De-Sprinkling the Stardust? Gary Giddins and Samuel Andreyev.

I’m currently having the great pleasure of reading ‘Jazz’ (first published in 2009), by the great critic Gary Giddins and the scholar/teacher Scott deVeaux. It takes the somewhat novel approach of interspersing, within the textual narrative of the music’s history, around 75 detailed breakdowns of celebrated single numbers, from Bessie Smith’s 'Reckless Blues’ to Anthony Braxton’s 'Piece Three’. These breakdowns are sophisticated and detailed, at times offering an almost second-to-second analysis of the musical action, much of which, as a non-musician, was completely over my head. (“Wilson embellishes the chord progression with a harmonic substitution” is an entirely typical description.) On the other hand, entries like “One last blast ends the piece” I can totally get my head round.

I know, I’m an 'amateur’, as Wire contributor Daniel Spicer helpfully pointed out recently.

Following, for example, the development of the Braxton piece, I found the breakdown fascinating and informative, helping me to appreciate both the composer and the band’s achievements, and thereby enhancing my appreciation of the work, but it did make me wonder: does this sort of thing scrub off some of the accumulated stardust of the composing and improvising? Breaking it down into its constituent parts can take away the magic of thinking “how did they do that?” Another example of this process of demystification can be experienced in the (wonderful) Samuel Andreyov’s vlogs about Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band. In one one of these, discussing Trout Mask Replica, he takes apart the opening track 'Frownland’, expertly describing what each member of this exceptional band is doing, exposing the bare bones of their achievement and displaying just how much bad faith Beefheart displayed in playing down just how 'magic’ this group of musicians in their early twenties really were.

Some free improvisers have ploughed a similar furrow within their own music - Dominic Lash with Derek Bailey and Jason Yarde with AMM. Free Improvisation remains a particularly difficult genre to write about, as I have found, and I tend to rely on analogy and impressions to convey its effects, lacking the dissecting tools to properly examine what the improvisers are actually doing in real time, as they weave their 'magic’. Lash’s deconstruction I found particularly mystifying, although I was in awe of his ability to 'understand’ what Bailey was up to. Obviously, there there are different epistemological variants at play here in portraying this music, and perhaps the most healthy one is a combined model?

The Giddins/DeVeaux book comes highly recommended, but in the end I found that the (admirable) methodology they have used left me just wanting to hear the music, unaided by their scalpels and dissections. Giddins still remains my critic 'of choice’ for jazz music, and I love his commentaries, many of which are readily available on YouTube.

‘Excavate!’: The Fall’s 'Coffee Table’ Book. Part Two.

Mark E. Smith had a Miles Davis-like disregard and un-sentimentality about his band’s personnel, hiring and firing with aplomb and ruthlessness. A whole book has been written about them, The Fallen, and another descriptive conceit can be that around key sacked members, e.g. post-Brannah/Baines, post-Riley/Scanlon, post-Brix, post-Hanley, just as one can talk about post-Coltrane, post-Jarrett and post-Macero in Miles’s band history. In Steve Hanley’s case, I’d definitely make the argument that The Fall never really got over his sacking/resignation in April 1998, with Levitate being his final contribution to the band’s studio sound, recorded in 1997.

As far as I’m concerned, there was a long series of ho-hum, semi-disposable albums after the last wholly consistent album, The Infotainment Scan: Middle Class Revolt, Cerebral Caustic, The Light User Syndrome (the latter failing to be saved even with the brief return of Brix). The increasing use of cover versions was another indication of diminishing returns and creative exhaustion, and many albums started strongly on 'Side One’ (compact disc was king at this point in time), only to fall away by the second. The one feature that The Fall never fell short of, however, was its abilities as a riff machine, and Smith never failed to deliver at least one killer ostinato per album. This was to remain a constant. The irony is that many of these later Fall recordings are perfectly decent left field rock albums - unfortunately the title Fall Heads Fall is a good summary of the band’s trajectory towards relative irrelevance: these albums completely fade within the effulgence of their 1978-1994 ancestors. Just one example: compare Elena Poulou’s anaemic performance of The Wright Stuff (on 2007’s maddeningly inconsistent Reformation! Post TLC) to almost anything sung by an earlier M.E. wife, Brix Smith, in the 1980s.

Mark E. Smith seemed intent, by the new millennium, to incarnate into his own characters, Fiery Jack, or perhaps Carry Bag Man? (As opposed to the Hip Priest, Dice Man or Slang King?) Was he taking the piss, or were his slurred, slurried and indistinct vocals a result, as they seemed to be with Shane McGowan, of just being an un-reconstituted piss pot? In both instances, it seemed a disrespect to an adoring audience, who seemed to consider increasing incoherence as somehow authentic. Self-immolation as post-punk statement? It was always difficult to tell with The Fall and its leader, when self-reference became self-parody or/and self-loathing? The flashes of brilliance still remained: What About Us? on Fall Heads Fall was about a very edgy subject, mass murderer Harold Shipman (“…giving out drugs…to all the ladies…”). Consummate punk brio, with a clearly enunciated (relatively, that is) statement of intent/contempt. It’s a shame that these flashes flared up less and less often in the twilight years of this most wonderful and frightening of bands.

