Matt Owens: The Aviators’ Ball (All Made Up Records)

The Aviators’ Ball, as conceived, composed and arranged by Matt Owens, co-produced by his backchatting muse Kirsty Almeida, and executed by the finest musicians and singers from Manchester environs, is a masterwork that outstrips genre. There’s nothing as transcendent as a melody, and Owens is a gifted melodist and arranger. As a jobbing bassist, he’s the anchoring presence of song-based jazz trio The Magic Beans and the rock steady heartbeat of Baked a la Ska. The pieces on his long awaited debut as leader are as indelible as the merry melodies of pop, come arrayed in the colours of the chamber orchestra and are executed with jazz freedom. Naturally, jazz soloists go where they will in their bravura way, whilst the classical players remain tethered to their music-stands. This is the first law of jazz/classical crossover. 

‘Raindrops On Our Rooftop’ is a sprightly opener and sets the tone: quietly exultant with a hint of drollery. The music is an extension of the man, being benign, sanguine and without a hint of angst. You feel that Owens observes the world with indulgence and gentle pleasure, and these are just the qualities he induces in his listeners. On ‘Raindrops’, Neil Yates’ tin-whistle soars above woodwind and tuned percussion like a bell ringing in the empty sky. It’s very shakuhachi, and very Manchester. The music nicely evokes the feeling of being warm indoors as rain patters outside.

These tunes and arrangements were aired as far back as the 2009 Manchester Jazz Festival and an advance copy of the CD has taken pride of place on my shelves for several months now. An alternative title (not so eloquent as The Aviators’ Ball) might be Matt Owens’ Greatest Hits, it’s so familiar and consistently excellent. There are three superb songs. Yes, songs. This is more than most contemporary jazz albums can muster (where the custom is to include a single song among the difficult stuff as a sop to the masses, and it’s usually horrible) and a better tally than most Greatest Hits collections. 

Tom Davies’ ‘Mouse Song’ celebrates togetherness even as it acknowledges its difficulties. It focuses on the domestic side of the dream of love, with the lover cast as interloper, perhaps analogous to a mouse, lightly raising the dust and unwittingly intruding into private spaces. The composer’s delivery is tender and expressive, as his voice meshes into a shifting kaleidoscope of woodwind. It’s adventurous and witty, and errs on the sweet side of bittersweet. And Rioghnach Connolly’s interpretation of the traditional ‘Black is the Colour’ stands comparison with those other great interpreters of that song, Margaret Barry and Nina Simone. These are two very disparate artists, and Rioghnach Connolly – so steeped in the Irish tradition that her vocal melismatics slip seamlessly between folky embellishment into bluesy paraphrase – is unique in her ability to combine the qualities of both. Add a Gil Evans-like arrangement, with Neil Yates invoking Sketches of Spain with a lorn trumpet, and the spell is complete.    

‘Going Back to the Village’, has carolling, creamy voices and a piano poised between precision and passionate abandon. This is the wonderful Edward Barnwell, whose ease at straddling the worlds of classical and jazz make him mutually simpatico to Owens’ aesthetic. Happiness is notoriously an elusive emotion to capture in music (and other rarefied art forms), but this is a trick Owens manages time and again. Owens and pianist John Ellis shadow each other in unison on the pretty, courtly ‘Every Wish Is For You’, until Neil Yates’ cuts through with a trumpet that is surely deeper and more sorrowful than required. 

Owens knows his musicians’ strengths and characters intimately, and is as keen as Ellington to devise settings that show them to best advantage. Sometimes a cameo is succinct but telling, as when a stratospheric lap steel guitar-lick from Billy Buckley puts the seal of joy to the bustle of ‘The Peanut Train’, a homage to Charlie Brown, or, particularly, to Vince Guaraldi. 

And the elegiac charm of ‘The Aviators’ Ball’ is a natural fit for Steve Chadwick’s cornet, always elegant, replete with warmth and composure, and moving. Chadwick’s lyricism ignites Barnwell to give his best, and Barnwell’s best is astonishing. Formally, ‘The Aviator’s Ball’ is an achingly beautiful waltz: it serves as a poignant salute to lost aviators and lost pioneers from a vanished world (the video does it full justice: you can find it here – Owens, it seems, has saved his best writing for the title track. 

Actually ‘Monsoon’ (the third of the immortal song trio: ‘Going Back to the Village’, being wordless, doesn’t count) is a candidate for that honour too, with the woodwinds in full spate on a dramatic ballad, that oscillates, like its moods, between major and minor. This is surely the most accomplished song yet to spring from the pen of Zoe Kyoti, an extremely personable jazz singer who here unleashes elemental forces, and waxes philosophical: “Nothing comes for free, even freedom itself…” This must be the nicest expression of the paradox since ‘Me and Bobbie McGee’. 

‘Violet’, the album closer, sweetly restores the balance of equanimity and wonder. 

An album refreshingly free of narcissism and angst (not counting Kyoti’s compelling contribution, that is), and, incidentally, a recording of stunning audio clarity, ‘The Aviator’s Ball’ works as program music, jazz, pop, whatever. It’s chiefly a pure expression of a unique sensibility, one wonderfully sympathetic to his fellow musicians. Was ever tunefulness more tuneful, or charm more graceful? 

Perfect Love, as Captured on LP Covers ...

1. Billie Pierce regards DeDe Pierce on New Orleans - The Living Legends: Billie and DeDe Pierce, Riverside RLP 370 

2. Barbara Gaskin regards Martin Cockerham on Spirogyra, St Radigunds, B&C CAS 1042

3. Keely Smith regards Louis Prima on Louis Prima, Keely Smith with Sam Butera and the Witnesses, The Wildest Show at Tahoe, Capitol T908 

I note that these are all women giving adoring looks to men. I’m sure there are just as many men giving adoring looks to women, but I haven’t been able to find any. Here is the nearest related male activity...     

