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Apocalypse Now: Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’

In these grim times, it’s great to have a new Dylan epic to explore. Unfortunately, on first listening to the 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ on headphones, whilst walking the dog through a semi-deserted Crouch End, it’s hardly a mood enhancer, unless you find dread and paranoia somehow enhancing. “The Age of the Antichrist has just begun…” just about sums it up. No-one seems to know whether this is a precursor to a new album of original tunes, i.e. the first since 2012′s Tempest, or exactly how old it might be, (Dylan has stated, with typical laconic vagueness, that it was recorded ‘a while back’), but, whatever, it was an as-yet unreleased Dylan song, indicating that the old master is even now capable of surprising us, and this song demonstrates that he, to paraphrase Brian Wilson (whose brother, Carl, gets a mention in the text), is still “made for these times”

I’m sure that people don’t mind being reminded that epic Dylan songs.are hardly a new thing: ‘Desolation Row’ from 1965 was perceived as an absolute back breaker in 1965, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was the first 6-minute 45, ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ took up a whole side of Blonde on Blonde’ (a tad overrated, imho), Desire had two lengthy narratives in ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Joey’, and, at a comparative length to ‘Murder Most Foul’, ‘Highlands’ from 1997′s Time Out of Mind.. By Tempest, he was still testing attention spans, with the title track and ‘Scarlet Town’. ‘Murder Most Foul’ sounds like all and yet none of these, and uses the 1963 assassination of JFK as a ‘frame’ to an allusive list of American legends, mostly of song and film.. It has the surreal pile-up of references of the early ‘wild mercury’ years, anchored by less non-sequitur flights of ideas than these, with a compulsive, ongoing narrative arc that pins it down to post-Kennedy cultural content, and an ‘end of days’ tone, with Bob intoning/reciting, rather than singing. The instrumentation is sparse, beginning with a sombre pizzicato double bass (Tony Garnier?) and rippling piano (Dylan himself, maybe?), and the eventual introduction of a violin (Donnie Herron?) inevitably conjures up memories of Scarlet Rivera throughout Desire.

Alexis Petridis’ great review in today’s Guardian explores, in some detail, the multiple references (mentioning interesting comparisons to ‘American Pie’ in the process), as does Richard Williams’ blog, so I won’t dwell on these, but would point out how Dylan now sounds more like Mark Knopfler than the south Londoner himself. I honestly can’t picture myself listening too much to this important ‘new’ song, as it’s far too close to the bone, in these days of a rampant Covid-19 (the death toll having quadrupled over the past 24 hours, from 181 to 759). The observation that I most want to make, however, is that Dylan/Zimmerman, who will be 80 years of age next year, is still as capable of unleashing a devastating contemporary commentary, as he was with ‘Masters of War’ in itself, itself now nearly 60 years old. Compare this ‘leader of men’ with the likes of Trump and Bojo. And weep.

Vinyl vs. CD:  The NATO Label

So here I am, as instructed to do by our flummoxed-looking PM, at home in partial self-isolation (owing to my immuno-compromised condition, having had a liver transplant ten years ago). At least I have some companions-in-misery, i.e. my wife and youngest daughter, but, like most people, I would imagine, I’m thrown mostly back onto my own resources. In my case, these are dominated by music, films and books, and digging into the arcana of my collections of these media. Delving into my vinyl, I rediscovered an obscurity, released on the French NATO label, and, by a circuitous route, dug out my only compact disc on the selfsame label. I found myself comparing, in microcosm, the two formats. This is what Covid-19 has reduced me to.

