voice was raddled and cracked and I was too musically unsophisticated to be able to hear beneath the surface. Now, when I hear those late recordings I am frequently moved to tears by the truth of her singing. When Lady Sings The Blues, the 'biopic' of her life was released in 1972, Diana Ross played the lead and released an album of Billie Holiday songs. In my opinion the performances do not hold a candle to the originals. They are all about the singer and not the song - definitely the work of a 'diva'.

A number of singers from the folk world also grabbed my attention around this time. I loved the Waterson Family but particularly enjoyed the female voices in that group - Lal and Norma Waterson. Their singing always had a total honesty about it and a sense of joy in the music. I also liked the singing of Anne Briggs, who had a similar quality. For these performers it seemed always that it was the song that was the important thing. At the opposite end of the spectrum was Joan Baez, who may have been 'right on' politically but whose singing irritated me intensely and which, to my great dismay, was badly copied by a thousand aspiring female vocalists around the folk clubs of England.

And that was pretty much it for me and singers for a long time. Anita O'Day (You'll have to do your own search here. Blogger's link option doesn't seem to be able to cope with names that contain apostrophes) was acceptable, Peggy Lee was OK but a bit given to schmaltz. Sarah Vaughan did nothing for me and Cleo Laine did even less. Astrud Gilberto's recordings only got interesting when she wasn't singing and Judy Garland was inclined to induce violent regurgitation, as was Barbra Streisand. Of the operatic singers, the only ones I could ever listen to were Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. From the popular music world I didn't mind Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin.

The early seventies produced some interesting stuff. I was impressed by Joni Mitchell, Maria Muldaur and the McGarrigle sisters, but developed a particular fondness for the less well known Wendy Waldman. I was also very taken with the vocal sound of Sergio Mendes' Brazil 66 and 77 groups. The lead female vocalist was Lani Hall and she had a voice that intrigued me, even though I didn't like a lot of the material that the group was doing at that time. When she left she was replaced by another fine singer, Gracinha Leporace, whose voice enhances one of my favourite records of all time - the 1971 album, 'Primal Roots'.

At the beginning of the eighties I came across an album called Little Jazz Bird by one Meredith d'Ambrosio. I had never heard of her so, being intrigued by the name and by the presence of Phil Woods on the album, decided to give it a whirl. What a find that was. It had a Gershwin song that I had never heard before and a whole bunch of songs by writers that were new to me, with the exception of Dave Frishberg, some of whose quirky songs I was already familiar with. It also had Hank Jones playing piano where Ms d'Ambrosio wasn't. It had some very fine string quartet arrangements, some excellent Phil Woods solos and, best of all, Meredith d'Ambrosio's singing, which was true, clear and musical, full of expression but without a hint of melodrama or artifice.

Again, there was a long gap before another singer came along to grab my attention. A combination of my growing obsession with Brazilian music and my son's move to São Paulo led to me visiting Brazil for the first time in January 1994. I returned to England seven weeks later with a welter of CDs and a passion for the country that still shows no sign of diminishing. One of the CDs was by a singer called Zizi Possi and entitled Valsa Brasiliera. It's one of those albums that I describe as 'perfect', in that as each successive track starts I think "Ah - this is my favourite one..." until the next track, when I think "Oh. No, it's this one.." and so ad infinitum through the album. (There's another possible posting there - my list of 'perfect' records. They're not necessarily my favourite records of all time but they don't have a duff track between them.) I sent cassette copies of this record to many of my musician friends and they were greeted with universal approval.

Subsequent visits to Brazil led me to the wonderful Leila Pinheiro, Joyce, Gal Costa, Ozzetti, Maria Rita (see previous postings), Simone Guimarães and the sublime Mônica Salmaso. I had purchased an album by Elis Regina (reckoned by many to be the finest female Brazilian singer) before visiting Brazil and had been extremely unimpressed. As a consequence I resisted all suggestions that I might like to check out her material until about a year ago when 'Woody' (he of the blog) bought me a DVD of a TV performance of hers from 1973. I was instantly converted and regretted the stubbornness that had prevented me reappraising her work much earlier. It just goes to show what one release of substandard material can do. As so often happens in such cases, when she died every record company scoured the vaults for material that they could reissue, regardless of quality. I was unfortunate (and stupid) enough to base an opinion of the artist on one such release. Believe me, I've learnt my lesson! Incidentally, don't be put off these singers because you don't understand the language. The sheer musicality of the artist should carry you through. Treat the voice as another musical instrument and let it wash over you. I eventually began to wonder what they were singing about and started to learn some Portuguese. With the aid of a dictionary I slowly started to unravel some of the lyrics, only to discover that I was listening to poetry of the highest order, so if your curiosity does take you in to learning the language then you are in for a treat.