… Sharing a Joke  

1. Roy Eldridge and Lester Young on Laughin’ To Keep From Cryin’, Verve V6-8316 

2. Nick Strutt and Bob Pegg on Bob Pegg and Nick Strutt, Transatlantic, TRA 265 

Polar Bear, Royal Northern College of Music, 17 April, 2015

It’s the originality that ultimately impresses. Polar Bear propose an entirely new vision of jazz. Their sound is characterised by linear melodies, complex beats of metronomic precision and an ability to move between static electronica and freewheeling organic acoustic jazz. It’s a synthesis with blurry edges. Melodies conceived on a computer (I surmise, without actually knowing anything about drummer/composer Sebastian Rochford’s working method, but it would explain their inscrutable sensibility and circular shapes) are then given to flesh and blood players – that is, the twin tenor saxophones of Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart, and the securely rooted, if buoyant, bassist Tom Herbert – to translate. There’s a fifth player, Leafcutter John, but as he’s the chief wielder of electronics, he plays the role of the trickster. Wareham has a declamatory, staccato delivery, while Lockheart is more lyrical, not to say fluent, and apt to weave a delicate counterpoint around Wareham’s more bludgeoning lines. But the tunes are distinctly Rochford’s own: intriguing, mildly eccentric, and resolutely set on pursuing the current of joy to its source. 

I wasn’t looking forward to the gig, by the way. Well, I was a little alienated by the group’s previous offering, In Each and Every One, an unfocused dalliance with electronica, accompanied by a 10” LP, which is untitled and white all over (except for a little polar bear), with only a hand-written number – ‘326’, in my case – for identification. Wise old Polar Bear: reserving the difficult stuff for the collectors’ market. Whereas the new album, Same As You, is a delight from start to finish. The group performed Same As You in its entirety during the second set. There was the first set to get through beforehand. 

A sustained obstinate gets everyone into the zone. There follows a sinuous theme, ‘Open See’, with the twin horns unravelling skeins of melody to Rochford’s meticulous, polyrhythmic parts. They don’t lose their way, but I do. I worry that the sound of the room isn’t entirely suited to the electro/acoustic mix, and my mind wanders. It all gels for the last ‘Lost in Death’, a multi-cellular piece, but somehow I’m still not wholly engaged. 

The second set, as I say, a run-through of Same As You, is wonderful. The sound is much improved. It starts with another sustained omni-chord – because this is spiritual jazz, and these drones engender a trance state, an ideal way to heighten the senses and forget time (Rochford’s mastery of time, includes the ability to suspend it altogether). On disc, ‘Life, Love and Light’ is even more overtly spiritual, and the drone serves as backdrop for a sincere invocational poem. Though the invocation is dropped from the live performance, its positive vibe affects everything that follows. 

Spiritual, yes, but ‘We Feel the Echoes’ directs the inner bliss in an outward direction, generously aided by Herbert’s loping bass, which is almost roots reggae in it’s appeal. After an interval of white noise, variously an earache or an evocation of elemental force (just which depends on an individual’s level of tolerance towards that sonic imp, Leafcutter John), ‘The First Steps’ sets up a tension between Rochford’s wood and skin patterning and a contrasting tinny electro rhythm, courtesy of Leafcutter. The horns scale a pyramid of beats during ‘Of Hi Lands’, but this is only a prelude to the transcendent dance ‘Don’t Let the Feeling Go’, which nevertheless involves a bit of uncomfortable chanting. No matter, nothing can stop the forward momentum now. ‘Unrelenting Conditional’ is the great trance inducer of the evening, with Wareham traversing foothills with steady deliberation and gradually, almost imperceptibly, building to a state of euphoria, and all at a steady stroll (and later, a surge) dictated by Rochford’s detailed, controlled kit. 

Spiritual too, in the way that the musicians surrender their egos to the collective vision. Same As You. Rochford is the catalyst, but all the players are equal and all are necessary. 

A health note: anyone suffering from an attack of low spirits or spiritual ennui is directed to the course of medication prescribed by Polar Bear. It’s a universal panacea and there are no unpleasant side-effects. 

Musical Dream Diary, March 2015

Archie Fisher

In an attempt to heal the sectarian divide, I take a portable Dansette and play an Archie Fisher LP in the open-air in a rough part of Glasgow. It’s a long-lost Archie Fisher, unfamiliar to me, possibly from the eighties (‘Fury’, or something like it, figures in the title). As it plays I become convinced of its classic status, though I’m not sure how I can tell, because I speedily absent myself from the scene. Upon return, I find the disc has been vandalised, and the plastic has been twisted into a macaroni shape. I’m inconsolable, but it’s all a false alarm. The record is, in fact, restored to me intact. Happy and relieved I make to put it on, but I’m forbidden to do so. It would be the third play (on automatic, being a Dansette, presumably), and the neighbours are getting rebellious. 

Madness with Tom Courtney 

Madness have reformed, but the comeback concert, an elaborate piece of music theatre with all new songs, and with Tom Courtney in place of Suggs, is not going well. “Too fuck-off pop!” says my friend John, in the seat beside me. As a conscientious music journalist, I make a note of the comment: “Too fuck-off pop!”. Belatedly returning for the second set, things have taken a turn for the worse, and audience members are beginning to heckle above the noise of prolonged tuning. One musician (none are recognisable as Madness members, and even Tom Courtney has disappeared) responds in a hard, leery Cockney: “Looks like we’ve lost a local, I’m afraid.”  