I briefly discussed NATO in the chapter of my book about 70s free improv, Convergences, Divergences & Affinities, which concerned the music’s record labels.in which it was described thus:”Founded in 1980 and still producing music today, it specialises in conceptual and literary albums”. It also featured plenty of material by English musicians such as Steve Beresford and Lol Coxhill, who put out several discs in the early early eighties period on NATO. One thing that I didn’t mention in the book was the high quality of its album presentation and artwork. This particular (and only) NATO vinyl that I have was donated to me by the late Jak Kilby (one of whose photographs is featured inside the sleeve), and glories in the title Erik Satie: Sept Tableaux Phoniques, and features adaptations of Satie compositions by the likes of Beresford and Coxill, as well as Tony Coe, Dave Holland (the other DH), that is) and Phil Wachsmann. It makes an interesting comparison to the Vienna Art Orchestra’s The Minimalism of Erik Satie, especially as both were made in the same year,1983. I’m not here to review the album, just to comment on what a pleasure it is to look at and handle its 12″ gatefold sleeve (most vinyl lovers are fetishists really), its front and back covers protected by a cellophane sheen, with a strong visual heft (inside there are artist photos, a Picabia portrait of Satie and a 1921 photo of the composer playing golf with John Quinn, and lots of other goodies to pour over), reminding me of time spent as a teenager obsessing over album covers by the likes of King Crimson and Pink Floyd. Also,there are loads of text explaining the project, in French and English, by the musicians. Much thought obviously went into these covers.

My only NATO digital product, Deadly Weapons, is by a postmodern dream team of John Zorn Steve Beresford, David Toop and French chanteuse Toni Marshall. As can the Satie tribute, this project risks being accused of po-mo clever-dickery, but, if so, it’s still a reasonably enjoyable and entertaining experience, and, again, the presentation is first-class, for the same reasons outlined above. It might appeal to the Zorn completist (although the notion of ‘completing’ the discography of John Zorn is as ludicrous as that of having every Merzbow product!),and would fit comfortably next to some of Filmworks or Naked City or the likes or Spilland, with their jump cuts and stylistic pin-balling .But the much reduced size makes it much less of a commanding item, even if it is encased in a durable gatefold format, with, once again, a cellophane laminate protecting the cardboard, making it much tougher than the dreaded jewel-case. And the jiggery-pokery of having to squeeze the admitted-comprehensive text sheet from out of the main body of the sleeve? Too much hassle, man.

It’s no contest, really, is it? I really want to avoid sounding like those YouTube vlogers, mostly middle-aged white men like myself, who bang on about the superiority of vinyl BUT…in terms of the packaging as a whole, never mind the sound quality, vinyl wins hands down. We have to remember, having said all this, that not every label has the exacting standards of NATO. Many pop and rock album sleeves were, and remain, lazy and  complacent, and certainly don’t bring the joy that this small French label engenders.

Another self-isolation project is reading the Dan Davies biography of Jimmy Savile. I’m sure that I’ll have something to say about that particular door stopper.

McCoy Tyner: A Brief Appreciation

I only found out about the passing of this great jazz pianist, on the sixth of this month of March 2020, only a couple of days ago. which is either a sign of my lack of attention to news reports, or of the general under-appreciation of a tremendous musician and improviser. Or maybe both. After all, we are very much in an ‘either/or’ world at present, and it’s always good to step outside the binary, whenever the chance presents itself. Artists like Tyner have always been sidelined when the ‘immortal’ tags are given out, but, as the title of his very first solo outing suggested, he was very much the ‘real McCoy’. And he was also one of the rapidly-diminishing number of still-living Sixties Masters (he was born in 1938), being just twenty four years old when he made his debit recording with the timeless John Coltrane Quartet (’Greensleeves’, a version of which eventually appeared on Africa/Brass), which made his name and  immortalised him in the Jazz Hall of Fame.

I have to state at this pint, that Tyner has never been one of my favourite jazz musicians. But his passing does seem to me hugely significant. As far as I know, Reggie Workman is still alive and, as such, now the last survivor of the Quartet, but it is salutary to remember that Tyner’s first solo album, The Real McCoy, was recorded just two months before the death of John Coltrane, nearly FIFTY THREE years ago. So McCoy kept the Coltrane legacy going for over half a century, a legacy that has only grown in stature throughout all those years. I can’t really give a hugely informed valediction to McCoy Tyner, but I know an important jazz musician when I hear one, and the pianist was most certainly one of these. I’ve got almost all of the Impulse! Coltrane Quartet material, partly in the form of the imposing The Classic Quartet:Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings. This eight-disc compilation is housed in a seemingly iron-clad cover, which exactly suits the tone of Coltrane’s group, which lacks little except for, perhaps, a bit of humour? I know one doesn’t go to Free(ish) Jazz for a good laff, but even Albert Ayler can occasionally be slightly light-hearted, but hey, this was well before Post Modernism. Undoubtedly spiritually uplifting, Coltrane ran the risk of being oppressive in his music’s seriousness. Many will completely disagree, I’m sure, but there is a reason why I don’t play this Quartet as much as I play Ornette’s, of around the same period.