Meanwhile, back in England, I was involved in the running of yet another jazz club and one of my fellow organisers suggested we nip up to Exeter to see a singer that was appearing there, with a view to booking her for our organisation. The singer was Stacey Kent. We met her before the first set and had a brief chat about her availability for gigs, the likely fee and so forth. She was dressed very simply, wore little or no makeup and was very modest and unassuming. A few minutes later when she took to the stage it was as if someone had switched a light on inside her. Without ever being flash or flamboyant she totally mesmerised the audience. She has the ability to make you feel as if she is singing the song to you personally. Her reading of a lyric is impeccable and her musicianship faultless. She sings with total authority and to my mind leads the field in interpretation of The Great American Songbook.

More recently, Diana Krall has become an international success. She sings well and truthfully and plays piano to a fairly high standard. Also Eliane Elias has been recording more vocal albums. I was first aware of her as the pianist with Steps Ahead and became a fan before I even realised that she was Brazilian. Her piano playing is superb - she has made an album of duets with Herbie Hancock - but she also has a fine voice and can sing well.

Finally, I can't write about female singers without mentioning Kirsty MacColl. She had an excellent voice and a tremendous musicality which she deployed in the pop world. She was also a damn fine songwriter. Her ability to multi track her voice into what she, somewhat tongue in cheek, called her 'angel choir made her a sought-after and frequently anonymous contributor to many hit records. Her contribution to The Pogues' Fairy Tale of New York made me take Shane McGowan seriously for the first time and her final album before her untimely death -Tropical Brainstorm - just continues to grow on me every time I hear it. It's gone from 'hmmm, not bad' to 'perfect album' in the last few years. Yet she was a most reluctant performer in public and did not care for the pop lifestyle. In common with the other singers I've listed here, it's her musicianship which is the biggest factor. For these performers I'm sure, the song has always been more important than the singer - and that's what has made them such great singers.

Given the number of links involved I thought I'd give you the YouTube ones separately, so:-

Ella Fitzgerald - Angel Eyes

Billy Holiday - Good Morning Heartache

Lal Waterson - Child Among the Weeds

Norma Waterson - Aint No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears

Anne Briggs - Blackwaterside

Joni Mitchell - Free Man in Paris

Maria Muldaur - You Made Your Move Too Soon

Kate and Anna McGarrigle - Heart Like a Wheel

Wendy Waldman - My Last Thought

Lani Hall (singing lead vocal with Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66) - Mas Que Nada

Gracinha Leporace - Horizonte Aberto

Meredith D'Ambrosio - The Christmas Waltz

Zizi Possi - Lamentos

Leila Pinhero - Catavento e Girassol

Joyce - Feminina

Gal Costa - Brigas Nunca Mais

Ozzetti - Felicidade

Simone Guimarães - Tamanduá

Mônica Salmaso - O Velho Francisco

Elis Regina - Corcovado

Stacey Kent - The Best is Yet to Come

Kirsty MacColl - Mambo de la Luna

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Mama Africa part 2

When the brief British fad for 'Afro-Rock' was started in the early seventies I eagerly awaited the first record release from a group called Osibisa, who were being raved about in the pages of Melody Maker and such like music papers. I must admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed by Osibisa at the time, although with hindsight (which is always 20/20) I can see that they were quite important in that they did open the door to a wider audience for non American black music. Here is an example of them at their best, playing Gong Gong Song from around 1971. I much preferred Assagai, the band formed by Pukwana, Feza and Moholo from The Blue Notes with fellow South Africans Bizo Muggikana and Fred Coker. Here they play Hey Jude accompanied rather incongruously by a video of some elderly folk walking in Richmond Park) and make this Beatles classic very much their own. The other two clips are well worth checking out as well - Beka and Cocoa. All three tracks are from their eponymous 1971 album on the Vertigo label.

