The music in my head (part 3): jazz and beyond

The music in my head (part 3): jazz and beyond

This is the third post in which I recall some of the music I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. This one is dedicated (with two exceptions) to music recorded on the record label that is, for me, indispensable – ECM. There’s a lot of jazz, examples of the gift of ECM’s guiding spirit Manfred Eicher for bringing together musicians from different contexts to create wonderful sounds, and some of the contemporary music released on the ECM New Series label. Continue reading “The music in my head (part 3): jazz and beyond”

Rico Rodriguez: trombone player who straddled ska, reggae, Two-Tone and jazz

Rico Rodriguez: trombone player who straddled ska, reggae, Two-Tone and jazz

The death was announced this week of Rico Rodriguez of one of the great figures from the era of Jamaican ska music in the sixties, through to the British Two-Tone movement in the 1980s.

Later, along with musicians like Denys Baptiste, Andy Sheppard, Guy Barker and Annie Whitehead, he was a member of Jazz Jamaica, Gary Crosby’s big band that fused ska, reggae and jazz (I remember seeing them on the Massive tour in 2004, putting on a show full of musical sparkle and exuberant energy). From 1996 until 2012, Rico was also a member of the Jools Holland Orchestra. Continue reading “Rico Rodriguez: trombone player who straddled ska, reggae, Two-Tone and jazz”

Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot

Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot

Well I tried, didn’t I? I have to admit, I’ve always had a blind spot where Jackson Pollock’s concerned. So I was not that keen on seeing Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at Tate Liverpool. But I was persuaded by my daughter – who was blown away by the Pollocks she saw in MoMA a few years ago – to give it a go. I came away still unconvinced. Continue reading “Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot”

The Atlantic Records Story: the music in my head for sixty years

The Atlantic Records Story: the music in my head for sixty years

I’ve been listening to The Atlantic Records Story, a BBC Radio 6 documentary series narrated by Johnnie Walker that tells the story of the Atlantic Records label (just one example of the gems you can discover via the updated iPlayer Radio app which now allows you to download programmes to your phone, where they remain until they self-destruct, usually after 28 days). Continue reading “The Atlantic Records Story: the music in my head for sixty years”

Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s

Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s

On Monday evening, waiting for Allen Toussaint to begin his solo set at  Ronnie Scott’s, I recalled the times in the early sixties when I would lie in bed listening to songs like ‘Working in a Coalmine’, ‘Mother in Law’ and ‘Fortune Teller’ on Radio Luxembourg.  Although I was not aware of the fact at the time, all these hit singles had been written and produced by Toussaint.

It was only in the 1970s, when reading the liner notes of albums by Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat and Lowell George, that I discovered that songs such as ‘What is Success’, ‘On Your Way Down’ and ‘What Do You Want the Girl To Do’ were authored by Toussaint – and that this was the same man who had been responsible for those hits by Lee Dorsey, Ernie K Doe and Benny Spellman I had enjoyed a decade earlier. Continue reading “Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s”

John Renbourn: buckets of tears

John Renbourn: buckets of tears

Tomorrow evening I was planning on seeing John Renbourn play at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton, one stop on a tour he was doing with guitarist Wizz Jones. This morning I opened the paper to learn that he was dead.

John Renbourn
John Renbourn in the sixties

With Bert Jansch, John Renbourn co-founded Pentangle in 1967, the brilliant band of musicians which burst traditional categories, fusing folk, blues, jazz and medieval British music into a rhythmic, shimmering sound that has not aged.

When I arrived in Liverpool as a raw university fresher in September 1967 I was absorbing music (as you do at that age) from all directions.  That summer had been the summer of love and Sgt Pepper, Dylan had taken us beyond folk-protest into the wild mercury sounds of Blonde on Blonde, and that month’s number one was Scott McKenzie’s ‘San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)’.

Constantly shimmering in the background were the sounds of folk music – the weekly university folk club sessions were packed back then, with singers like Tom Paxton dropping in.  And sometime in that first year, along with the Incredible String Band and Roy Harper, in the Student Union’s Mountford Hall, I saw Pentangle on their first national tour.  Their blend of folk, blues and jazz reflected the experimental, boundary-breaking nature of the times.

Bert Jansch died some three years ago; now Renbourn is dead too. He was due to play with Wizz Jones in Glasgow on Wednesday night but he failed to turn up. Concerned friends alerted the police who found him at his home in Hawick, Roxburghshire on Thursday morning.  It seems that he had died from a heart attack.

