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Dr. John: A Brief Tribute

The affectionate tributes have been pouring in, after the news of the death of Mac Rebbenack a few days ago. He occupies a fairly unique position in rock music, having transitioned from what many saw as a ‘psychedelic novelty act’ in his ‘Doctor John’ avatar, then through to a trio of timeless albums with the likes of the Crescent City’s Allen Toussaint and The Meters. Just the mention of the last two ‘acts’ will bring a frisson of muscle memory for those of us around in the early/mid seventies, and the sheer amount of great, danceable funk coming out at the time (including, and especially, for me, Toussaint’s Southern Nights, and Cabbage Alley and Rejuvenation from Leo Neocentelli, Joseph Modeliste, Arthur Neville, George Porter Jr, and associated crew).

I will leave the properly informed tributes to those like Richard Williams, who can give an appropriately comprehensive overview, including the latter part of his life, where he became essentially a ‘national treasure’ and embodiment of the New Orleans musical tradition. My involvement’s with Rebbenack’s recordings remain fairly superficial, concentrated on his two early periods, i.e. the first four ‘space gumbo’ albums, starting with the immortal Gris-Gris from 1968, and then, probably in order of diminishing quality, the ‘don’t fuck with the formula’ Babylon, Remedies and Sun, Moon & Herbs. But he clearly got fed up with these particular potions, and moved to the ‘straighter’ (to use the terminology of the time), more traditionally-faithful music of the classic trilogy of 1972-4, Dr, John’s Gumbo, In the Right Place, and Desitively Bonnaroo (sic), the middle one of which gave him the Top-10 hit, ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’.

These critics can better describe his life and his 32 studio and 6 live recordings. It would be a great shame, however, if Mac is best remembered for his very first album, Gris-Gris, where he introduced (having been a studio musician for many years previously, and from an early age) the Dr, John persona; but there is, in the end, something profoundly sui generis about this album, something that many people around my age will attest to, The death of a musician who was, ultimately, so completely and utterly dedicated to his art (see his biography, Under A Hoodoo Moon for confirmation of this), and coming shortly after that of his contemporary, Scott Walker (a very different musician, to be sure!), leaves many of us regretting the loss of an important part of our own musical story.

New music in old bottles -Bailey and Rowe together

Ben Watson’s Derek Bailey discography at the end of his biography of the Sheffield giant seemed fairly exhaustive, when it first came out in 2004 (although it is now considerably expanded by subsequent releases). Brain Olewnick did a similar ambitious job with Keith Rowe’s recorded work(him being British free improv’s other landmark guitarist. As far as I knew, these very different stylists never played together, although Fred Frith has done a good job of melding their styles in his playing at various times. Bailey passed at Xmas time 2005, and Rowe rarely plays on these shores nowadays, having been based in France (Nantes) since 1992. Frith is, however, due to undertake a 3-day residency at Cafe Oto at the end of this month.

I was thus truly both surprised and pleased to find, on pages 184-5, of Olewnick’s biog (now on a second reading), a description of a significant recording. from as early as 1969. featuring both Bailey and Rowe. At this point in time, Incus Records had yet to be born (1970 saw to this), and Rowe was still playing in AMM 1,0, which had recently made the epochal The Crypt live sessions, to which this recording, called Gracility , can best be compared (yes, it’s that good). The track ‘Gracility’ itself features Bailey and Rowe, with Gavin Bryers  on electric bass and its composer, Laurie Scott Baker, on double bass. It extends to the AMM -like length of 71 minutes, and forms part of a 2-CD set, along with an early (1975) Evan Parker solo soprano sax feature, a 1970 piece by the Scratch Orchestra, and a 1972 trio of Baker, John Tilbury and Jamie Muir (a very unusual grouping again, especially given the contrast of Tilbury and Muir). All in all, a most unusual and fascinating combination of very early British free improv/composition, which only saw the light of day in 2009, on Music Now (MNCD012). It’s an essential addition to the collections of folk who love this period.

To quote Olewnick: “Though improvised, there is one restraint - “The amps are set on the edge of feedback, but the playing is very gentle. The text calls for feedback to be avoided, a bit like trying to contain a genie in a bottle!” (from the liner notes by Baker)” This sounds a bit like a John Stevens instruction from ‘Search and Reflect’still , but it needs saying that the result is not as quiescent as might be expected -”When they do let loose, and they do several times, the resulting sound storm is quite as violent as anything on The Crypt” (Olwenick again), Rowe’s sound appears to be the most dominant, although it is very hard to distinguish who is playing what (another very AMM-like feature). Although Olewnick opines that “his (Rowe’s) playing sounds rather different than it did with AMM, more transparent and lucent”, the meta-music group remains the most obvious point of reference.

It’s an only-fairly-recently opened bottle, but the contents still sound fresh, and made even more enjoyable by previously not knowing of its existence, Slainte!

Our Friends in the North

I visited my friend Adam Woolf in Sheffield last week, a wonderful pianist and multi-instramentalist, who has found a place in the heart of  that city’s long-established improvising community. We were visited during my stay by the great guitarist John Jasnoch, who was kind enough to provide me with his micro-CD That Other Worldly Feeling and his collaborative tape with Adam, the curiously-entitled Bring Me My List of Eleven People, I Need To Speak About the Past, which I was emphatically told had a sensible source.