The Fall: ‘Excavate!’. On a Coffee Table Near You. Part One.

If you had told me, back in 1979, that The Fall would eventually be the dedicatee of a 'coffee table book’, I’d have been tempted to administer a gentle zen-bow to your head with a Metal Box. “An oversized, usually hard-covered book, whose purpose is for display on a table intended for use in an area in which one entertains guests and for which it can serve to inspire conversation or pass the time” (Wiki). Great for an anarcho-punk/hippie squat maybe, but I’m currently staring at Excavate!’: the Weird and Frightening World of The Fall, a 350-page “hard-covered” tome, nestling on our own Barre family version of a coffee table, right next to Necronomicon: the Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve been ploughing through the latter over the past few weeks, and this has led me inexorably (given M.E. Smith’s reading preferences) on to Excavate!, even though I thought I’d read enough books about The Fall for one lifetime.

Edited by Bob Stanley and Tessa Norton, it’s a handsome volume of pictorial memorabilia, album covers and short articles from the band’s near-forty year career, interspersed with longer essays by various writers. Already 'hip priests’ by 1982, they later became the critical darlings of such 'heavyweight’ critics as Michael Bracewell, Ian Penman and Mark Fisher, who all seemed particularly taken with Smith’s fascination with the literature of the weird and the uncanny, such as works by M.R. James, Arthur Machen and Lovecraft.

All Fall fanatics have their favourite 'periods’: I, for example, can break these down in my mind to: 1977-1979 (Step Forward), 1980-1983 (Rough Trade), 1984-1988 (Brix), 1990-1994 (Cog Sinister), 1995 onward (the long period of relative decline and curate’s egg albums?). The true obsessive can obviously parse these even further. For the record, I think that the band’s absolute peak was reached with the resolutely 'no-filler’ The Weird and Frightening Word of The Fall (1984) and This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985), with the gradual, yet objective, diminishment starting to take place from Middle Class Revolt (1995). Just like the much shorter career of The Pogues, this decline is measurable by increasingly terrible and incomprehensible vocals, with the unique properties of the group replaced by a more generic 'rock band’ sound. (This was further reflected in increasingly terrible design and art on their album covers.Just compare Hex Enduction Hour! to Re-Mit, for example.)

So, yet another book about The Fall, who are now joining the premier league of the darlings of music literature, which includes The Beatles (natch), Dylan, Miles and Joy Division/Factory Records. I myself now have EIGHT of 'em, from Brian Edge’s (in itself a great name) Paintwork from 1989 (which also has a rather 'coffee table’ look, slick and 'professional’ at the end of the 'Brix period’, and the very opposite of the early Rough Trade graphics). Add to the written word, the plethora of live albums, bootlegs and compilations, and you have a quite remarkable body of work and criticism for what started out in 1977 as just another 'punk’ band, who few thought would last even the short course (hence the title of the very first album, Live at the Witch Trials).

To be continued

ECM Records: Bass Desires

ECM Records has always been kind to the ‘low end’ instrument of the double bass and its near neighbour the cello, and has been keen to foreground the instrument right from the label’s beginning. This is no doubt related to the label’s Mark Zuckerberg figure, Manfred Eicher, and his background in classical double bass playing. (No offense intended here, Manfred!)

There are two stupendous solo bass features within two broader early ECM albums: Dave Holland’s intricate 'Song For the Newborn’ on the first side of Circle: Paris Concert (ECM 1018/19), and Glen Moore’s incredibly beautiful 'Belt of Asteroids’ on his little known shared album with Ralph Towner and a nascent Oregon, Trios/Solos (ECM 1025). They are both stand out tracks on albums with much else to distract the attentive listener, and ECM also released several others that put the double bass in center stage, at a post-Mingus/post Bill Evans-Scott La Faro Trio time, when the former 'rhythm accompaniment’ instrument was beginning to finally assert itself as an 'equal influence’ instrument. (Barre Phillips had trailblazed the first entirely unaccompanied double bass record in 1968.) It could be said that Jack Bruce (in Cream) and Phil Lesh (in the Grateful Dead)were performing a similar service for the electric bass by the late 60s in rock music, as Joy Division’s Peter Hook certainly did this for post punk by 1979. However, no electric bassist, as far as I know, has attempted an entirely unaccompanied album. (I’d be happy to be enlightened here.)