The Fugs 

The Fugs – I’m a bit hazy about the details on this one – have been embraced by a new generation as the figureheads of an alternative society . This leads to a boost in the market value of old Fugs records. “What Fugs have you got?” asks my uncle, never before known to take an interest in such matters, and, indeed, known for his collection of James Last records. Surprised into inarticulacy, I make a halting reply but the conversation has already moved on. Indeed, it’s only on waking I remember the titles: The Fugs’ First Album and The Fugs. I’ve never owned Golden Filth, whose song ‘River of Shit’ might have amused my uncle, nor Tenderness Junction (pictured). 

The interpretation is possibly related to a recent conversation about beards being fashionable for the first time since the hippies, and a current pre-occupation with revolution (I’m reading Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution), and revolutionary expression in sixties music generally, and its failure in the seventies. But, as I told Marie-Claire yesterday, I still can’t hack it with Russell Brand.     

Mike Outram

In a strange jumble of past and present, I’m on holiday with the family and we’re all cramped into a small cubicle for living quarters. I’ve just found a CD by Mike Outram and the music is blasting forth. It’s song-based, groovy and good. “What do you think?” “It’s very advanced,” says my sister ambivalently, more tolerant than enthused, I think. 

Why Mike Outram? (I notice – now that I’ve Googled him – that the guitarist recently helped provide accompaniment to the silent film Jane Shore at Ealing Town Hall.) I suspect my subconscious, in its oblique way, is directing me to my good friend Peter Bocking, Mike Outram’s guitar teacher, and now as fondly remembered and lost as family holidays. 


Robert Rodriguez and Patricia Vonne

A full night of music, though the details are hazy. In one set-piece dream, I was leading the band, and we rode the riff from ‘I’m a Man’. The women were beautiful and adoring. I don’t know how or why, but somehow Robert Rodriguez and his sister Patricia Vonne were involved (I once received a CD by Patricia Vonne, and might even have played it, but I've never watched a film by Robert Rodriguez). The next major dream set-piece was music only. I think my subconscious mind abolished the narrative on grounds of implausibility. 


I get these kinds of dreams all the time, but most vanish beyond recall by morning. Pete Townshend figured recently, but all I've retained is a sense of his supreme grumpiness. 

Stomping at the Rivelyn with Victor Swanvesta

I had a very good Hip Replacement, thanks. Perhaps my best. 

Hip Replacement is the name Alan Parry calls the night (or day, because this was an all-dayer) he promotes under the guise of 78 DJ Victor Swanvesta. The name actually was an idea of mine. I used to promote wild mixed-media events with maverick Edward Barton under the umbrella title Hip Replacement. Of course a promoter can never relax at his own event, but this natural unease was compounded by the worry of not knowing what madcap Edward Barton was going to do next. Which is why I enjoyed Victor’s Hip Replacement rather more than Edward’s Hip Replacement. I resurrected my own disc spinning alter ego, DJ Disfazia, for the occasion. DJ Disfazia stands out from the rest because he doesn't talk between records. It's in the name, dummy. 

Victor, who talks at the turntable, is a 78 DJ on the rise, with interviews (plural) with Dr Rock on BBC Radio Yorkshire and articles (plural) in the Scarborough News. It said, “Alan Parry, better known as Victor Swanvesta…” And everyone there had a grand time, except for a couple of fellow DJs, there to supplement the efforts of Victor Swanvesta, Disfazia and Charlie. These actually staged a walk-out.   

Hip Replacement, the name, works on several levels. Obviously, it’s a pun on the common surgical operation, which we middle-aged types are sadly prone to. It also carries the promise of an alternative to mainstream culture. “Don’t watch that, watch this” kinda thing. Or, more subtly, it suggests that hip itself can be superseded by extra-hip. That is, hip that no-one knows, or no-one yet recognises as hip. Could this be why the traditional arbiters of the hip and groovy – i.e. those DJs with their funny Northern Soul 45s, which exchange hands for £60 or £100 a go – feel threatened by the rise of Victor? Could shellac really overtake their precious vinyl? 

The records on Victor’s playlist come from the auctions or junk-shops or are donated by senior citizens. It’s an eclectic and unpredictable mix. ‘I've Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ by Billy Cotton and his Band and ‘It Takes Two to Tango’ by Gilbert Harding and Hermione Gingold tweak the collective psyche in unexpected ways: they’re songs we know without being aware of. And how long has it been since Johnny Dodds stormed the dancefloor?

This is the true spirit of Hip Replacement, and this is the spirit I tried to honour as DJ Disfazia. I mean, any fule can play groovy soul, but it takes real genius to play groovy folk. 

Here is DJ Disfazia’s playlist, as heard by patrons of Hip Replacement at the Rivelyn Hotel, Scarborough, February 22, 2015 (please excuse the different typeface; I’m cutting and pasting from a pre-existing document): – 

Betty Harris, 'There's a Break in the Road' 
Kid Ory, 'Under the Bamboo Tree'
Duster Bennett, 'Fresh Country Jam' 
Kolettes, 'Who's That Guy'
Shirley Collins, 'Space Girl'
The Country Dance Players, 'Newcastle' 
Peter Bocking, 'Sunshine Superman' (the only copy in the world? It’s an acetate given to me by the late, lovely Pete Bocking himself) 
Lord Power, 'Temptation' 
Dele Ojo & His Star Brothers Band, 'Ori Lonise' 
The Wildweeds, 'Never Mind' 
Erma Franklin, 'I'm Just Not Ready for Love' 
Bennie Moten, 'Lafayette' 
Tapper Zukie, 'M.P.L.A.'
Rev. Kelsey, 'Little Boy' 
Chris Kenner, 'Land of 1,000 Dances' 
Mitch Mitchell and Gene The King, 'Definition of Things' 
Davy Graham, 'Angi' 
Lee Dorsey, 'If She Won't (Find Someone Who Will)' 
Rosetta Tharpe with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, 'Rock Me' 
Captain Beefheart, 'Too Much Time' 
Nikki Giovanni, 'Ego Tripping' 
Maxine Sullivan, 'Keeping Out of Mischief Now' 
Washboard Rhythm Kings, 'Brown Skin Mama' 
Memphis Jug Band, 'Cocaine Habit' 

