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”

The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil

The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil

Two years ago, in February 2013, I wrote an adulatory review of a concert at the Liverpool Phil by the Heritage Blues Orchestra.  At the time they were pretty much an unknown quantity in the UK, having only recently released their first album, And Still I Rise.

Last night they were back – and gave a show that like the first was a tour de force, and a tour of the blues in all its historical forms. With some variations, the numbers performed were the same as the last time (I had thought there might be more new material since a second album is imminent). This time the orchestra was an eight-piece, since trumpeter Michel Feugère was absent.

‘The blues isn’t all about sadness and hard times’, insisted Junior Mack as he introduced his solo performance of ‘I’m So Glad’. Nevertheless, although Mack proceeded to prove his point with a stirring rendition of the traditional spiritual whose chorus affirms that ‘ Troubles Don’t Last Always’, it is true to say that the HBO’s repertoire of field hollers and work songs, chain gangs chants and prison laments, speaks insistently of hard times, flood waters rising, sweat and labour, and dreams of leaving for a better place down the line. But at the heart of all their songs lies the expression of an indomitable human spirit.

The HBO mission is to reclaim African-American music as expressed in hollers, spirituals, gospel and the blues for the 21st century. Their shows offer a celebration of a tradition that embraces Mississippi work-songs, Delta blues and urban blues, the hand-clapping fervour of gospel, and horn arrangements that evoke the marching bands of New Orleans.

Bill Sims Jnr and daughter Chaney Sims hand-clapping

Every member of the band is an outstanding musician: Bill Sims Jr sings, and plays guitar and piano while Chaney Sims, his daughter is an expressive and passionate vocalist. It’s great to watch these two working together as they employ some of the lost arts of back porches in the South where the blues were sung: handclaps, tambourines, foot-stamping and thigh slapping.  Junior Mack plays lead guitar and seated at the drums is Kenny Smith whose dad played drums for Muddy Waters. Vincent Bucher is a harmonica ace, while the brass section comprises Bruno Wilhelm on saxophone and Didier Havet on tuba and slide trombone.

Vincent Bucher
Vincent Bucher on harmonica

The band’s opener was the same as last time – the old Leadbelly number, ‘Go Down Hannah’ – though this time performed in the fully-orchestrated form found on the album, rather than the spine-tingling acappella version I recall from two years ago. The show continued with most of the numbers from And Still I Rise. On ‘Clarksdale Moan’ Bill Sims Jr took lead vocal, while Vincent Bucher provided thrilling harmonica embellishments. A personal favourite, ‘C-Line Woman’ began with Chaney Sims and her father seated opposite each other doing their handclap routine before Chaney’s lascivious vocal was powered along by driving percussion and stomping tuba.

There were powerful versions of ‘Get Right Church’, the salacious ‘Big-Legged Woman’ which Bill Sims has made his own signature tune, and the Eric Bibb song, ‘Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down’. Muddy Waters’ ‘Catfish Blues’ featured tremendous harmonica from Bucher and guitar licks from Sims and Mack, while Mack introduced his spine-tingling solo rendition of ‘Levee Camp Holler’ as echoing the thoughts of a prisoner wondering ‘how did I get here?’

Whoo, I woke up this morning and I was feeling bad
Whoa, babe, I was feeling bad
I was thinking about the good time that I once have had

‘Levee Camp Holler’ is a work song recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1930s when prison gangs on the Mississippi were employed to build the levees higher, living in work camps that were wild places where the only law was the boss.

A highlight of the show was to hear Bill and Chaney Sims perform their outstanding version of ‘St James Infirmary’ in which Bill provides soulful piano accompaniment for Chaney’s expressive vocal that ranges from high calls to deep moans. In this YouTube clip, the duo play the song in Rottterdam in March 2013:

Another highlight – and indeed my favourite track from the album – was Skip James’ classic ‘Hard Times’ which the HBO present in three movements.

Hard times here, hard times all around
Well I believe hard times gonna carry me down
Got no flour, ain’t got no corn or meal
Ain’t got none, make me rob and steal…

They begin with a traditional call-and-response between Chaney’s lone voice and Bill’s guitar before the trombone and saxophone enter with a mournful section sounding like a marching band at a New Orleans funeral or ‘homecoming’. Finally, the entire band raise the roof with a stomping, funky jam designed for the dance floor.

There were new tunes, including the gospel classic ‘If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again’ (like ‘Levee Camp Holler’, another from the 1920s) and the song performed solo by Mack when he returned to the stage after the interval, ‘Delta Slide’. He introduced it as ‘a dream of leaving for a better place down the line’: the Delta Slide was the name given to a railroad line that linked the Mississippi River with Greenwood.  It was written and recorded by Tommy Johnson after the flood of 1927

The Delta Slide done been here and gone.
Take me out of the Delta, baby, before the water rise…

‘Joliet Bound’ was another prison song, first performed by Memphis Minnie:

Well the police coming
With his ball and chain
Mmmm mmmm
Police coming
With his ball and chain
And they accusing me of murder
Ain’t never harmed no man

Well Now some got six months
Some got a solid year
Mmmm mmmm
Some got six months
Some got one solid year
Well now me and my buddy
We got a lifetime here

The encore was a foregone conclusion: ‘In the Morning’, the song whose chorus lends its title to the Orchestra’s debut album And Still I Rise. It brought the house down.

