Arvo Pärt in Manchester: music that fulfils a deep human need

Arvo Pärt in Manchester: music that fulfils a deep human need

During the interval at last night’s magnificent Arvo Pärt concert at the Bridgewater Hall I sneaked a look at the latest news on my phone. At the Brussels eurozone summit, Greece was being forced to accept financial colonialism in terms as humiliating as those imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919.

Back in the concert hall, the programme of Pärt’s sublime music continued with his impassioned work for orchestra and solo soprano, Como cierva Sedienta. With its declamatory choruses, it seemed to speak to the ugly mood in Brussels: Continue reading “Arvo Pärt in Manchester: music that fulfils a deep human need”

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. Continue reading “The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil”

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. Continue reading “Dr John at the Phil, Liverpool: Such a Night!”

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?
Through
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 archive.org.

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

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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.

JohnSurman+Trans4mationStrings

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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