I can’t give a detailed run down of Victor’s playlist, but, as well as the above-mentioned Gilbert and Hermione and Cotton, I spotted Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent (a dominant presence that weekend, mainly because Al had recently bought a truckload of Gene Vincent at a local auction, and so I was catching up on his Dandelion record and the early 70s Kama Sutra LPs). Oh, and something called ‘Boogie for Googie’ by Joe Daniels and His Hotshots. I only know this because it somehow got mixed in with my box of records and I took it home with me. Parlophone.

In all honesty, only one DJ actually got the patrons of Rivelyn dancing, and that was Charlie, the great soulman from Middlesbrough. That’s one up for the Middlesbrough posse. To clarify, the Scarborough posse walked out not for artistic reasons – I would like to think that Gid Tanner and Lee Perry can peacefully co-exist – but because of the technical shortcomings. Only one speaker was working, for example. At one point, a needle careened over the precious grooves of a precious ska single in a barrage of ear-splitting white noise. The Scarborough posse muttered darkly. The consensus view was that Victor had neglected to change the cartridge after his 78 spot. It was a typical Parry Tours excursion, really.

The other person who contributed so much to the success of Hip Replacement was Glen, Al’s partner and helpmate, who minded the vintage stall and served up her homemade Gumbo and had a hearty welcome for everyone. As the wife of a new friend, Andy, said to me, “As far as I can tell, Glen does all the work and Al just self-indulges.” Unfair comment, I would say, but it made Glen happy when I reported the remark.   

Of course, Hip Replacement was merely the icing on a cake of a glorious weekend in Scarborough. On the Friday, we visited the new micro-pub on Falsgrave Road, the Stumble Inn. The beer was so good, and so plentiful, that I found myself nursing my first hangover in twenty years on the morrow. Patrons there included Harry, the friendly fascist. A building across the road, just  down from the railway station, is under new management. It’s full of posters and signs saying ‘Vote UKIP’. It seems to be the party HQ of UKIP. There’s a serpent in every Eden, it seems. 

 The blog is topped and tailed by two works by Austin-based graphic artist Guy Juke. Prints of both adorn Al's front-room. The Memphis Jug Band is by Robert Crumb. I'm not sure about the other illustration, but it caught my fancy. 

High on Edna (key words – 'Inebriate', 'Woman')

Catching up with a cornerstone of TV counter-culture...

Who now remembers Edna the Inebriate Woman (a Play for Today, with Patricia Hayes in the title role, broadcast in 1971)? Wes, my favourite illegal street trader, does. He was reciting a line from it 44 years after the event. It was a memorable (and pithy) line, mind: “I am not the vagrant!” (Undoubtedly it resonates for Wes at the present time: the authorities, in the form of the City Council, regularly seize his books, and he has no running water in the house.) 

Indeed, I remember not seeing it, it was such a schoolyard succès de scandal among us 12-year-olds. Who was it? Spud, the bad lad of the class, had been allowed to stay up, or, more likely, had been forgotten to be sent to bed. He relived selected scenes with great gusto at playtime the next day, focusing mainly on those aspects likely to satisfy pre-teen prurience (“you saw all her bum”), but running the gamut of emotion from wonder, repugnance, rapture, sympathy, horror and delight. These were my feelings too, when I finally caught up with it last night on youtube []. 

Edna the Inebriate Woman – which follows a middle-aged, homeless woman through a succession of dosses, Spikes, nights spent roughing it in cardboard boxes with plastic sheeting for warmth, hostels, mental institutions, prison, a shelter for women – is a miracle of humanist film-making. It would be impossible to get it made today, though not for lack of homeless people. 

There’s a scene quite early on: an elderly man is being interviewed about his eligibility to stay at the Spike over winter. 

“Are you in work now?” 

[Pronounced nodding.] “Yes sah.” 

“What are you doing?” 

“I work ‘ere. I do the buckets, outside the bathroom, and I swill down the tiles, outside the, you know, the how you do.” 

“Have you tried to get work outside?” 

“Yes sah.” 


[Floundering] “Yes sah. They said I was too old. You know, aged. You know, teeth [points to mouth with three stumps]. You know, sah. Yes sah.” 

“Would you like to stay on here throughout the winter?” 

[Complete happiness, nodding.] “Oh yes sah.”  

[Benignly beaming] “Alright. We’ll keep you here throughout the winter, and we’ll turn you out for the summer. Alright?” 

[Raising to go.] “Thank you very much, sah.” 

It was here that the tears started, and they were never far from the surface for the duration. (Oh, the look of infinite tenderness with which the interviewer turns down Edna when her turn comes.) And then a peculiar thing happened. My tears of pity co-mingled with tears of laughter until the two were virtually indistinguishable. It was a very strange, and perversely rich and satisfying sensation. 

So the down-and-outs are gathered before a fire, and a sense of comradeship and revelry breaks out. An Irishman talking to Edna is valiantly trying to make sense of it all. “My mind get cloudy.” Edna nods sympathetically, is prone to distraction herself. “People take an interest,” he continues, brightening. “But,” downcast again, “it does no good.” One of their number (the great Welsh character actor Talfryn Thomas) delightedly points to the presence of Tiny Nick, who apparently thinks he’s God. Tiny Nick, stolid and large, doesn't mind having his delusions paraded for the general amusement. 