In the meantime another South African performer had emerged in the mid sixties. This was Miriam Makeba, whose Click Song gained her an international following (and introduced the world to the Xhosa language). The performance here is from a Dutch TV broadcast from 1979. Once again the African / Brazilian connection shows up as Ms Makeba employed the great Sivuca (see Accordion Crimes) as her musical director for a while. He was the arranger of her next big hit, Pata Pata and in this clip taken from a sixties TV broadcast in São Paulo, Sivuca is seen playing acoustic guitar. She was also married to trumpeter Hugh Masekela for a while and I believe, was instrumental (if you'll pardon the unintended pun) in raising his international profile. He had a world wide hit with Grazin' in the Grass in 1968.

By the time that Paul Simon released his Graceland album in 1986, African music had become an established part what of was now known as 'World Music', with artists such as The Bhundu Boys, Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Touré, Manu Dibango and Salif Keita becoming well established all over the world. Simon's - at the time, controversial - album helped refocus attention on the South African music scene, giving a boost to Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela (although they did not appear on the album but did play some concerts with him) and launching the international career of Ladyship Black Mambazo. Here's Paul Simon and Miriam Makeba performing Under African Skies and Simon with Ladyship Black Mambazo performing Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes in Zimbabwe in 1987.

In the early eighties I was lucky enough to meet and play with a Nigerian musician who went by the name of Silver Ada and was in fact Squadron Leader Sylvester Ada of the Nigerian Air Force. He was on secondment to The Band of the Royal Air Force Central College, where he was learning how to lead a military band. He himself was one of the most popular Highlife musicians in Nigeria and had been selected for the job of leader of the Nigerian Air Force Band because the bigwigs wanted cheap musicians for their parties - at least, that's what he told me. He was a reasonable saxophonist, a good conga player and a passable guitarist, but his feel was absolutely tremendous and I learned an awful lot about playing African grooves from him, which later stood me in good stead when I started playing Brazilian music in earnest.

When not in his uniform (which, to my great amusement had 'NAF' inscribed on every brass button) he would parade around town in a slightly dated cream suit, accompanied by a different laughing girl every time I saw him. It was this uninhibited and joyful womanising that finally drew the RAF's attention to him and I later learned that he had been sent home in disgrace. I've never heard from or of him since and can find no trace of him via the Internet, but if you're out there Silver and you happen to be reading this - please get in touch. The six months or so that we played together have served me well and I thank you for that.

In recent years it has slowly dawned on me that, in fact, African music has had an immense influence on the rest of the world. The slave trade was an appalling thing but it nevertheless ultimately gave us blues, which gave us jazz. Rock and Roll couldn't have happened without it, anymore than rock, soul, R and B etc. Wherever African music interfaced with European music it span off a new form. The influence of predominantly Northern European classical music and Protestant church music helped shape the emergent black music of America, which in turn influenced the popular music composers of the day. The same thing was happening in South America in Brazil, which had an even larger slave population than North America. Here the African interface was mainly with music of the Iberian Peninsular (which in turn had been influenced by the Moors when it was part of their empire - hence Flamenco and Fado with their characteristic quarter tones) and with Catholic church music.

Brazilian music has many parallels with North American music - Choro (see Anarchy in the UKe) and Ragtime for example. It was the black influence on polite Portuguese Parlor music that gave us Choro just as Ragtime was emerging in a similar way in the U.S.A. Ragtime was a principal ingredient in the mix that became 'jazz', which in turn was heard by Choro musicians, notably the great Pixinguiha, who incorporated elements of New Orleans jazz back into Choro (he had met up with black North American jazz musicians in Paris whilst touring Europe) and even called his group 'Pixinguinha and his Jazz band' for a while. Later, in the fifties when Bossa Nova first emerged, it too was influenced by cool school and West coast jazz, and in turn fed back into the North American jazz and popular music scene - but I'll try and untangle this one in a later posting!

My most recent African music 'find' has been the extraordinarily gifted Cameroonian musician, Richard Bona, who in many ways pulls quite a few of these threads together. His roots are firmly in his own culture and yet he is one of the most ferociously talented electric bass players in the world - up there with Jaco Pastorius - for musicality as well as for technique. His ability to enhance other people's music with his contributions is second to none. He has worked with everyone from Pat Metheny to Lenine and from Bobby McFerrin to Janis Ian. He sings like an angel, plays great guitar, percussion and balafon as well as writing some beautiful songs. If you haven't already heard him then I earnestly recommend that you check out some of his work. Just to whet your appetite, here is a clip of a bass solo from a live gig sometime before 2006 and here's his website - Bonatology. Oh, and here's a repeat of the clip of him performing with French accordianist Marc Berthoumieux that appears in the Accordion crimes posting. Incidentally, he's appearing with his band at The Barbican on Sunday 16th November. Here's a link if you want to book tickets (needless to say, I've got mine!). http://www.barbican.org.uk/music/event-detail.asp?ID=7784