The extra-Coltrane records that have bought me the most Tyner-related joy are his first solo disc, and the two Milestone Records doubles, recorded in 1973/4. The Real McCoy, recorded in April 1967 (arguably at the nadir of jazz’s popularity?) is a real Blue Note stomper, with Joe Henderson standing in for the soon-gone Coltrane, and Elvin Jones, also from the Quartet, forming the rest of the rhythm section, with the addition of Miles’s then-bassist, Ron Carter. This was a peer group of greats, and is one of the label’s outstanding avant recordings from the mid-sixties, a period that produced so many of them; others include the works of Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Tony Williams, Sam Rivers and Larry Young. The late Richard Cook’s biography of Blue Note goes into details about these years of 1963-7 in Chapter Nine.

The Milestone doubles consist of Enlightenment  (1973) and Atlantis (1974). I’m tempted to bracket these ‘intense-athons’ with Miles Davis’s contemporary outpourings of excess, Aghartha and Pangea, but their modus is entirely different. As well as being all double vinyl excursions, they were all sprawling live concert recordings of extended-length tracks, that took up whole sides of their vinyl versions. Tyner himself is a force of nature on these records, and his playing can be compared to Cecil Taylor’s energy and sheer ‘orneriness, and, of course, to his mentor, Coltrane, in terms of sheer massiveness of purpose and intent. Not for the fainthearted, these albums are draining, and they remind one of just how much of this quality was available for interested audiences at this oint in time.  Incantatory in form and purpos, this music still astounds if you let it, nearly fifty years on.

Others will write more about this exceptional musician, and I can console myself by thinking how much more of his music I still have to discover. And surely there is no better time than this one of self-isolation to make these discoveries in?

Implications of Covid-19 for Working Musicians?

Barry Guy kindly sent me a copy of the programme for the Krakow concerts, which took place on 6-8th of this month, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO). The reasons for this minor largesse is that I wrote the accompanying programme notes for the concerts, and it was great to see my words given the dignity of appearing in a professionally produced format. It’s also nice to get a heads-up in these times of viral insanity (’viral’ in both senses of the word). Over here, for example, my favourite three venues, Cafe Oto, The Vortex and I’Klecktik, are closed for the foreseeable future. Barry was very lucky to have planned his concerts for when he did, as, only two weeks on from them, such performances are now impossible to stage, what with the banning of both large and small-scale public gatherings of all kinds. Months, and even years in the planning, it would have been a heavy blow indeed to have seen all that work go up in smoke. In his letter to me that came with the programme, he expressed the difficulties that such bands as the LJCO, which is a large, international (seventeen musicians, from seven different countries) ensemble, will face in our Coronavirus-dominated near future. And well beyond.

The seventeen improvisers all managed to travel to and from Poland, which is a tremendous feat of organisation by Barry Guy and Maya Homburger, his wife and LJCO violinist, but they apparently have had to cancel “all sorts of other projects”. Given the amount of projects the couple always seem to be be involved with, I can only imagine the frustrations that the various lock-downs will cause this most hard-working and much-travelled duo. Unfortunately for working musicians, they do not fit into the ‘key worker’ category that Boris Johnson and his party have arbitrarily promulgated as being essential to the nation’s well being and functioning, so artists like Guy and Homburger could face considerable under-employment. Small gestures such as Bandcamp (which the Guys have joined up with, subsequent to their bust-up with Intakt Records) waiving their administrative charges will help, but surely projects like the eleven-piece Blue Shroud Band, which appeared over here in November last year, will have to go into probably-permanent abeyance? 