“I was saying my prayers to the Lord. I found I was talking to myself,” he says impassively, and with reason.  

Taffy is pleased. “When he goes to the public toilets, he does number two all over the floor.” Laughs delightedly. “Hey! Tell them! Tell them why you do that.” Tiny Nick obliges. “God made number two, so God can drop it where it pleases.”  

This is the miracle: truth and life brought to every living-room in the land through the medium of TV, and recreated with such integrity, such fidelity to lived experience ,that that there is no visible artifice. It’s not bleak so much as a tremendous affirmation of the human spirit, a testament to the ability to put up with the worst. A shawled homeless old woman, padded by several layers of coats, morosely silent, suddenly buttonholes Edna. “Do you know anybody who might like to publish some drawings?” she asks.

False notes? Not the burst of psychedelia in the psychiatric home (uncredited: my best guess would be The Story of Simon Simonpath by Nirvana), as danced to by the youngest, prettiest, albeit blank-faced, inmates. This, and the hippy who joins the tramps’ party, establishes common cause between tramps and hippies, both similarly outcast. It seems presciently aware that the next generation of the homeless and mentally disturbed would come from the ranks of the counter-culture. I liked Edna’s homemade folk song too. 

Her run-ins with authority figures, usually wheedling for money, are absurd and doomed encounters between mutually uncomprehending systems. She invariably comes a cropper at the first hurdle, muddling her aliases and identities – once trying to pass herself off as ‘Mr Tute’ – and confusing the phrase “permanent address” with “permanent name”. Her surname changes from one scene to the next. Homeless people, it seems, weren’t entitled to benefits in the seventies(are they now?), although they could apply for a special payment if they could prove “dire need”. This required lots of hoop jumping. Bypassing the receptionist and pushing past the client and shouting full in the office clerk's face, ‘I’M IN DIRE NEED!” is evidently not the way to do it. At other times, Edna’s natural resources win through. Angling to prolong her stay in the psychiatric ward, and interviewed to have her soundness of mind tested, Edna is asked the date. A long pause. “The 32nd,” she replies sweetly. 

The drinking, proclaimed in that ‘Inebriate’ of the title, is understated and ever-present. If anything, the film is more fascinated with pills and drugs than alcohol. The stoner getting high at the tramp’s spree is typical. Pills are everywhere in the psychiatric ward. “Everybody wants pills, dear,” says Clara (played by June Brown of EastEnders renown). “I’m on sixty or eighty a day” says the psychedelic girl dancer in the nut-house. “Let’s hope your stay in here won’t be long,” says Edna. “Oh I hope it will be,” says the girl blearily. “I don’t know what this country is coming to. Everybody is smashed. I think we’re going to be overwhelmed,” says the girl on the stairway at Jesus Saves, clearly out of her head. If, like me, you’re viewing on youtube [] you might wish to freeze the frame at 14:37 of Part 3, on a close-up of a raffish-looking young tramp, in attendance as the nuns distribute  food and soup to the homeless. This is is a rare cameo by Vivian MacKerrell, the actor credited as the real-life inspiration for the character Withnail in Withnail and I (books have been written about him). Edna is quite as fascinated and careless about drugs and alcohol as Withnail.  

But Edna the Inebriate Woman contains everything. Everything! Edna’s companions of the road variously include a transgender type – “I dress and I live like a girl, but I’m half and half. My girlfriend, she got pregnant.” To which Edna replies with one of her favourite lines, expressive of acceptance and puzzlement, “Well, that does take some sorting out.” Later, a fellow guest at Jesus Saves, a shelter for women in a smart suburban street, tells her story: abused by her father; her child taken from her and put into care. Another occupant, vulnerable, sex obsessed and semi-deranged, jumps on top of Edna’s bed and exposes herself, as Edna kicks and screams. No pulls are punched either, in a flashback collage that briefly sketches in Edna’s childhood. “I have no daughter,” says her put-upon, literally beaten mother.     

There’s a good chance, of course, that all this would have constituted rather too much reality for my 12-year-old self. Not many years later I remember walking out of a screening of Family Life by Ken Loach. It was so grim and relentless. And only last month, I gave up on another youtube find, The Whisperers, a raw slice of life with Edith Evans in her dotage. 

These were dour odes to miserabilism. Edna the Inebriate Woman is not that. Unflinching as hell, it’s also wickedly, scabrously funny and as surreal as life with no safety-net can be: in places, it suggests a Bunuel let loose in the British counter-culture. The director is Ted Kotcheff. But Jeremy Sandford gets more prominence as the writer (and the primacy of writer over director is another quaint, topsy-turvy touch). 

No words are adequate to convey the brilliance of Patricia Hayes’ central performance. She captures Edna’s complexity: the self-destructiveness, affection and remoteness wrapped together, the bristling, often misdirected energy, the simple honesty and low cunning. “Is she a proper actress or is is this a documentary?” someone asked me, paying Patricia Hayes, and the film, the highest ever compliment. Just like Maria Falconetti is Joan of Arc and David Bradley is Billy Casper, Patricia Hayes is Edna the Inebriate Woman. But we are all Edna the Inebriate Woman.    

Odd that I can weep buckets over the plight of homeless people in a drama of 44 years ago, but I would never, ever buy a Big Issue from a homeless person today. That, as Edna would say, takes a lot of sorting out. 