In the morning
When I rise
All my trouble will be over
There’ll be no more sorrow
I’m gonna rise up singing
in the morning
When I rise

This is the HBO performing ‘In The Morning’ at Celtic Connections, Glasgow, in 2013:

The Heritage Blues Orchestra are an outstanding group of musicians. Now all we need is the new album!

Dr John at the Phil, Liverpool: Such a Night!

Dr John at the Phil, Liverpool: Such a Night!

Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint – three of the piano-player greats who have emerged from New Orleans, that laboratory of musical invention, the city where every stream of American music has converged and shape-shifted. None have transmogrified the music to the same degree as a fourth pianist, Mac Rebennack who reinvented himself as Dr John, fusing voodoo psychedelia with New Orleans R&B, gospel and funk.  Last Monday he materialised at the Liverpool Philharmonic, still cooking up a righteous gumbo at 75 years.

A couple of evenings earlier we had watched the last episode of Songs of the South, Reginald D Hunter’s excellent BBC2 series about the music of the American South, in which Dr John appeared, averring that ‘it ain’t New Orleans if it ain’t got that Latin tinge’.  Meaning: the city’s spicy musical stew reflects its connections with the Caribbean – Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Haiti, source of voodoo culture and mysticism that imbued his 1968 début album Gris Gris with an atmosphere so occult, mysterious and eerie that it became a staple of stoned student seances. At such ceremonies, the needle would be dropped repeatedly on the trance-like ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ that sounded as if it had been recorded at a post-midnight ceremony in some secluded bayou swamp.

Dr John

Arriving at the concert I had no expectation of hearing that iconic number – I thought it might be unreproducible on stage, that maybe the pianist had left it behind in the swirling mists of the past; and, anyway, his latest album is a tribute to Louis Armstrong so perhaps the set list would reflect that fact. However, half-way into a concert that does feature a few songs off the Satchmo tribute but is primarily an energising greatest hits retrospective, he pulls out a medley of ‘Gilded Splinters’ and ‘Gris Gris YaYa’ as spooky and psychedelicized as the original.

Sarah Morrow
Sarah Morrow, trombone

The effect is achieved with a new incarnation of his backing band The Nite-Trippers that numbers just four musicians. They are Bobby Floyd Rhoda Scott on Hammond organ, Dwight Bailey on bass, Shannon Powell on drums, and Sarah Morrow on trombone who also acts as musical director.  Dr John appeared a rather frail figure as he made his way across the stage, carefully steadying himself with a cane.  But, once seated at the piano, he launched into an energetic set that rippled with the bluesy rhythms and formidable boogie riffs of old.

Dr John piano
Dr John at the piano
The sound mix took some getting used to at first – as usual, the Phil can’t get it right, with the drums drowning out Dr John’s piano and vocals.  But gradually the ears attuned and we settled in to enjoy a great evening.  Dr John had been preceded on stage by the band members who performed ‘The Dr Iz In’ as an overture, with trombonist Sarah Morrow acting as emcee, whipping up the crowd with the call, ‘Do you need a doctor?’ The pianist appointed Morrow his musical director in 2013 after sacking all the previous Night-Trippers.  This apparently didn’t go down well with New Orleans regulars who regarded Morrow, hailing from Ohio, as an interloper who didn’t understand the city’s music. On the strength of this evening’s show that opinion can be disputed; she was firing on all cylinders – on trombone, vocals, and general audience arousal duties.

The Doctor and the band kicked off with a spirited cover of the New Orleans anthem ‘Iko Iko’, beginning a musical journey through his back catalogue that included much loved New Orleans standards – highlights from his own 1972 tribute to the music he had grown up with in the 1940s and 1950s – such as ‘Tipitina’ and ‘Mess Around’, as well as ‘Big Bass Drum (On A Mardi Gras Day)’.  Along with his classic ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’, this segment of the show reflected how Mac Rebennack has always tried, as he expressed it in his autobiography, ‘to keep a lot of the little changes that were characteristic of New Orleans, while working my own funknology on piano and guitar.’

Big Bass Drum (On A Mardi Gras Day)

After ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’, the Doctor stepped gingerly away from the piano stool to where a stage-hand helped him strap on a guitar. There was nothing shaky about the rendition of ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ that followed, a no-prisoners, Hendrix-style blues blast.

Dr John on guitar
Dr John on guitar

I must admit that before seeing this I didn’t know that Dr John played guitar. How much I know! It turns out that he began his music career as a guitarist, only switching to piano after he had a finger shot off (and sewed back on) after he intervened in a life-threatening altercation between the singer in his band and a bad guy who was pistol-whipping him.

Let the Good Times Roll: live, with Dr John on guitar

‘Let the Good Times Roll’ rounded off a brilliant segment of the show, peppered with r’n’b numbers off the Gumbo album, plus that psychedelic good-luck charm off Gris-Gris, ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’.

‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ at Lugano Jazz in 2012 with Sarah Morrow on trombone

Put gris-gris on your doorstep
Soon you’ll be in the gutter
Melt your heart like butter
A-a-and I can make you stutter

Come Get It, Get It, Come, Come
Walk on gilded splinters
Come Get It, Get It, Come, Come
Walk on gilded splinters

‘Til I Burn Up ,’Til I Burn Up, ‘Til I Burn Up ,’Til I Burn Up

Come Get It, Get It, Come, Come
Walk on gilded splinters

‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ at  the 2013 Official Americana Awards with a bigger, rock-inflected band

The other main theme of the night was Satchmo, with several tunes from Dr John’s tribute to Louis Armstrong, Ske-Dat-De-Dat…The Spirit of Satch.  We got ‘St. James Infirmary’, ‘You Rascal You’, ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘That’s My Home’.  If you have reservations (as I do) about ‘Wonderful World’, fear not – the Doctor’s totally sugar-free version is like no other, pure New Orleans funk, with churchy Hammond organ, scratchy vocal and bluesy piano. It’s a measure of how much he says he ‘enjoys screwing with a good song.’ I liked Dr John’s vocal on ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ a lot better than the version on the album, where it’s sung by Anthony Hamilton in a smooth crooner style.

The concert ended on a real high note, with ‘Big Bass Drum (On A Mardi Gras Day)’, ‘Such a Night’ and ‘Mess Around’ in swift succession.  By the end everyone was on their feet, stamping and clapping and calling for more.

Dr John and The Nite Trippers: ‘Such A Night’, Madrid, June 2014

Dr John and the Nite Trippers: Paris, May 2014 (30 minute segment)


  • The Dr Iz In
  • Iko Iko
  • Let’s Make a Better World
  • Tipitina
  • St. James Infirmary
  • Love For Sale
  • Walk on Gilded Splinters/Gris Gris YaYa
  • Right Place, Wrong Time
  • Let the Good Times Roll
  • What a Wonderful World
  • You Rascal You
  • That’s My Home
  • Goodnight, Irene
  • Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
  • Big Bass Drum (On A Mardi Gras Day)
  • Croker Courtbullion
  • Such a Night
  • Mess Around

Sunshine Daydream: The Grateful Dead 50 years on

Sunshine Daydream: The Grateful Dead 50 years on

Hard to believe, but this year it will be half a century since Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann agreed that the Grateful Dead would be a cool name for the band in which they had been playing together for several months.

For a man in his sixties, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to the Dead this past month -all because I laid out some bread in order to own Sunshine Daydream, the glorious box set that documents – across three CDs and one DVD – a show from the summer of 1972 that has long been regarded by aficionados as the greatest Grateful Dead live performance of all time.

Grateful Dead Veneta
The Grateful Dead at Veneta, Oregon in 1972: a sunshine daydream

As the psychedelic revolution began to sweep the San Francisco scene in 1964, guitarist Jerry Garcia met drummer Bill Kreutzman while buying a banjo at a local music store. The two got along, and Garcia began working at the store selling instruments and teaching guitar lessons. One of Garcia’s students was a 16 year old named Bob Weir. They got along, and early in 1965 Garcia, Weir and Kreutzman formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.

The band soon added Ron McKernan, better known as Pigpen, to sing blues songs. Son of an r&b dee-jay, McKernan was a fifteen year old harmonica player who skipped school and enjoyed the odd bottle of wine. Pigpen convinced the other band members to go electric, and so they became the Warlocks.

The Warlocks needed a bass player and music student Phil Lesh who had a leaning toward jazz and avant-garde electronic music was chosen for the part. By the autumn of 1965 the Warlocks were performing as the house band for LSD-fuelled multimedia shows hosted by Ken Kesey that came to be known as the Acid Tests.

The Warlocks become the Grateful Dead, December 10, 1965
The Warlocks become the Grateful Dead: 10 December 1965

There was another piece of the jigsaw, without which the Dead would not have been what they became. Another firm friend of Garcia’s was Robert Hunter. In their mid-teens they had started a folk duo, imaginatively calling themselves Bob and Jerry, before a brief intermission during which Hunter left the planet while being covertly paid (along with Ken Kesey) by the CIA to ingest sizeable quantities of LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline and report on his experiences in a research project at Stanford University.

Returning to planet earth, Hunter became the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead, writing the majority of the band’s original songs in collaboration with Garcia who composed the music. So important was Hunter that Garcia once described him as ‘the band member who doesn’t come out on stage with us’.

The first lyric Hunter wrote for the Grateful Dead was composed while on LSD – a song that would later become a staple of their live shows, ‘China Cat Sunflower’. (Hunter later swore that ‘A cat dictated ‘China Cat Sunflower’ to me. It was just sittin’ on my stomach, purring away, and sayin’ this stuff. I just wrote it down. I guess it’s plagiarism’.) ‘Dark Star’ was was the first lyric he wrote with the band as they improvised an early version of that long strange trip in the studio. Under the influence of its Phil Lesh-directed psychedelic improvisation, Hunter produced one of the archetypal lyrics of the psychedelic era:

Dark star crashes
pouring its light
into ashes.
Reason tatters
the forces tear loose
from the axis …

Shall we go,
you and I
While we can?
the transitive nightfall
of diamonds.

By 1966 the band members lived in a communal house situated on Ashbury Street in San Francisco, and were a fixture on the local music scene, renowned for their free concerts. By 1967 and the Summer of Love, the Dead had emerged as one of the top bands on the West Coast music scene, and had released their first  album, a disappointing effort which failed to recapture the cosmic sprawl of their live appearances.