Renbourn was a brilliant guitarist whose tastes in music were eclectic and jumped boundaries, fusing British and Celtic folk with blues, jazz, renaissance and medieval music, and classical guitar.

John Renbourn
John Renbourn

Born and raised in Torquay, Renbourn began playing guitar at an early age. He recently appeared on BBC 6 Music where he described growing up in a musical house in an interview with Cerys Matthews:

My family all played something… there’s a picture of me when I was about five playing on the banjo, so I went through all kids of stuff, all sorts of music. It was just in the early 60s that I was faced with the terrible dilemma of having to get a job, and finding myself preferring to travel and play.

At first Renbourn was drawn to skiffle, the style that became popular as part of the emerging folk music revival in the fifties. In 1964 he left home to study classical guitar in Guildford. There, he began his performing career with an rhythm and blues band called Hogsnort Rupert and the Famous Porkestra. But he was soon drawn to the acoustic blues, playing in Soho blues and folk clubs, where he met many other musicians, including Paul Simon, Davey Graham, and – most importantly – Bert Jansch.

‘I started out trying to play like Big Bill Broonzy’, Renbourn once said, and the Broonzy influence can be heard distictly on his first, eponymous, album.  But, listening to that album, there were already signs of Renbourn’s guitar-picking brilliance –  and of the diversity of his interests, with his arrangement of John Donne’s Elizabethan poem, ‘Go and catch a falling star’, later performed by Pentangle:

Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

In 1966 John recorded Bert and John with Bert Jansch, now regarded as a classic album  in which jazz and folk elements mingle with blues. Take, for example, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, written by Charles Mingus in memory of Lester Young:

In 1967, a Danish film crew documented the folk music scene in London. Among the artists featured were Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, filmed shortly before they formed Pentangle:

In 1967 Renbourn and Jansch founded Pentangle, a group whose eclectic interests and experimentation reflected the atmosphere of late-1960s rock and psychedelia, attracting an audience from the rock scene along with the folk crowd. In addition to the two guitarists, the band featured Jacqui McShee on vocals, Danny Thompson on bass and Terry Cox on drums. They remained together until 1978, with Renbourn and Jansch continuing to release solo albums.

The double album Sweet Child remains one of my all-time favourites; it still sounds fresh and exploratory 50 years later. ‘If you choose the right album and the right age, it’ll keep on educating you for the rest of your life. Sweet Child is one of those records’, remarked Pete Paphides in a Guardian tribute. And it’s true: here were entrees to the world of blues (Furry Lewis’ ‘Turn Your Money Green’), traditional folk (‘Watch The Stars’, ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’), contemporary folk (Anne Briggs’ ‘The Time Has Come’), medieval dance music (‘Brentzel Gay’, ‘La Rotta’) and jazz (Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat’ and Haitian Fight Song’ and Terry Cox’s tribute to Moondog).

Pentangle: ‘Travelling Song’

Pentangle: ‘Hunting Song’, from a BBC special in 1970  (’13th century rock’n’roll’)

Pentangle: ‘No Love Is Sorrow’ from Live at French TV, 1972

Pentangle: ‘House Carpenter’ (John plays sitar while Bert plays banjo)

Pentangle: ‘In Time’, BBC, 1970

Pentangle: ‘I Got a Feeling’, BBC, 1970

John Renbourn has continued to record and perform live in a variety of styles and contexts.  In the mid-1980s he went back to university to study composition at Dartington College of Arts. Since then, he has focused mainly on writing classical music, while still performing in folk settings. Since 2012 he has toured with Wizz Jones, playing a mixture of solo and duo material. He also appeared on Jones’s album Lucky the Man.

John Renbourn: Live at Letterkenny Arts Centre, 2013 (30 minutes)

John Renbourn: ‘Little Niles’, Toronto, 1990

John Renbourn and Wizz Jones: ‘Buckets of Rain’, The Vortex, London, November 2014

Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must

Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears

John Renbourn outside his ome, The Snoot, Hawick, Roxburghshire
John Renbourn outside his home, The Snoot, Hawick, Roxburghshire

See also

Coltrane’s A Love Supreme 50 years on: symbol of black pride

Coltrane’s <em>A Love Supreme</em> 50 years on: symbol of black pride

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of John Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme, ‘easily one of the most important records ever made’, in the estimation of Sam Samuelson at AllMusic. A Love Supreme was recorded by John Coltrane’s quartet on 9 December 1964 and is generally considered to be Coltrane’s greatest work. Continue reading “Coltrane’s A Love Supreme 50 years on: symbol of black pride”