Revenant Records from a Recovered Time Capsule

"revenant, rav-na, rev'a-nant, n. one who returns after a long absence, esp. from the dead..." –
                                                                                                 Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary

A vinyl time capsule has returned to haunt me. It happened that I squirrelled away a bunch of records in Dad’s loft in an attempt to free up some space in my cluttered flat. This was long enough ago for me to forget all about it. But when Dad cleared his loft, it pleased him to return my LPs. He entrusted delivery to brother Ant, who drives a car. The lapse between commission and execution lasted a year, until finally, just before Christmas, I took receipt of eight cardboard boxes containing around two dozen LPs apiece. I had mixed feelings about this. What might I find? My record collection is anyway a refuge for the unloved and unwanted. Rejects from the Mike Butler Home for Vinyl Waifs and Strays must be very, very bad indeed. Or so you might think.  

What I found was… well, a surfeit of Duke Ellington and a glut of Mahalia Jackson. Both artists crossed from being top of their respective fields to mainstream popularity (they collaborated once), and both recorded prolifically. The crumbs off Duke’s table were eagerly pounced upon by the small Stardust label. Stardust #204 is called simply Volume Four, and documents a concert at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, on April 30th, 1947. It could be a bootleg, for the minimal, handmade packaging (pasted text on front; blank white on the back), which betokens genuine love and enthusiasm. The knowledgeable notes are prefaced by an unsourced quotation, presumably from Shakespeare: 

Who governs here? A noble 
Duke, in nature as in name. 

Where should this music be? 
i’ the air or the earth?

Resolutely lo-fi, in fact, but clearly a magical night. 

Mahalia Jackson fell into the clutches of small labels too, but majors abused her talents more grievously. Here, the Columbia (GB) and Columbia (USA) mix-up becomes a live issue, because Mahalia Jackson appears on both labels. Columbia (USA) – let’s call them CBS for the sake of clarity – were the worst for turning sanctimony into saccharine. My Faith, CBS 62944, burdens the great gospel singer with a choir and strings, plunders Chopin (‘Tristesse Etude Op. 10 No. 3’ appears as ‘My Faith’, credited to ‘G. Howe/A. Hansen’), wilfully ignores the scepticism  of ‘Lost in the Stars’ and is generally tailored to the tastes and pieties of Middle America. Garden of Prayer, CBS 62841, is heading that way – the choir on track one, the title song, sound impeccably clean-cut, starchy and white – but matters improve. Indeed, Garden of Prayer rivals Mahalia’s pre-CBS recordings on Apollo. These were licensed in the UK by Columbia, the EMI subsidiary. No Matter How You Pray (Columbia 33SX 1712) – dig the eerie organ! – and In The Upper Room (Columbia 33SX 1753) clearly derive from the same sessions. The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer (Philips B 07077 L) is best of the lot. Mahalia always excels with a small combo, and any record with the legend “accompanied by the Falls-Jones Ensemble” is a guarantee of excellence. As Sister Rosetta Tharpe is to guitar (i.e. a holy roller precursor of rock ’n’ roll), so is Mildred Falls to piano.   

I was clearly over-dosing on Mahalia at the time, with all the above, plus the double album compilation, This Is Mahalia Jackson, The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer (CBS S 66241) and Mahalia (CBS 62659) consigned to the time capsule, presumably because of musical value and/or condition. What did I choose to keep? What, in other words, is my choice as the defining statement of Mahalia Jackson’s art? Readers, Mahalia (so many Mahalias!) on Columbia EMI 33SX 1698 contains the essence of Mahalia.    

Those other Duke Ellingtons, by the way, are The Duke Steps Out (RCA, RD-7731), At the Cote D’Azur (Verve, SVLP 9170), and, with Johnny Hodges, Back to Back and Side by Side (VSP 11/12). It's slightly disconcerting to find Ellington sounding so silly on RD-7731. The collaborations with Hodges are pretty indispensable, but I have the two originals in better shape. 

If I undervalued Duke Ellington, I was also guilty of seriously undervaluing Muhal Richard Abrams. A bunch of mid-80s recordings on Black Saint sound wonderful. Namely View From Within (BSR 0081) and Spihumonesty (BSR 0032). I exclude Duet (BSR 0051), a collaboration with Amina Claudine Myers (piano duets often grate: it’s something to do with all that clashing, jangling activity in the same tonal register). Conclusion: it takes between 85 and 35 years for me to catch up with what the most advanced musicians are laying down.

Or as Swamp Dogg put it, Finally Caught Up With Myself. That’s here (Musicor, MUS-2504). It’s lightweight, low budget, but typically irrepressible Dogg. And here’s another production by Jerry Williams, aka Swamp Dogg: Ruby Andrews’ Kiss This (Ichiban, ICH 1104). No disgrace, pretty nifty, albeit hampered by a cheesy 80s production sound. Kiss This was actually recorded in 1991. Not a great year for soul, but neither was 1980, on the evidence of Candi Staton’s self-titled LP (Warner Brothers WB 56 803), which finds the soul belle comprehensively steamrollered by Disco . But, hey, 1974 was a year of wonders. What’s Danger High Voltage by Betty Wright (RCA SF 8408) doing here?  The sleeve is worn, but the music! Good times, good lovin’ and good grooves are joyously affirmed. 

Also in the ‘What Was I Thinking Of?’ category is Dr John, 16 Greatest Hits (Trip, TOP-16-1). Perhaps the unappealing picture of the Doctor on the cover put me off, or the budget label, or the ragbag nature of the collection. Whatever, no matter what the source (plainly someone else – Ronnie Barron? is singing the wistful ‘Did She Mention My Name’), this is definitive Dr John. ‘Cat and Mouse Game’ prefigures ‘Such a Night’ (love the eccentrically prolonged coda), and Mac sounds as smashed on ‘Trader John’ as he does on Gris Gris; ‘Xmas in New Orleans’ is one of the great unsung Christmas songs and ‘Woman is the Root of All Evil’ has a winningly nonsensical pay-off line (“Money is worse, but it’s legal”). 