Just to round these two postings off, I took the title from this song by the
Brazilian singer / songwriter, Chico Cesar. It certainly puts the Africa - Brazil connection in focus. So - here's Mama Africa.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Mama Africa part 1

When I was up in London recently for the Maria Rita gig I had the pleasure of 'sitting in' and playing percussion with three superb Congolese musicians who perform under the name 'Trio Lokito'. I was actually quite surprised at how easily I slotted in with their music: they were very complimentary about my grasp of their rhythms and I really don't think they were just being polite because they asked me to stick around and play the rest of the gig with them. Afterwards I discovered that they are part of a bigger unit - Grupo Lokito -which is quite well established in and around London. The group fuses Congolese and Cuban rhthms to great effect and you can here examples of the music if you follow the above link.

In fact I'm no stranger to African music. I was first drawn to the sounds of Kwela - the black South African music that surfaced in the fifties - when I was about fourteen and I heard Tom Hark by Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes. Quite how this record found its way into the English pop charts I don't know, but the music seemed to resonate beyond the Townships. A Kwela sequence featured in the musical King Kong, which opened in the West End in with an all black cast in 1961. I don't recall how I saw the scene in question -I guess it must have been shown on TV - but I remember vividly the image of a small black boy (Lemmy 'Special' Mabaso) leaping out of a dustbin in full flight on the penny whistle. Another Kwela musician that I heard around that time was Spokes Mashiyane, who was considered to be the best of them. (If you follow the link you will find quite a few examples of his music.)

My appetite had been whetted for this kind of music and when a show called 'Wait a Minim' came to England it brought with it singer / songwriter Jeremy Taylor (see Woke up this afternoon Part two) and the Tracey brothers - Paul and Andrew (sons of the famous ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey), all three of whom were of English origins but had strong South African connections. They released an album in 1964 called 'Always Something New Out of Africa', which I pounced on eagerly. This contained a wealth of interesting stuff including, ironically, a version of Jobim's 'Garota De Ipanema', neatly linking Africa with Brazilian music by playing the melody on a Kalimba. Of particular interest to me was the tune Masanga by a Congolese musician called Jean Bosco Mwenda. I loved the way it rippled and bubbled along with a sweet, yearning kind of quality to it and it was not that much of a surprise to find that the guitarist John Williams had subsequently recorded it, along with a wealth of other African material, on his 2001 album The Magic Box. I managed to find this clip of Mwenda on YouTube. It's about eight minutes long and is pretty uninspiring at first, but at about 2. 40 secs in he starts to play Masanga. It's well worth waiting for.

At some point towards the end of the sixties I became aware of one Chris McGregor. He was a white South African jazz pianist and composer who had been forced into exile along with the black members of his band, by a regime that couldn't tolerate such a unit. The group was called The Blue Notes and their music came as a revelation to the European jazz scene. by this time I was involved with The Freeman Syndicate club at The White Hart, Southall (see also Mutt and Jeff) and we booked the band to play one Friday night around 1967 or 68 - I can't remember exactly. I do remember being completely poleaxed by the power of their performance however, even if I didn't yet entirely understand what they were doing. Their mixture of Township grooves and free jazz was a bit bewildering at first, but by the end of that evening I was beginning to have a dim glimmering of comprehension.

Most English jazz musicians were not as slow on the uptake as me, and Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo in particular, went on to influence some of our finest musicians. Chris went on to found The Brotherhood of Breath, a big band based around The Blue Notes and expanded by like-minded British players. I was invited to the concert that launched their first LP on the RCA 'Neon' label in 1971. It was a memorable night and I can still remember the kick I got from event, especially a tune called 'Union Special' which made me laugh with joy. Chris died in 1990 but his music lives on when the band is occasionally reassembled to play his compositions. Of the original core Blue Notes, only Louis Moholo is still alive, but the 'empty chairs' are eagerly filled, often with musicians who came to prominence in the great Loose Tubes big band, a unit that drew great inspiration from The Brotherhood and the original Blue Notes. The piano chair has been taken by both Roland Perrin and Keith Tippet. There are no YouTube clips of either the Blue Notes or The Brotherhood to be found at the moment, but here are Dudu Pukwana: sax, Chris McGregor: piano, Louis Moholo: drums and Johnny Dyani: bass, playing Blue Notes For Mongezi - Fourth Movement (end) which was recorded immediately after Mongezi Feza's memorial service in December 1975.