So, in 1971 we had, in short succession, two double bass/cello stonkers, Music for Two Basses (ECM 1011) by Dave Holland (again) and Barre Phillips, and Improvisations for Cello and Guitar by Holland (once more) and the then-under-recorded Derek Bailey (ECM 1013). Holland and Phillips went on to make several other solo statements at later dates for the label, as well as the significant one-time-only quartet recording Conference of the Birds (Holland, ECM 1027), and the John Surman/synthesiser project, Mountainscapes (Phillips, ECM 1076). Moving swiftly on, we soon had a German, Eberhard Weber, demanding our attention with his distinctive solid body electric double bass and it’s ostinatos (very de rigour in the late 70s!), with his first two memorable impressionistic works, Colours of Chloe (with a deluge of cellos, ECM 1042) and Yellow Fields (ECM IO66, the latter being considered his best by many, including Cook/Morton, for what it’s worth). And onwards…

To Arild Anderson (starting with Clouds in My Head in 1974, ECM 1059), and on to two American titans of the instrument, Steve Swallow (Hotel Hello, with Gary Burton (ECM 1055) and Gary Peacock (Tales of Another, ECM 1101). These latter two greats had cut their teeth with the classic Jimmy Giuffre and Albert Ayler trios respectively (as essentially co-members, rather than supporting stiffs). One can only imagine the feelings of Jimmy Blanton and Scott LaFaro if they could have seen the encouragement for individual exposure and individual encouragement that these latter day bass supremos received from this initially-obscure independent German label?

The history of the development of the double bass in jazz and improvised music is one that is demanding to be written. Maybe I should write it myself, he says (tempting, but massively challenging).

ECM Records: The Early Flowering

I’ve recently returned to listening to the early catalogue of ECM Records, a habit that I first developed around 47 years ago, and one that only slacked off, for a while, when I got swept up in the punk and post-punk thing. By ‘early’, I am talking about the first 80 or so releases, which spans the years of, approximately, 1970 to 1977. It’s a catalogue that bears the test of time, only suffering from perhaps brief diminishing returns around 1977-80 (i.e.approaching ECM 1100), when albums by the likes of Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Eberhard Weber, Ralph Towner and the 'Scandi-Jazz’ crew began to sound slightly generic: “the ECM Sound”, as it began to be called, “cool, acoustic, European, very spacious and classical” as Brian Morton succinctly put it. (The expression was always ambiguous and not entirely complimentary.)

Very early ECM records (the first 30 say) were pretty much all sonic and aesthetic delights, and produce Manfred Eicher’s touch was notably and resonantly delicate. The albums were also expensive ('luxury purchases’, almost), I recall, and mostly beyond the purse of the schoolboy that I still was in 1972/3 (I seem to remember them being around ¬£2.50 at that time?) The content was also satisfactorily avant-garde, featuring prominent American avantists such as Paul Bley (then in his brief electronic period, although his ECM’s were acoustic), Anthony Braxton (on a participant on albums with Circle, Dave Holland and Marion Brown), Chick Corea (both solo and on the first Return to Forever), Barre Phillips, Mal Waldron (ECM 1001!) and, inevitably, the label’s eventual saviour, Keith Jarrett (also in a sadly short electric phase at the time, represented by Ruta + Daitya, a real oddity in his extensive canon (made with Jack de Johnette). Most notably, though, the label featured several recordings by English free improv experimentalists: Music for Two Basses (Dave Holland with Barre Phillips), the first release by the Music Improvisation Company and Improvisations for Cello and Guitar by Holland and Derek Bailey. Eicher’s studio sound seemed to especially suit this particular form of 'chamber music’.

Major record labels had lost interest after their very brief late-60s flirtation with UK free improvisation (with Howard Riley and Tony Oxley, in particular), so these few ECMs were very welcome additions to the then-miniscule collection of available albums by these improvisers. Incus Records, formed in 1970, was really then the only other way to get hold of this music. Although a quartet of these musicians (John Stevens, Barry Guy, Howard Riley and Trevor Watts) made a record for Japo, an ECM subsidiary, in 1979 (by which time, the main focus of the label had shifted to the more 'ambient’ territory of Scando/American artists/groups) called, rather unfortunately, Endgame, the drunken and obnoxious behaviour of Stevens so offended the very proper Eicher that he refused to ever work with the drummer again (and, by extension,with other UK free improvisers). The label indeed subsequently ceased to record our improv heroes, making an exception with Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. It’s a shame, as I would love to hear an Eicher recording of, say, one of Howard Riley’s trios, or of a Barry Guy solo album. Never mind a Parker solo soprano excursion.

ECM’s 'bland-out’ period soon received some 'shock treatment’, recovering somewhat it’s mojo, with the release of The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys and Full Force in 1979 and 1980 respectively, and the label has walked the tightrope of high-quality mainstream modern jazz, various folk forms, and classical/modern composition ever since, over literally hundreds of releases, keeping both it’s 'sound’ and it’s 'look’, with it’s album covers being treated with the same level of admiration and occasional cynicism as the music contained within (the 'ECM Factory’?).

One specific musical instrument that ECM has always foregrounded since the beginning is that of the double bass (and, by extension, the cello),this being Manfred Eicher’s particular area of expertise, the results of which I intend to discuss next.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.