And a 12” single of 1979 vintage, ‘One More Chance’ by Linval Thompson, on Greensleeves, has it all: roots rocking groove, sweet harmonies, a Dub vanishing trick in the extended version: even an irresistible rude toast on the flip, ‘Long Time Me Na Rub You in a Dance’. I must have been mad to part with this! 

This becomes my refrain as superb LP follows superb LP. What can I say? To open your ears is the basic requirement of music appreciation, and my callow self clearly had hearing issues. It’s becomes particularly useful (opening your ears) when it comes to a spot of jazz. Irina by the Barry Altschul Quartet (Soul Note, SN 1065) is graced by sidemen of the order of Enrico Rava and John Surman. This, in 1983, so just before Surman’s hermit-like withdrawal to the ECM Ivory Tower, and a steady string of one-man albums. Yet Surman’s finest moments are group endeavours, like, oh, Extrapolation, How Many Clouds Can You See and Irina. Did I somehow get the notion that drummers couldn’t also be leaders or composers? If so, I blush at my stupidity, and beg the pardon of Paul Motian, Max Roach, Asaf Sirkis and Barry Altschul. 

More faulty logic is exposed in this further example of sloppy thinking: if you’ve got Bobby Bland, do you need Geater Davis as well? 

The short answer is, yes please. The urge to elevate one artist at the expense of another has to be resisted at all costs. So what if some of Geater’s vocal mannerisms recall Bobby Bland? Sad Shades of Blue (Charly, CRB 1132) is gritty, funk-tinged Deep Soul at it’s most assured. And let’s not fall into the Northern Soul trap of venerating the obscure and denigrating the popular. Let’s have James Carr and Otis Redding, Betty(e) Swann and Aretha Franklin, J.J. Barnes and Marvin Gaye. And for that matter, let’s have Bobby Neuwirth and Bob Dylan, Trees and Fairport Convention, Faust and Can. Some broad-minded listeners even find it possible to like both Jim Morrison and Van Morrison, though I remember falling out with a friend of my youth, Andy Shearer, on this point (I was a Van man; he was a Jim man). 

I banished a lot of smoochy soul to outer darkness. Some of it is rather good. William DeVaughn’s Figures Can’t Calculate the Love I Have For You (EMI, EMC 347) contains an unnecessary remake of his greatest hit, ‘Be Thankful For What You’ve Got’, and a piece of regrettable nonsense called ‘Boogie Dan’, but the ballads project the singer’s sincerity and what I can only describe as a sense of natural goodness, enhanced by an uncanny vocal resemblance to Curtis Mayfield. (So I dissed Geater Davis for sounding like Bobby Bland, and hailed William DeVaughn for sounding like Curtis Mayfield! That's inconsistency for you.) 

Feeling Good (United Artists, CH-LA656-G) by Walter Jackson is more penthouse than boudoir, but there’s no gainsaying that impeccable baritone voice. Misty Blue by Dorothy Moore (Malaco #6351) captures the moment when refinement replaced sweeping emotion in soul music. The album’s success established the fortunes of Malaco, a small label operating out of Jackson, Mississippi. By providing a home for veteran old-stagers like Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Bland, Little Milton and Shirley Brown, it could be argued that Malaco rescued Southern Soul Music from extinction. But at a cost. Soul was now a tamed force. Malaco may not have made a bad album, but they haven’t made any great ones either. Typically, Misty Blue slips down smoothly and leaves not a trace.   

What else? The Best of Gladys Knight & The Pips (Buddah, BDS 5663); essential, but it’s a spare copy. Call Me by Ann Peebles (Naylo, WAY 269509 1); a long way from her glory days. The Sweet Inspirations, Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia (Stax, STS-3017); marooned without Cissy. Talking of whom: Cissy Houston, Mama’s Cookin’ (Charly, CRB 1158). A preponderance of lovey-dovey ballads, a skip or two on one track and the inclusion of ‘I Believe’ consigned Mama’s Cookin’ to time capsule oblivion, when in fact the album approaches soul perfection in quite a few places, notably ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’, which predates Gladys’ version above, and is more down-home, a ‘Long and Winding Road’ that glides as it winds, and a stomping ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’, a lot less glossy than niece Dionne's rendering. 

Aretha Franklin’s Let Me In Your Life (Atlantic, K50031) is simultaneously the best and worst of Aretha; it misses the good old Muscle Shoals mud. Aretha Franklin, Who’s Zoomin’ Who (Arista, Al8-8286); no comment. Two albums by Joe Simon, Get Down (Southbound SEW 013) and Drowning in the Sea of Love (Southbound, SEW 021); I never really got Joe Simon (I mean nice voice, but...). Oh, and Chuck Jackson, Passionate Breezes (Capitol, SW-11775). 

A historic album in it’s way, Passionate Breezes defines the budding sub-genre Boudoir Soul, which went on to become the dominant force in the soul/R’n’B market, for better or worse (worse). Boudoir Soul projects a state of blissful sexuality, and tends to carry the pleasure principle to ridiculous extremes. I might be tempted to laugh Passionate Breezes out of the bedroom, were it not for ‘The Train’, first track, side two, which is very, very good indeed: shimmering guitar, a slow groove and pleading vocals. At one point Chuck takes the phrase “I remember the time…”, repeats, expands the statement, and repeats, adding more words again, all the while squeezing the syllables to fit into the limited space of the musical metre. It’s a trick I associate with the folk song ‘The Barley Mow’. Ah, but George Spicer, when he sang ‘The Barley Mow’ (at The Half Moon, Balcombe, Sussex, on the 17th June 1962: cf. The Voice of the People: They Ordered Their Pints of Beer & Bottles of Sherry) didn’t double-track his voice, like Chuck Jackson does here. Is this the first time Chuck Jackson and George Spicer have been mentioned in the same paragraph? Anyway, I digress. It’s significant that the only song on Passionate Breezes that deals with romantic loss, as opposed to gratified desire, is the stand-out cut. 