The Grateful Dead: The Golden Road live (Whicker’s World 1967)

The follow-up, 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, captured something of the free-form jam aesthetic of their concerts, but after completing 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the band were over 100,000 dollars in debt to the record company. Their response was to release their first live album, Live/Dead, whose highlight was a 23 minute version of ‘Dark Star’ that occupied the whole side of one LP.  This was the Dead in all of their improvisational psychedelic glory, the first Grateful Dead LP I heard. For me, though, it had nothing like the impact of what was to come.

What followed in 1970 was a pair of classic studio LPs, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, albums that I have never stopped listening to. Followed by two incomparable live albums – the 1971 eponymous double known from its cover art as Skulls and Roses, and the triple-LP Europe ’72, a record of what are generally considered to be among their career-best live performances on their European tour that year.

‘A box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through ..’  
These four LPs revealed the Dead returning to their country, blues, bluegrass and folk roots, plus their jazz-like improvisational skill when playing live, an intuitive skill honed during those long psychedelic jams of the sixties. This was the moment when I fell in love with their playing – and with the songs of Robert Hunter. Gorgeous songs, such as ‘Uncle John’s Band’, ‘Ripple’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Casey Jones’, ‘Box of Rain’, ‘Bertha’, ‘Playing in the Band’, and ‘Truckin’, with its iconic line, ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been’.

But the meaning of the Grateful Dead is about more than music.  More than any other band that emerged from the hippie era, they represented the counter-culture ideals of that period – the laid-back dream of drugs, free love and communal living that rejected consumerism and materialism, and instead favoured an alternative lifestyle of self-determination and self-sufficiency. A clear example is the way that the Grateful Dead have always allowed their fans to record and share tapes of their shows, as long as no profits were made on the sale. Sometimes the sound crew would allow tapers to connect directly to the soundboard, resulting in some exceptional concert recordings. Astonishingly, of around 2,350 shows the Grateful Dead played, almost 2,200 were taped, and most of these are freely available online at

Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir in 'Sunshine Daydream'
Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir in ‘Sunshine Daydream’

Which brings me to Sunshine Daydream. Released by Rhino Records in September 2013, it’s an audio and video documentation of a concert long regarded by fans as a near-perfect Grateful Dead concert which took place on 27 August 1972 at Veneta in Oregon, a benefit for their old friend Ken Kesey. The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, founder of the Merry Pranksters and instigator of the Acid Tests at which the Dead had played their first psychedelic epics in San Francisco, had served time for drug offences before retreating to the family farm in Oregon, where the Kesey family operated a creamery.

In 1972, the company was struggling, despite being the first American company to make yoghurt (their brand of Nancy’s Yoghurt was trucked to the San Francisco Bay Area by musician Huey Lewis). Kesey asked his friends in the Grateful Dead if they would play a benefit concert. Hand-drawn posters advertised the event for $3 in advance or $3.50 at the gate. The creamery turned Nancy’s Honey Yogurt labels into concert tickets. On 27 August, more than 20,000 came to hear the Dead on a sweltering afternoon when the temperature soared to 100 degrees. The creamery made around $13,000, enough to stay in business.

'Sunshine Daydream' a sweltring afternoon
‘Sunshine Daydream’: a sweltering afternoon

Bootlegs of the audio have circulated for years, but the concert was never officially released because the band’s intention was that the film shot that day should be included in the package.  Copyright issues – finally resolved in 2013 – held things up. But what we have now is a delicious treasure – perhaps the finest evocation of a counter-cultural gathering of the hippie era (even including a guy who spends the entire concert head-banging naked atop a pole). As Prankster Ken Babbs memorably expresses it in the sleeve notes:

It’s a time capsule, a vessel full of exuberant free spirit as exhibited by the enraptured, edified, and satisfied concert-goers, a spirit that can still resound, that can still fill our hearts with joy, with compassion, with that sense and knowledge of our oneness, our open sharing and caring and the belief that the goodness inherent in all of us will continue to shine just as it did in Veneta, Oregon, in 1972. And will prevail.

The complete concert is presented on three CDs, while the film made by John Norris, Phil DeGuere, and Sam Field has been digitally remastered and re-edited on the accompanying DVD.

‘China Cat Sunflower’ from Sunshine Daydream

The film weaves into the concert footage brief glimpses from the days of the Merry Pranksters, including a shot from the famous cross-country bus trip in 1964 with Neal Cassady at the wheel.  Also on the bus was Ken Babbs, Ken Kesey’s long-time friend since their meeting in a Stanford writing class in 1958. Over the years, Babbs was Kesey’s closest associate until Kesey’s death in 2001. Babbs was the compère at Veneta – heard memorably at the microphone, on CD and DVD, announcing measures to bring cooling water to the dehydrating masses, and issuing alerts of kids who have wandered into the lost children compound.

In a recent interview here, Ken Babbs expressed the opinion that:

We’re finding a resurgence of that spirit now; more and more people are realizing – as they did in those days – that the search for the ‘American Dream’ does not go through the materialistic, acquire-as-much-as-you-can world, but through returning to the natural world through health and spirit and body and community. More and more people are finding that out; more and more people are being forced to as they’re losing their jobs and their homes – and they’re seeking another way … and when they do, they’re finding a better way.