I'll pick the story up in the next posting.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Look for the silver lining...

I'll be honest - the week did not start well. On Sunday morning as is my usual practice, I came downstairs to make tea for Mrs Voltarol and me. We usually drink this in bed whilst reading our books so I was clad only in my dressing gown and my feet were bare. As I opened the fridge door and reached in for the milk jug I managed to dislodge a piece of Parmesan cheese, which fell and landed on my big toe, immediately behind the nail. Who would of thought that a piece of cheese could have caused so much pain. I currently have a small but spectacularly coloured bruise and a slight limp that I am somewhat reluctant to talk about. This was a portent of things to come.

We use our oil-fired central heating system to heat water all the year round because, up until recently at any rate, it still works out cheaper than using the immersion heater. We have it set to come on for an hour, twice a day. On Monday evening it occurred to me that I hadn't checked the oil level in the tank recently, so I popped outside for a quick glance at the sight tube. There were a couple of inches showing, so I pulled the little doohickey that bleeds the air out and there was a faint burping sound as the last of the oil disappeared from view. "Oh dear" I said (or words to that effect), "I'd better go and turn the system off before it fires up again and locks out". I stepped back into the kitchen at the precise moment that the boiler fired up and of course, locked out as per prediction. "Oh dear" I said again (or words to that effect). This meant that the system would now need bleeding after the oil had been delivered and before we could use it again. Another job for Dave, the People's Plumber. (For those of you crying "Wimp! Fool! Do it yourself! etc. I should point out that I have slightly less DIY competence than my pet hamster - and I don't have a pet hamster.)

All was not lost. I went up stairs and switched on the immersion heater. There was a faint 'popping' sound and every electrical appliance in the house went dead. "Oh dear" I said and then (departing from the euphemistic because it simply can't do it justice), "double-buggering shit arse BOLLOCKS to it!" (and even here I rein myself in for the benefit of the more genteel amongst my readership). I went downstairs and reset the trip, went back upstairs to the airing cupboard, checked for loose connections, replaced the fuse and tried again with the same result, except that this time the lights went out as well, because by now dusk was upon us. Having reached the end of my expertise and with no hamster available to consult, I turned the immersion heater off again, went back down stairs, reset the trip once more and resigned myself to a temporary absence of hot water and a bigger bill from Dave, the People's Plumber. "Ah well" I thought, "at least tomorrow I'm going to interview Neil Davey and Hilary Coleman from the Cornish music group Dalla for the blog. I do have something to look forward to". Ha!

I usually use my trusty MD Walkman to record interviews but it's seen a lot of service over the last eight years and I had been lent a new, state of the art, digital sound recorder, so I packed both as I set out yesterday morning - belt and braces - just to be on the safe side. I arrived at their house on time and started to set up my equipment, only to find that I had brought the wrong power adaptor for the Mini disc and that it's battery was practically flat. No matter. I set up the borrowed machine, did a quick level test and started recording. I have known Neil and Hilary for quite a while and we get on very well, so the interview was a pleasure. I seem to have found the right questions to get them going and they disgorged a wealth of material about the evolution of their own musicality, their musical philosophy, direction and ambitions. I couldn't wait to get home and start transcribing it for these pages...

I might have known. Despite the fact that everything had seemed to be performing correctly, the gremlins that had so far dogged my week were now resident in the recorder. The entire sound file of the interview consisted of seven seconds of me saying "Testing...no...that's fine...excellent. OK folks, first que". And that was that. I phoned Hilary and somewhat shamefacedly explained what had happened and said that I could probably put some sort of article together from memory but she very gallantly agreed to do the interview again at a later date. So - watch this space.

In the meantime I was short a scheduled posting for this blog. During the course of our conversation, Neil and Hilary had made much of the value of being able to identify with the music of your heritage and your place of birth. Somewhat flippantly I had replied "Are you familiar with the Folk Songs of Middlesex?" - which is where I was born and spent the first forty-odd years of my life. Confronted by a sudden lack of intended blog material I decided to do a quick Google search and see if I couldn't just save the day with a posting about traditional Middlesex music. That it wasn't successful is clearly evinced by the actual subject matter of this piece. There were references to one or two folk clubs in Middlesex, a website for a Morris Dancing team who perform dances from the Cotswolds in Middlesex U.S.A. and quite a lot of material about trans sexuality. And that, dear readers, is why you are reading this catalogue of disasters...and the week's not over yet.

