Headed off to the Capstone on Friday evening to see Jah Wobble in his latest incarnation, fronting his Modern Jazz Ensemble. I don’t know if there’s something lacking in the Capstone’s marketing, but the house was only half full to see a legend of modern British music. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this – earlier this year I turned up for a jazz gig at the Capstone to find the musicians on stage nearly outnumbered the audience.
Proceedings opened with Jah Wobble emerging unannounced, being strapped into his base by an assistant later announced as his ‘carer’, and then, sprawled on a chair, languidly picking the strings of his bass to set up a hypnotic beat that pulsated through the room at massive volume. Wobble – in suit and tie and trademark pork pie hat – was seated in front of a bank of speakers whose cones, especially the big bass woofer, reverberated rhythmically. Then, one by one, fellow Ensemble members joined Wobble on stage, adding layers and textures – drummer Marc Layton-Bennett, keyboardist George King and trumpeter Sean Corby.
The group then proceeded to thunder through a set of powerful compositions that mostly harked back to the sound of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew with the same blend of ferocious percussion, keyboard grooves and, floating over the pulsing maelstrom created by the other three musicians, Sean Corby’s drifting, extended trumpet notes – but with Wobble’s huge, thumping basslines turned up to the maximum and positioned at the forefront of the mix.
Wobble was soon up and about, directing the other three musicians with a shout or a gesture, sometimes leaning into Marc Layton-Bennett’s drumkit to engage in ferocious interplay. It was a fine evening of jazz fusion, performed by four musicians who were clearly at ease with each other, following each other’s lead intuitively. Wobble’s mastery of the bass guitar (actually switching between three – ‘I used to be satisfied with one, but now…’) has to be seen to be believed: he plucks with one finger, slaps and strokes the strings, weaving a simple bass pattern that left space in which others could explore and improvise.
Jah Wobble (born John Wardle: he acquired his stage name through the drunken, mumbled version of Wardle’s name by Sid Vicious, which Wobble kept because ‘people would never forget it’) formed his own record label, 30 Hertz Records, in 1996 for the sole purpose of ‘making some fuckin’ weird music’. You could say that the Jazz Ensemble is one of his least weird incarnations.
Wobble was 18 when he became a founder member of Public Image Limited. His heavy, hypnotic bass lines defined the post punk era and have influenced many musicians over the last 30 odd years. He has collaborated with musicians of all kinds – including Bill Laswell, Pharaoh Sanders, Sinead O’Connor, Natasha Atlas, as well as engaging Chinese and Japanese traditional musicians in wild dub collaborations. His records have mixed up all sorts of genres, from world beats to dub, jazz, ambient and much more.
In the late 1980s, a struggle with alcoholism put Wobble’s musical career on hold and, with a young family to support, he joined London Underground as a guard and later drove courier vans. This was the time when he began listening to music from North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe and formed Invaders of the Heart with guitarist Justin Adams. THe two albums that came out of this period – Rising Above Bedlam from 1991 and Take Me to God from 1994 – were the ones that drew me to Wobble’s musical vision. There were tracks with Middle Eastern influences, including ‘Everyman’s an Island’ with vocals by Natasha Atlas, and trance-like songs like ‘Visions of You’ and ‘Bomba’ with Sinéad O’Connor on vocals. An album inspired by the poetry of William Blake and Chinese Dub, a collaboration with his wife, Chinese guzheng player Zi Lan Liao, followed.
In an entertaining interview with in New Statesman magazine in 2008, Wobble asserted ‘You’ve got to put your fucking morals ahead of fucking money. Fuck fuckin’ money. Fuck it all’.
‘I’m not terribly concerned with whether or not people like my music’, he insisted in that interview. ‘My music is a part of me. Saying you don’t like my music is like saying you don’t like my nose or the shape of my ear. Point taken, but fuck off’. Some of that combativeness was displayed on Friday night in good-natured exchanges with members of the Capstone audience.
For the final number of the evening Wobble conducted what was a masterclass in improvisation in which he would set up a musical idea with the other three, let it run a while then halt proceedings to tweak and develop further. This was interesting and revelatory, but should have come earlier in proceedings. As the finale it kind of brought a roaring second half of the gig to a stuttering halt.
Eschewing encores, Wobble finished by invited everyone backstage – ‘loads of food – come and have a sandwich’. He is, as the title of his autobiography proclaims, just an ordinary bloke – a geezer.
This is ‘Country Cousin’ from the album 7 by Jah Wobble and the Modern Jazz Ensemble:
And this is ‘Heaven and Earth’ from Jah Wobble’s Chinese Dub album, in a live performance that I missed in Liverpool back in 2008.