Few things have given me more pleasure recently than listening to this concert and watching the DVD.  As Nigel Williamson writing in the Guardian in September 2013 observed:

What is most striking about the recording from that sun-kissed day is the fluidity with which the Dead absorbed and transmuted every genre of vernacular American music, from blues, folk and gospel to country, R&B and rockabilly, and fed them into some of the most audacious, free-wheeling rock’n’roll ever made – past and future, outlaw spirit and hippy idealism fused into a soundtrack for a brave new frontier that birthed an alternative sub-culture which survives to this day.

An epic psychedelic jam around ‘Dark Star’ full of vaulting, free-form improvisation mutates alchemically into a loping take on Marty Robbins’ cowboy ballad ‘El Paso’. Merle Haggard’s country weepie Sing Me Back Home, delivered hauntingly in Garcia’s reedy but expressive voice, gives way to the Dead’s surging, feelgood acid anthem ‘Sugar Magnolia’, with its irresistible sunshine daydream refrain. Throw in the loose-limbed rhapsody of Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land’, the psyched-up folk-blues racination of ‘I Know You Rider’ and the group’s own storied, myth-making compositions such as ‘Truckin”, ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘Playing in the Band’ and you have cosmic American music at its most potent and joyous.

As for me, I won’t forget the shot of the little kid sitting there eating an ice cream: a dog appears and starts licking his ice cream while the band play ‘Jack Straw’: ‘We can share what we got of yours ‘cause we done shared all of mine’ – perfect.

‘Jack Straw’ from Sunshine Daydream

Sunshine daydream
Walk you in the tall trees
Going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose
Breathing more freely
Ride out singing
I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine
Sunshine daydream
Walk you in the sunshine

See also

Joanna MacGregor and the eccentric genius of Erik Satie

Joanna MacGregor and the eccentric genius of Erik Satie

An evening in the presence of pianist Joanna MacGregor is always guaranteed to be both enjoyable and informative so we didn’t hesitate when we saw the Capstone theatre advertising ‘an evening devoted to the eccentric genius of Erik Satie’, presented by MacGregor.  We were not disappointed. Continue reading “Joanna MacGregor and the eccentric genius of Erik Satie”

At London Jazz Festival: John Surman and Abdullah Ibrahim

At London Jazz Festival: John Surman and Abdullah Ibrahim

Emile Holba

John Surman

Last weekend we marked the opening of the 2014 London Jazz Festival by attending concerts by two jazz greats: John Surman, celebrating his seventieth year, and Abdullah Ibrahim, now in his 80th year.

On Friday evening, while upstairs Guardian journalists were beavering away producing the next day’s newspaper, we were at the elegant new(ish) venue King’s Place, just behind King’s Cross station, to see saxophonist John Surman perform with Trans4mation, the terrific string quartet that he has been writing for and  recording and performing with for some fifteen years.

Surman is one of those artists for whom the label ‘jazz’ is insufficient.  Recording for Manfred Eicher’s ECM label since the 1970s, he is the quintessential contemporary musician, composing and performing music that has ranged freely, drawing upon jazz, folk, choral and medieval plainsong. The first album he recorded with Trans4mation was called Coruscating and ‘flashing brightly’ perfectly describes the music he plays.

In a lengthy career, Surman has collaborated with a wide range of jazz musicians, and produced suites of music that have featured his saxophone in unusual contexts; for example, with church organ and choir (Proverbs and Songs); with Trans4mation (Coruscating and The Spaces in Between); with the London Brass and Jack DeJohnette (Free and Equal); with Tunisian oud-player Anouar Brahem and bassist Dave Holland (Thimar); as well as creating settings of songs by English Renaissance composer John Dowland for John Potter on three separate albums. His beautiful solo albums that blend acoustic and electronic music – Road to St Ives, A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe, Private City, and Saltash Bells – are amongst the most-played in our house.

Explaining his musical eclecticism, Surman told an interviewer for Australian radio in 2009:

When I grew up in Plymouth, in the West Country, I didn’t really hear any jazz music until I suppose I was about 13 or 14, and my background really is in listening to what used to be called the Third Programme in England: very pompous and very sort of formal, but it was mostly classical music, that’s what my folks listened to, and I sort of grew up with that, and my first really—I mean I sang as a choirboy, so I did a lot of Handel and I had this sort of solo voice, and it was very nice, which you wouldn’t know if you heard my singing voice now. And so I grew up with a different kind of music. Then when my voice changed I found jazz, and I bought a clarinet and started to play jazz. So as the years have rolled on, I suppose my earlier interests have surfaced through the medium of learning to improvise through jazz, I guess.

The Friday evening gig exemplified his skill in composing for instruments other than his own, and his success in collaborating with musicians from traditions beyond the usual range of the jazz repertoire. In the first set he played with Trans4mation – who comprise Rita Manning (first violin), Patrick Kiernan (violin), Bill Hawkes (viola) and Nick Cooper (cello) – joined by Chris Laurence on double bass to form a string quintet. In the second set we were treated to the European première of Three Landscapes, a suite written by Surman for the virtuoso Australian recorder player Genevieve Lacey.