Was I down on the blues at the time, I wonder? You Got to Reap What You Sow by Jazz Gillum (RCA Camden, INT 1177) is typical of the pre-war Chicago blues style and there’s nothing wrong with it. Big Foot Country Girl by Mel Brown explores the musical and cultural roots of Brown, a guitarist from the B.B. King school, and incorporates spoken reminiscences and singing from his father, John H. Brown. It’s a funky, bare-arse masterpiece. 

Faulty logic #2: you can be editor of the foremost folk and roots magazine in the UK (that is, Folk Roots) or a notable bluesman, but not both. I think my issues with Carrion On by Hot Vultures (Best Seller, 4C054-96947), basically Ian A. Anderson and Maggie Holland With Friends, were a) there were no originals by Maggie Holland, whose songs became a fixture of June Tabor’s repertoire, and b) if I wanted to hear ‘You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover’, I would go direct to Bo Diddley. Oh dear! Talk about false premises. 

In fact, Carrion On is a little gem: modest, unpretentious and brimful of the joy of casual music-making. If I only looked beyond ‘YCJABBTC’, Carrion On could have opened up an entire cosmology of fabulous, mythical (mostly) USA artists. Carrion On includes covers of tunes by Derroll Adams (‘The Sky’, described as “relatively recent”), The Holy Modal Rounders and (related), the enigmatic Antonia. As it was, I took the long way around to get to the Holy Modal Rounders (it was the connection with Michael Hurley, and where did I find out about Michael Hurley? Why, I read about him in Folk Roots!). Even now, some artists highlighted by Carrion On await discovery. Tracking down Tucker Zimmerman’s self-titled LP on Village Thing might be the task of a lifetime (two Zimmerman songs appear and both are beauties). And skiffler John Pilgrim turns up playing washboard on ‘The Midnight Special’. If anybody knows the whereabouts of John Pilgrim, I would love to talk to him. Not to be mysterious, but my reasons are another story altogether.


And that’s where the original posting left off 24 hours ago, rather abruptly, on the cliff-hanging digression, ‘Where are you, John Pilgrim?’ (It’s just that I’m researching a book about Bill Leader, and Pilgrim’s name has cropped up more than once.) Shall I say, simply and directly, some things I omitted to mention, or was going on to develop? 

Firstly, the reason there is a preponderance of soul, jazz and gospel – did I mention the copious gospel? To keep it brief, can I just say, Myrna Summers and Singers, Give Me Something to Hold On To, Savoy SL 14520 = Good; Rev. Jasper Williams, Jr. Eulogises Rev. C.L. Franklin, A Good Soldier, Church Door Records, CDR-22032 = Bad. As I was saying, the reason there’s such a lot of soul, jazz, gospel and other USA forms is because two thirds of the records came from Yanks/Power Cuts, the record shop, now defunct, which operated from the basement of Canada House, just off Oxford Road (Manchester), and which specialised in cheap cut-outs from the USA. Clearly, I was taking Power Cuts for granted. It’s now second only to Alan Fearnley Records, Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough, as the record shop I miss most in the whole wide world. 

Here’s a typical Power Cuts product: Toby by the Chi-Lites, Brunswick BL 754200. It has the trademark Chi-Lites sound – symphonic soul, lush harmonies, ballads that blur the boundaries between extreme romance and extreme creepiness – but I want to mention it because of the inclusion of a cover of ‘The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face)’, credited to Chesley McCaull! What was that all about? Were Ewan MacColl’s royalties being siphoned off to a Harlem dealer? 

On the subject of unlikely folk connections – only one LP in the entire batch is overtly folkie and that’s Poetry and Song 3, Argo ZPL 1096 (non-PC; that is, non-Power Cuts), which is a companion to the Voices series: readings and folk song (extended to classical on Voices), a book tie-in, designed for school audiences in the late sixties/early seventies: the producers did the obvious thing and rang Ewan MacColl, who farmed the work to his followers in the Critics Group... While we’re on the subject of unlikely folk connections, as I say, items of Leader interest (because all roads lead back to Bill), include Let Us Get Together by Rev. Gary Davis, on Kicking Mule SNKF 103 (present only because of its distressed condition) with two (very fine) drawings of the Rev. on the back cover by Gloria Dallas, the first Mrs Leader.  

I didn’t mention the classical contingent, did I? Oh, the usual tatty Pictures at an Exhibition and battered Planets. Best of the bunch is Songs From the Land of the Midnight Sun by Brigit Nilsson, Decca LXT 6185, which I notice fetches up to £50 at current prices. Popsike was a resource we didn’t have when I stocked the time capsule.       

But the harsh fact is – and this is the reason why there will be no Revenant Records Part 2 – I must get rid of them, and pronto. If I needed to declutter back then, now the situation is far, far worse, and the strain on my shelves has reached crisis proportions. So it’s eBay for the best (apart from the ones I decide to keep, of course), and maybe Wes, my favourite illegal street trader, for the rest. 

What the hell? Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disneyland DQ-1201. How did that get here? Whereas the musty smell, and this is corroborated by personal memory, reveals that Mauricee Jarre’s Academy Award Winning Music From Doctor Zhivago as played by The Metropolitan Pops Orchestra, MFP 1200, is a relic of my own dear parents’ record collection, sneakily slipped into the time capsule by Dad when I wasn't looking. Did you know that John Hartford penned ‘Gentle On My Mind’ in half an hour flat, directly upon returning home from a screening of Doctor Zhivago? And all it makes me want to do is throw a brick at the nearest passing troika.     

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