This is so far, so cosy, but I became irritated when I subsequently looked up Jasnoch in Ben Watson’s controversial hagiography of Derek Bailey, still on of the few texts (apart from mine, natch!!) that discusses ‘provincial’ improvisers. I dedicated a separate chapter in my own Convergences, Divergences & Affinities to the magnificent work, throughout the seventies, by improvisers from other  UK cities, who contributed to the creation of a much broader musical palette than most commentators of that period generally allow. There is definitely a book out there waiting to be written about the contributions of cities like Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Glasgow to the free improvisation scene of that time. However;

Ben Watson, who should know better, to be frank, mentions Jasnoch in the following terms in his Derek Bailey hagiography of 2004 (which has, admittedly, caused a shitstorm of opprobrium in his direction among the musicians he rather disingenuously discusses/disses):

“There have been several spirited attempts…but to these ears they fall short, producing a bad imitation (of Derek Bailey, that is), exploiting the free brief without emptying the notes of associative content, failing to achieve the negation that makes room for genuine dialogue” (page 261).

This doesn’t make any clear sense to the average reader, obviously, and is insulting to Jasnoch, whose playing, as far as I can hear, is nothing like Bailey’s. However, there have been so many lazy journalistic cliches that compare ANY guitarist who doesn’t sound like Joe Pass to Sheffield’s finest. Watson goes on to add a gratuitous, damning-with-faint-praise, insult to uncalled-for injury by opining, on page 376, that “though Jasnoch’s notes always sounded lovely, they were too coarse to negotiate what the ensemble was playing”…”Jasnoch’s style reveals deficiencies” (as opposed to Bailey’s “thinner, more gorgeous notes”).

I know, it’s all bollocks, but I do feel that Watson’s rather patronising polemic has disadvantaged avant guitarists ever since his book emerged in 2004.

Guitarists like John Jasnoch, Henry Kaiser, Ian Brighton, Fred Frith, John Russell,Roger Smith, etc, etc. deserve to be heard on their own terms, not in relation to the late, great DB, which seems to have been their fate, such is the stature of the Sheffiedian. ‘Listen Without Prejudice’, as I believe another London-centric musician once said, and hear what each man has to say. They form a succession of hugely talented string players.

‘Dad Lit’?

I had occasion to blog about David Hepworth a short while back, and didn’t think that I’d feel the need to repeat the exercise. At least not so soon, but then again, he’s been pumping books out to the tune of one a year since 2016, and I couldn’t really resist his latest, which is about the ‘golden age’ of the long-playing record, or LP. I don’t propose to get into an anorack debate about whether I agree about the dates of his proposed golden era, It’s from 1967 (Sgt. Peppers, basically, supposedly getting the whole shebang on the road) to 1982 (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, representing the apogee of the format, and the beginning of the end, at least until the vinyl resurrection of the 2000s). Nor to go into some very obvious omissions (Forever Changes being the one that rankled the most for me). What I want to do is briefly look at Hepworth’s influence, given that he is now nearly 70 years of age, and evidently feeling the need to put his ‘life in music’ into book form. Many of ‘em, what’s more, thanks to Bantam Press and people like me who buy the things.

It’s very good, by the way, and probably the one of his that I’ve enjoyed the most. It’s funny, witty, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and paints an accurate picture of the passion and absurdity involved in pursuing and getting hold of vinyl back in the Dark Ages of the sixties and seventies. I laughed out load at several points, as it bought back so many memories of the whole experience of living in the pre-digital age. But here’s the thing - you have to be around my age (seven years younger than Hepworth himself) to really ‘get it’, I would have thought. This isn’t meant to imply that anyone under 50 won’t be able to enjoy the book, as it is engaging and informative, but I would imagine that younger readers might wonder what all the fuss was about, just as it is nigh on impossible to conjure up just how crappy so many aspects of living in England were in those years. Obviously, they’re crappy now as well, but in a very different way. Looking at a punk retrospective on YouTube the other night just reminded me of how grim life could be then, and just how important music and the objects that held music were to us. I guess that a modern-day equivalent might be our attitudes to our mobile devices?

If there is such a thing as ‘Dad Rock’, symbolised for many by Paul Weller, well, here is ‘Dad Lit’. We have to remember that Hepworth co- hosted The Old Grey Whistle Test, with fellow publishing trend-maker Mark Ellen (the Paul McCartney lookalike), both of them probably chosen because they managed to appear like a breath of fresh air after Whispering Bob Harris. But given that the OGWT was kick-started by the great Richard Williams, the only way after Williams left was down. Only John Peel could adequately have replaced RW. Anyhow, both Hepworth and Ellen seem to have gone down in rock history for co-hosting Live Aid in 1985, for some reason. My wife was there on the day, and has commented that it was a bit like saying that you’d been at Woodstock - for most people who attended, they couldn’t see the groups properly, there was inadequate toilet and food facilities, and the whole event has been over-hyped ever since by people who weren’t even there. To be fair to Hepworth, he makes the same point (about Woodstock).