Chris Laurence (left) with Trans4mation and John Surman

On the ECM website, John Surman talks about his collaboration with Trans4mation:

The music has been developed simply through playing. We’ve played together a lot now, and as we’ve progressed the string quartet has become much more integrated into the improvisational process too. The project has become looser in performance than it was when we started out, and it also feels much more like a band, a complete entity. I’ve learned that there are many more possibilities than I first imagined, and gained more confidence both in what I can write for the strings and in what I can leave to the players’ imaginations.

They began with two pieces – ‘Leaving the Harrow’ (from The Spaces In Between), which segued into an unfamiliar piece called ‘Move It On’. Introducing the pieces, Surman suggested that we should imagine a specific scene.  When he lived on the North Downs there was a pub called The Harrow that he used to frequent. Leaving the Harrow after a few pints, it would be about an hour’s walk back home. he asked us to imagine walking home on a beautiful evening in late summer, a harvest moon rising and bats fluttering in the sky. The companion piece, he suggested, was about waking up the following morning and realising you’d had one too many.

That was followed by ‘Hubbub’, also from The Spaces In Between, on which, following an opening prelude on the strings, Surman entered jauntily on baritone sax.  Introducing ‘Illusive Shadow’, John asked the audience to imagine a ‘memory box’ in a dusty attic. But, if that image didn’t do much for us, we should ‘just listen to the music!’ The piece opened with twittering, fluttering, birdlike sounds in the saxophone and double bass parts, soon joined by the quartet which added to the twitching and muttering before developing rich and vibrant melodies. The first set closed with ‘Leylek Geldi’, a piece that drew upon Turkish melodies and inspired, Surman informed us, by memories of being in Turkey at this time of year when the cranes return and build their sprawling nests on lamp posts and rooftops.

Recorder player Genevieve Lacey

Genevieve Lacey

The second set opened with the European première of ‘Three Landscapes’, written by Surman for the virtuoso Australian recorder player Genevieve Lacey, who had insisted on flying in to perform it.  It consisted of three pieces – ‘Stone River’, ‘Shepherd´s Song’ and ‘La Plata’. For ‘Shepherd´s Song’ Lacey picked up the diminutive sopranino recorder which I had only heard played previously in a Vivaldi concerto. Lacey’s performance was a spell-binding one.

After Lacey had found her way off the stage by the cleverly disguised exit, Surman and the quintet continued with a superb blues, ‘Blues Urbano’, and ‘Stone Flower’, his tribute to late baritone sax player Harry Carney. ‘Lisboa Shadow’ followed, inspired by John’s love for the winding alleys of Lisbon and the sound of fado.  The set concluded with ‘Far Away’ and ‘All Together Now’, with Genevieve Lacey returning to the stage.

John Surman and Trans4mation: Wayfarers All (from The Spaces In Between)

John Surman solo in Coutances Cathedral (full concert, 2013)

The following night at the Royal Festival Hall we saw another giant of the international jazz scene – the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, a month on from his 80th birthday.  Unfortunately, our enjoyment of this concert was ruined by the fact that from our balcony seats we were unable to see either Ibrahim, or most of the other performers at all during the entire performance.

Abdullah Ibrahim at the Royal Festival Hall

The man we couldn’t see: Abdullah Ibrahim

The first set was performed by Ibrahim’s new trio – Cleave Guyton (clarinet/flute) and Noah Jackson (cello/bass) and Ibrahim himself, who began with one of his long meandering solo excursions in which he picks out several of his landmark compositions, teasingly exploring the theme for a few bars and then striding on. Passages of soft delicacy, in which Ibrahim barely brushes the keys, are punctuated with outbursts of percussive African rhythms. After 25 minutes or so, he was joined by cello and flute for pieces which included ‘African Market’, ‘The Wedding’ and ‘Duke 88’.

Introducing the show, a local radio presenter had informed us that in the second half Ibrahim would be joined by the new incarnation of Ekaya, his magnificent 1980s group that featured alto saxophonist Carlos Ward and tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford; this, we were promised, would be ‘get up and dance township music’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Abdullah Ibrahim with Ekaya at the Royal Festival Hall

Abdullah Ibrahim with Ekaya at the Royal Festival Hall

The new Ekaya included Laurence Bryant on tenor sax, Marshall McDonald on baritone sax, Andrae Murchison on trombone, and Will Terrill at the drums. The set undoubtedly featured some fine musicianship, with  Andrae Murchison’s contribution on trombone being especially noteworthy. But dance-inducing it was not.  The overall sound was reminiscent of Ibrahim’s mentor and patron, Duke Ellington, though Ibrahim barely made any contribution at the piano throughout the second half.  I think John Fordham nailed it in a review of this outfit’s album Sotho Blue for the Guardian a few years back:

The great South African pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim has often seemed to consign his enduring themes to glass cases in recent times, imparting to them an untouchably meditative solemnity. This session for the latest edition of Ibrahim’s Ekaya band features classic originals like The Wedding and The Mountain, expressed in luxuriously deep-toned sax-and-trombone arrangements, developed in successions of individual solos that rarely accelerate past walking pace.