It seems t me that the couple’s best bet might be to record from home: ’working from home’ appears to be the choice that many ‘non-essential’ professionals have made, as a consequence of the virus’s risk factors that potentially affect the working environment. My wife tells me that, apparently, ‘Zoom’ is a visual internet platform that allows for high-quality live transmissions from a domestic setting. Maybe that sort of format might allow for solo and/or small group performance, and might meet the Guys exacting presentation standards?

We shall see. Whatever, the LJCO has seen nothing like Covid-19 in all of it’s fifty-year existence, which is sorely testing, even in it’s early stages, the resilience of musicians and audiences alike. The prospect of no live improv for no-one knows how long makes the prospect of self-isolation a tad easier perhaps, but it isn’t exactly an enticing notion, is it?. At least we have YouTube now, and it’s very hard to remember a time when we didn’t. 

Stay well if you can, everybody.

Miles Davis: ‘Birth of the Cool’. Part Two.

One perhaps of the most under-appreciated of Miles Davis’s influences was that of PAIN? Around the time of the much-lauded Live at the Plugged Nickel recordings (December 1965), Miles went through TWO hip replacements in the spring and the summer of that year, and not only was he in tremendous pain, but he also added a Percodan habit to his list of problematic substance use - his ‘issues’ with jealousy were only compounded by coke and scotch (not Coca-Cola!), let along the reintroduction of opioids into his psycho-pharmacological profile.

There was another disaster in October 1972, when he crashed his Lamborghini whilst on a drug run, breaking both his ankles, necessitating the use of physical crutches to accompany the chemical ones. Just like Bob Dylan’s famous motorbike accident, this one also somehow seemed symbolic of the artist’s ‘crash and burn’ lifestyle and musical experimentation (Dylan had just completed his epochal ‘electric’ albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and Miles his own landmarks, Jack Johnson and Live-Evil). Life seemed to be imitating art. The section in the film on the ‘second great quintet’ is very good, with critic Ashley Khan (who wrote the Impulse! label biography, ‘The House That Trane Built’) describing it’s “incredible level of democracy”, which set the template for the rest of Miles’s career, assuring in turn the careers of so many of his ‘pupils’. Ron Carter describes him, non-ironically, as the “head chemist of the laboratory”. Herbie Hancock quotes him as dryly stating that “I pay you to practice in front of the people”.

‘Birth of the Cool’ posits 1969 as THE key year, correctly I think. Rock and Funk influences become key (Jimi, James and Sly), and Ron Carter sensed the wind direction, refusing to play electric bass. Dave Holland, in turn, gave Miles a historic heads-up, by him being the only musician/leader  that Holland has ever agreed to play the electric bass for. Similarly, Keith Jarrett got off his own high horse to play electronic keyboards, before retreating to a life mostly dedicated to an  obsessive exploration of the acoustic instrument.

Miles’s drug use was always problematic, and there is enough of it in his biography to make that of Keith Richards seem like Donny Osmond’s. Miles really had a problem, from following Bird into heroin addiction at a very young age (’smack-struck’, basically), which was compounded by his having to leave Juliet Greco after his 1949 Paris jaunt. Cocaine eventually replaced horse, a seemingly more benign substance (this was how it was seen at the time), but one that often proved to be even more insidious and mentally destabilising (see ‘jealousy’ and ‘paranoia’). Towards the end of the film, his manager (one of ‘em, anyway) Mark Rothbaum, and his nephew Vince Wilburn, try to make some sense of his ‘Dark Period’, when he was in an isolated meltdown over six years, a period where he was snorting coke to beat the band - Erin Davies, his son, rather euphemistically opines that “I was a little scared of him”. His last years were financially rewarding, but the film rather runs out of of willpower at this point. As a period, 1981-91 is the certainly the one that seems the least rewarding artistically, but this may not be the view of those coming to his music without the critical baggage that so many of us have developed - Miles at least definitely got the mainstream recognition that he had craved for so long.

But just how do you end the narrative of such an incredible life? “He was like a brother who does dumb things” is one concluding comment. Really? He was one of the last century’s most important artists, but sometimes it’s genuinely difficult to separate the man from the considerable myth. One thing is clear from this biopic - he was ‘cool’ as fuck. Which nobody can deny.

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