Friday, 4 July 2008

KRIS GAYLE - 8.00 am: Album review

After seeing Kris Gayle perform recently ( see Local Hero(ine)s) I was keen to get my hands on her latest CD and review it for this blog. The album arrived a couple of days ago but I haven't had a chance before now of sitting down and giving it my full attention. Now that I have I can say that it was well worth the wait. Here's a 'blow by blow' account.

1. Blue in Green (Bill Evans - Cassandra Wilson).
From the opening bars one has an immediate sense of musical authority. This track has a great contemporary feel and Kris's voice slides effortlessly through a high-tech arrangement that exploits synthesis to the full but, paradoxically, never loses its sense of organic centre. An excellent bass solo from Damian Rodd puts the icing on the cake of this track.
2. Watch What Happens (Michel Legrand).
A crisp conga beat sets up a latin feel and as the album progresses I have to keep reminding myself that this is a Cornish product! The horn arrangements are excellent and Marc Hadley delivers a fine tenor sax solo. The word 'effortless' springs to mind for the vocal - but that is, of course, 'the art that conceals art'. The next word that comes to mind is 'sublime'.
3. It Never Entered My Mind (Richard Rogers - Lorenz Hart).
This is one of my favourite songs by my all-time favourite song writing team. Kris gives a beautiful reading of the oft-omitted verse, before sliding into the main body of the song like oiled silk. Most of the great jazz singers have performed this song, Ella Fitzgerald particularly making it her own and influencing many versions, but Kris, as I have observed before, really inhabits a song. If this gets enough airplay it will, in turn, influence many singers to come.
4. I'm All Smiles (Michael Leonard - Herbert Martin).
A jazz waltz with a lovely relaxed feel that features a nice synth solo from Viv.
5. Sermonette (Julian 'Cannonball' Adderly - Jon Hendricks).
This 'soul jazz' classic is delivered here with a slowed down, lazy groove, nice horn arrangements, a piano solo from Viv and some tasteful harmonica from Alex Cockle - all good stuff but my least favourite track so far. I feel that it's a little bit too busy and slightly overproduced. In this case, less would be more.
6. All Blues (Miles Davis - Oscar Brown Jr).
This track is everything that the previous one is not. There is a beautifully 'spare' feel to it - a great sense of space appropriate to the classic Miles tune. Kris delivers the lyric with great authority. To paraphrase the late Lord Buckley - "When she lays it down it stays there!". This is an outstanding track with great contributions from Paul Heywood's soprano sax and Damian Rodd's bass.
7. 8. 00 am (Viv Rodd - Kris Gayle)
This original composition sits extremely comfortably with the rest of the more well known numbers and features a thoughtful tenor solo from Marc Hadley. If there is any justice the song will be pounced upon and covered by any singer looking for great material that hasn't already been done to death by other artists. I'd like to hear Meredith d'Ambrosio's take on this one, which is not to say that this performance isn't exquisite!
8. The Song is You (Jerome Kern - Oscar Hammerstein II)
This is taken at a cracking pace, reminiscent of the Jimmy Giuffre Three version from the eponymous 1957 album. Kris's voice is as assured as ever, but I'm not quite so certain about the bass line and, for me, the synth solo doesn't work. There's nothing wrong with the choice of notes but I feel that it would have worked much better with a more percussive sound. It has a 'muscular' quality to it that I associate with pianists like Eddie Costa from Tal Farlow's 1957 line-up.
9. Gravy Waltz (Ray Brown - Steve Allen)
By contrast this next track is a totally relaxed and swinging performance, with Viv's 'Hammond Organ' playing perfectly matched to Kris's voice.
10. Bird Tribute (various).
This Charlie Parker tribute opens with a terrific piano and voice duet on Leonard Feather's 'I Remember Bird' which is unequivocably world class - the communication between Viv and Kris seems almost telepathic. When the count-in takes the tempo up for the arrival of Paul Heywood's alto sax on Charlie Parker's 'Ornithology' it comes as quite a shock to the system, as indeed Bird was to the musical establishment of his day. 'Ornithology' segues into 'How High the Moon' (Morgan Lewis - Nancy Hamilton), with Kris scatting the line in unison with the sax before returning to 'I remember Bird' for the conclusion. An excellent arrangement by Kris's husband, Goudie Charles.
11. Some Other Time (Leonard Bernstein - Betty Comden - Adolph Green).
We're back in lush ballad territory and as always with Kris, you recognise that it is the song that is the important thing to her. She breathes life into a lyric in a way that only very few singers can. Viv's arrangements and piano solo really shine here.
12. I'm Old Fashioned ( Jerome Kern - Johny Mercer).
The last track is a swinging mid-tempo version of this classic song and Kris gives a faultless reading of it. Viv's synth 'big band' is augmented to good effect by Paul Heywood and trumpeter Monty Ray.
Overall this is a great album that demonstrates quite conclusively that we have a pair of world class talents in Kris Gayle and Viv Rodd. Why aren't they better known? Maybe 8. 00am is the breakthrough album. Go and buy it now: you know it makes sense! ****½
8. 00 am is on the Big Milk label. It was produced and mixed by Damien Rodd.
Kris's website is http://www.krisgayle.com/
Viv Rodd's web site is http://www.trurojazz.com/
Damien Rodd is at www.myspace.com/damianrodd