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Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

‘The harp and the kora appear to us like old instruments, designed for quieter sparser times’, instruments which ‘can seem out of place in this cacophonous world’, writes Andy Morgan in the sleeve-notes to Clychau Dibon, the album that took the folk-roots world by storm last year.  In the magnificent surroundings of the Concert Room in Liverpool’s St Georges Hall the gorgeous music created by these two musicians from superficially-different cultures enthralled a rapt audience as they braided together notes and songs from each of their traditions to reveal unexpected commonalities between the mountains and coasts of Wales and the shores of Senegal.

An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps
An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps

Around 5,000 years ago a hunter sat idly twanging the string of his bow and the idea of the harp was born. Egyptian tomb paintings show musicians playing various size and style harps. and remains of early harp-like instruments have been excavated at the site of the Sumerian city of Ur (the Golden Lyre of Ur) and in Babylonia. From Egypt, the harp migrated along trade routes across north Africa and, in the form of the West African kora – an instrument with 21 strings made from the tough gourd of the calabash – gave rise to a rich musical tradition perpetuated to this day by descendants of the griots of Gambia, Senegal, Guinea and Mali – the equivalents of the Welsh bards.

The harp occupies a central place in the rich cultures of both West Africa and Wales and both nations share a bardic tradition of oral history expressed through music, song and verse.The frame harp first appeared in medieval western Europe in the 8th to 10th centuries; in Wales there has an unbroken tradition of of harp playing for nine centuries. Like the West African griots, Welsh bards, accompanying themselves on the harp, sang, recited poems and narrated stories that have transmitted the legends of Wales down the generations. The Robert ap Huw manuscript from the late 16th century is the oldest written collection of harp music in the world.

A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510
A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita had been brought together by Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan, in 2012 in a project designed to braid music of the kora with that of the Welsh harp – vibrant threads envisaged as a multicoloured tapestry.  To begin with, the plan was for a recording on which Catrin would partner Toumani Diabate, the world’s greatest exponent of the kora. But circumstances intervened and at short notice Seckou was drafted in for the project. (You can read more about the origins of the project in Andy Morgan‘s feature for fRoots magazine in June 2013). The album, Clychau Dibon, was released in 2013 and by the end of the year had won the album of the year award from fRoots magazine.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)
Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)

The duo’s concert in Liverpool on Wednesday evening  was, we agreed afterwards, one of the best we had ever attended.  Catrin and Seckou came out onto a stage on which two koras and two Welsh harps (one concert size, one smaller electro harp) stood waiting.  The lights dimmed, and the two musicians began to develop the blissful melodies heard on their album.  The way it works in each of the pieces they have developed together is that one partner takes the lead with a tune from their native tradition, while the other fills and improvises around the edges; then, almost imperceptibly, the other musician begins to develop a theme from their own culture.  By the end of the piece the melodies are so entwined that it’s almost impossible to distinguish where on ends and the other begins, or who is playing which theme.

‘Les Bras De Mer’ (live at Theatr Mwldan, March 2013):

Writing about ‘Les Bras De Mer’ in the CD sleeve notes, Andy Morgan explains how the pair braid Welsh and West African themes to create their music:

The island of Carabane at the mouth of the Casamance River and the wide Bae Aberteifi, or Cardigan Bay, are magical places for Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch. Those Bras de Mer (‘Arms of the Sea’) inspire the currents that flow through their fingers.

When they were working on the song Bras de Mer, Seckou remembered this old Welsh tune that he’d once played with another Welsh harpist by the name of Llio Rhydderch, but he couldn’t remember its name. Producer John Hollis found it on the Internet. It was called‘Conset Ifan Glen Teifi’, ‘The Concert of Ifan Glen Teifi’. Teifi is the name of the river that runs through Cardigan. It’s a lush and beautiful Welsh waterway and the tune fitted Seckou’s Manding melody ‘Niali Bagna’, named after an old Wolof king, like a hand fits an old glove. Seckou then added an old Manding melody called ‘Bolong’, meaning ‘The Arms of the Sea’. Finally Catrin overlaid ‘Clychau Aberdyfi’ or ‘The Bells of Aberdovey’. Everything found its place in the whole without coercion, like the pieces in a puzzle or the water of many rivers flowing into each other for their final journey to the sea. That’s how most of Clychau Dibon came together. Strange symmetries. Strange coincidences.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)
Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)

Seckou Keita was born in southern Senegal, in Ziguinchor, a town on the banks of the great Casamance River. He’s a descendant of one of the great West African griot families: his mother was the daughter of a griot whose lineage stretched back centuries, while his father was a Keita, a descendent of the great Manding king Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in the 14th century. Catrin Finch, meanwhile, was born in Aberystwyth, of English and German parents, and grew up in a tiny village near Aberaeron, on the shores of Cardigan Bay.

By the time Catrin and Seckou joined forces, both were recognised as among the finest players of their chosen instrument. Andy Morgan again:

Harp and a kora, woman and a man, Celt and Manding, European and African, written scores and word of mouth; you might expect Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch to be separated by unbridgeable cultural chasms, but you’d be wrong. Go deep and you’ll find strange symmetries and fabulous coincidences that bind West Africa and Wales; bards and griots, djinns and faeries, the Casamance River and the Teifi, Sundiata Keita and the 10th century Welsh King Hywel Dda, the list goes on.