But the thing that Hepworth deserves to go down for (in history, that is, rather than to jail) is for being one of the principal creators of the idea of the ‘rock canon’ and, as part of this, the obsession with ‘lists’ of all kinds. He was also responsible for/involved in the creation of Q (the first of it’s sort, a sort of rock ‘glossie’,aimed at an ‘older’ audience than inkies like the NME), Mojo and The Word, and, by their influence, all of the other such publications that have monumentalised and set in aspic the ‘1000 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’ type of thinking. Now, many people will say,”well, what’s wrong with that, exactly?”, and they would be completely entitled to. One response that I would offer is that this phenomenon of historicising popular music has partly led to ancient LPs being re-released by grasping record labels and re-sold to the public as expensive decorations for home and hearth, when really these artifacts should be as cheap as chips. I reckon that the record companies must have pinched themselves and thought their collective ship had come in, when they realised that young people were more than willing to shell out literally hundred of pounds for recordings that were made over fifty years ago. Over thirty notes for The White Album, even more for near-exact replicas of stuff by the likes of Zeppelin and Nick Drake. ‘Genuine’ old vinyl commands equally daft prices. I feel quite smug that I have kept my old vinyl, and it’s a bit like those who bought Victorian houses before they became fashionable, and can now cash in.

One (of many) good points that Hepworth makes is that LPs were actually expensive back in the day, and that, for the average 14-18 year old, say, the purchasing of one was a considerable challenge. I remember saving up for literally months to get hold of Hot Rats (I still have the price sticker on this, it cost forty shillings and eight old pence, i.e. two old pounds) and Ummagumma in 1970 (still have them, as well), and that they were priced by Reprise and Harvest Records respectively at the high end of their retail range (they were seen at the time as ‘luxury items’). It seems crazy to me that LPs are similarly priced today. But, as they say, “there’s no fool like an old fool”. Except when they’re young. And record companies are just as greedy as they were now as they were in 1970.

Female Improvisers and a great venue

We went to the wonderful I’Klecktik last night to see an evening “Celebrating Women’s Contribution to Improvised Music”, as part of International Women’s Day. It is absurd to think that there should be an event or events celebrating the contribution of half of the world’s population, but there you have it.

There were five female improvisers and, for some reason, Neil Metcalf on that perhaps most ‘feminine’ of instruments, the flute, in the ensemble. Given that there was an audience of less than twenty, it is hard to come to any firm  conclusions about anything, but it was interesting that, by the end, almost all the remaining listeners were, in fact, male. But this was not a stridently radical feminist gig, merely another very good free improv gig. Which made me wonder generally about if there is any longer a need for events that sell themselves as female-centered? Clearly there is, but this was in essence an evening of challenging and fascinating improvised music. Whether the fact that the majority of participants were middle-aged women is a moot (and wonderful) point, as is whether there is such a thing as ‘feminine improv’ or some such entity. ‘Insect Improv’ is ‘Insect Improv’, whatever gender performs it. Or maybe not. What do I know? Really?

Free Improvisation, as my two books about free improvisation have suggested, was spawned by men, and largely played by men, until fairly recently. This situation has changed, with women gradually  joining the ‘movement’ and older improvisers now being acknowledged, finally.

Just like any old men’s firm, I’m afraid.

It was thus a joy to behold, the other night, the always-recognised Sylvia Hallett, alongside the less well-known Catherine Pruygers on oboe, Sue Lynch on saxophone and Sue Farrar on violin. The excellent bassist’s name I’m afraid I didn’t catch, for which many embarrassed apologies (she was great, needless to say). I don’t propose to describe the gig, beyond saying that it was first-class improvisation, of both the ‘laminar’ and the ‘pointillistic’ type, involving both freely- extemporised playing and that which involved reacting to projected graphic scores from Livia Garcia and Martin Harrison. Adrian Northover’s electronics are also well worthy of recommendation. Hallett’s solo bowed bicycle wheel feature was especially wonderful, as was her duo with the great bassist.

I was rather baffled by the poor attendance.  Did it’s advert seem a bit ‘separatist’ (it wasn’t in any way) or was the publicity a bit crap (it often is for gigs like this)? Or is this stuff still infra dig, as they used to say?

It certainly reminded us of what a GREAT gig I’Klecktik has become, especially now that the space has been opened up by the removal of the partition at the front, and with a new coat of paint. Marvelous acoustics as well, maybe as good as the much-venerated Little Theater Club, which this place is increasingly coming to resemble. So, all in all, another totally satisfactory experience from the venue that is probably now my favourite of improv spaces - less compressed than The Vortex and less up-itself than Oto.  ‘Music Without Bluster’ seems to sum up the music presented here - Eddie Prevost and John Butcher seem to love the place, which gives one an idea of what to expect (no Brotzmann here). More than that, the whole ‘vibe’ of Old Paradise Yard and environs is special, and full marks are due to those people who have created this oasis in William Blake’s back yard. Venues tend to ‘peak’, and I think that I’Klecktik has reached it. Go and see, but don’t expect to see queues outside. Which should be a clue in itself.

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