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Maria Rita at the Barbican

I have been a fan of Maria Rita (see Keeping it in the family) ever since heard her first CD being played in a restaurant during one of my trips to Brazil a couple of years ago. I didn't recognise the singer or any of the songs but I was impressed with her, the material and the band so asked the waiter what the music was. He went and fetched me the CD cover to read. I made a note of the details and was subsequently able to purchase a copy before returning to England. Thus began my enthusiasm for Maria Rita, who made her UK debut at the London Barbican last Saturday night.

I arrived early at the venue accompanied by my wife, my daughter and my grandson and stopped off at the bar before we took our seats. As is so often the case at London gigs by Brazilian musicians, the predominant language that we heard was Portuguese: London has a large Brazilian community these days and a visit from a top artist always produces a big turn out. This generally makes for a great atmosphere but the downside is that even when the artist is a fluent English speaker, there is a tendency for the audience to request - somewhat vociferously - that announcements are made in their native language. Some - such as Gilberto Gil - are seasoned enough performers that they resist this and make sure that those who only speak English are catered for. Maria Rita proved to be not quite in this category.

The band took to the stage and sorted themselves out, then Ms Rita, clad in a midriff-exposing, split-skirt ensemble, emerged to rapturous applause and sailed into the first number. It quickly became apparent that the mix was not right, and although the band were obviously playing their socks off and the singer was giving her all to the performance, the mix just got worse as the concert went on. I glanced up at the mixing desk several times (we were sitting a few rows in front of it) but was somewhat surprised to see no sign of dissatisfaction on the face of the sound engineer. On the contrary, he looked very relaxed and happy, despite the fact that the percussion was drowning out almost everything else. Every now and then he would seem to become aware of an imbalance but made the fundamental error of continually raising the volume of the other instruments and the voice, rather than bringing the offending instrument's levels down. As the evening went on this 'volume chasing' continued as the engineer, having turned everything else up to the point where the percussionists were not so prominent in the mix, then decided that their levels needed to be brought up more and so ad infinitum until distortion began to set in...

I'm sure that the actual performance was great: they were musicians of a very high calibre and Maria Rita is a damn fine singer who was obviously giving her all to a rapturous crowd, who in turn were on their feet dancing within a very short time and greeting each song with a howl of recognition. They seemed to enjoy it all despite the sound quality and the atmosphere was generally fairly joyous. Alas, I could not share the enthusiasm, much as I wanted to. I'm happy that everyone had a good time - a fact confirmed by the repeated encores that led to the repetition of some of the set as they had obviously run out of rehearsed material - but for me sheer atmosphere was not enough. I wanted to hear what the individual instruments were playing. It was a seven piece band - piano, bass, drums, cavaquinho, seven string guitar and two percussionists. The pianist was the excellent Jota Moraes, who I know from his great work with the group Cama Da Gato (of whom more in another posting) but you would never have known.

No, on the whole it was a great disappointment but I point the finger solely at the sound engineer. I have seen DVDs of several live performances and I would still urge you to check out Maria Rita if you get the chance. Try this for a start. There's lots more where this came from!