Both players draw upon their ancient traditions. One song from Clychau Dibon performed at the Concert Room was ‘Bamba’, a tune dedicated by Seckou to Amadou Bamba, the early 20th century mystic and Sufi religious leader from Senegal who led a pacifist struggle against French colonialism: a man who devoted his life to the welfare of others, whose deeds have been praised in numerous tales, poems – and songs by West African musicians such as Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal and Orchestra Baobab.

‘Bamba’ played at Cardiff WOMEX in 2013:

Another example of how Catrin and Seckou build bridges between Welsh melodies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the traditional music of Senegal, Gambia and Mali of roughly from the same period came with their performance of ‘Robert Ap Huw meets Nialing Sonko’.  This was a collaboration that began when Finch dug out a melody called ‘Caniad Gosteg’ from Robert Ap Huw’s 16th century manuscripts of transcripts for harp. Keita listened and responded with a tune he named after the Manding king Nialing Sonko (famous for collecting too much tax from his people, as Seckou explained at the concert) because the tune echoed the pure Casamance kora style of his youth and Sonko was a Casamance king. Finally, Seckou added to the mix an exercise that all aspiring kora players have to master, ‘Kelefa Koungben’.  More history there, too:  Kelefa was another Manding leader from the time when the kora itself was born.  What’s remarkable, on CD and in live performance, is how seamless was the fit between a courtly tune from medieval Wales and the elegant dignity of a kora melody from a bygone age.

One of the most thrilling moments in this enthralling concert was the duo’s performance of the most inventive piece on their CD, ‘Future Strings’. This began in the region of European classical music as Finch explored the theme from ‘Prelude from the Asturias’ by the Spanish composer Albéniz, but soon spiralled off into something almost avant-garde as Finch ran her nail down a bass string and performed a 47-string-long glissandi before knocking out rhythms on the frame of her harp as if it were a conga drum. These gymnastics were then echoed by Keita, performing all kinds of tricks on his strings beating the gourd of the kora. At one point in the piece, Finch was plucking both harps simultaneously.

Here’s an official video of Catrin and Seckou performing ‘Future Strings’ live:

Though most of the pieces performed by Finch and Keita at the concert were from the Clychau Dibon CD, they did introduce several new tunes, including two which – unlike those on the CD – included vocalisations. Introducing ‘Tryweryn’, Finch insisted that – as a Liverpool audience – we should not take it personally.  For this was a piece inspired by the construction, in 1965, of a reservoir (we’ve passed it many times, on the from Bala to Trawsfynydd) which flooded the Tryweryn valley to provide water for Liverpool. The residents of Capel Celyn, one of the last monoglot Welsh-speaking villages were forcibly removed from homes and land owned by families there for centuries.  It was the end of bitter nine-year long struggle to save the village after  a private bill sponsored by Liverpool City Council was passed by Parliament despite bitter opposition by 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs .

Protest in Liverpool attempting to stop the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Protest in Liverpool against the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Catrin spoke of how Tryweryn ushered in a period of bitter conflict in Wales during which the reservoir dam was bombed by Welsh nationalists. Bessie Braddock, a Labour MP for Liverpool at the time, dismissed the plight of Capel Celyn as something that would, ‘make some disturbance of the inhabitants inevitable…but that is progress.’ The remnants of that time can still be seen as you drive through Wales, she said, in fading Welsh Nationalist slogans.

Cofiwch Dryweryn' 'Remember Tryweryn' Welsh nationalist graffiti on roadside wall near Llanrhystud Ceredigion

‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ -‘Remember Tryweryn’ – Welsh nationalist slogan on a roadside wall near Llanrhystud, Ceredigion

Welsh anger over the drowning of Capel Celyn arose again in 2005 when Liverpool City Council issued an apology for its actions: ‘We realise the hurt of 40 years ago when the Tryweryn Valley was transformed into a reservoir. For our insensitivity we apologise and hope the historic and sound relationship between Liverpool and Wales can be completely restored.

Capel Celyn
Capel Celyn before the flood … and today

Capel Celyn reservoir

This new piece was superb, and represented a quite extraordinary performance by Catrin Finch who at one point simultaneously played both electro harp and the concert harp whilst vocalising memories of the lost homes and flooded valley while Keita added a wordless, soulful vocal.

Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita pla ‘Tryweryn’ at WOMAD 2014

For their encore the duo returned to perform another new number with vocalisations, preceded by a short tutorial about their two instruments.  It left you with the realisation that both are incredibly complex instruments – the concert harp, for instance, as well as having 47 strings, has seven pedals (compared to the two on a piano) which each modulate an octave’s strings in three different ways.

This was an enthralling concert in which Finch and Keita successfully created a blend of two different, yet similar, musical cultures to create a joyous experience. ‘Some people spend a lot of money on illegal substances in order to attain the kind of mood this music evokes’, commented fRoots magazine when reviewing the CD.  Couldn’t put it better!

Afterwards long lines queued for the CD.  I bought one, having enjoyed the album up to that point from a download.  But here was something that made  downloads irrelevant: the CD comes packaged inside a with beautiful hard cover, 32 page full colour booklet, with photos and a knowledgeable introduction by writer and journalist Andy Morgan.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, June 2014

This is a full concert lasting one hour – but note that the performance does not begin until the 15 minute point:

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