Manchester Jazz Festival Pt 2, Tue 22 - Thu 24 July, inc The Imaginary Delta, The Bad Plus, Ex-Easter Island Head

Tuesday 22, Day 4 

Carles Benavent and Jordi Bonell 

Jaco Pastorius is the obvious role-model for any bass virtuoso who dares to elevate the instrument beyond its simple time-keeping role, although they might want wish to be spared his martyrdom. Carles Benavent is better placed than anyone to fill that Pastorius-shaped hole. Presumably Miles Davis, Paco de Lucía and Chick Corea thought so when they employed him. And he is less obviously tormented – as far as one can tell from his personable stage manner – and his cultural inheritance, which includes the richest of the Spanish flamenco tradition, transfers very nicely to the bass. 

Benavent’s bass playing is mellifluous, attractive, and fluid. Sometimes he played in unison with his guitarist partner, Jordi Bonell, and sometimes he played in counterpoint, so the extraordinary profusion of notes not only doubled but multiplied: the effect was like riding on a bubbling current of rhythm. 

He played a song dedicated to Jaco Pastorius, and another one dedicated to Paco de Lucía called ‘De perdidos al río’, which, Benavent usefully translated, means “If you get lost, go to the river”. On ‘Por dioss’ Bonell tried out another guitar sound, which was fuzzier and dirtier (I wonder how they would sound on two acoustic guitars? As beautiful as Segovia, I expect.) The two men were now trading solos with implausible precision, and making a game of telepathy in their duets. A blues in bulerías rhythm turned out to be ‘Footsteps’ by Wayne Shorter. 

It was all very intricate, very busy, very Spanish and vastly enjoyable. 

Jackie Kay and Adam Fairhall 

You know this lot (The Imaginary Delta, RNCM Theatre) could have been the next Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain if they’d listened to me. They had the potential to be quite as crowd-pulling, with music that drew on trad jazz (lovingly reinterpreting ancient jazz idioms with a freshness that came as an electric shock) and the hard-core avant-garde (albeit with all the portentousness and boring bits removed) . There was a theatrical element that could be developed, and the paranormal aspect was a unique selling-point – when the long-gone singer Victoria Spivey was summoned from blues Valhalla to join forces with the band: well, that was a priceless piece of coup de theatre to set alongside the elephants in Aida

Instead, The Imaginary Delta have reconvened for an evening of ‘jazz and poetry’. These dread words are usually an instant turn-off, but anything touched by Adam Fairhall, a homegrown autodidact and musical genius, is bound to be good. My faith is justified before even a note is played, when the wonderful vibes player Corey Mwamba makes an unannounced entrance alongside the other musicians. 

Hard to imagine it working as well with any other poet than Jackie Kay (except perhaps Nikki Giovanni). Kay has a modest bearing, a Scottish accent that exudes warmth, and an openness that cuts to the emotional heart. And she is a very good poet. Fairhall has provided settings for her series of poems about Bessie Smith. “Every note she sang, she bent her voice to her will,” ran one line. The same might be said of Kay, who overcomes her evident nervousness, and never misses a cue. 

The music is new, with Fairhall finding just the right sound textures for Kay’s images: say, Corey’s thumb-piano to suggest the desolation of the Deep South as Bessie’s Pullman trundles past. New, even when the stately ‘Arabian Fantasy’ triggers recognition with the avidity of the Imaginary Delta’s Greatest Hit. And here it is, the disembodied voice of Ivy Smith (Ivy, rather than Bessie), miraculously reconfigured by Paul J Rogers’ stick remote. New, I say, because the following solos by James Allsopp on bass clarinet, Chris Bridges on trombone (who has obviously absorbed both Roy Williams and Alan Tomlinson) and Steve Chadwick on cornet are fresh minted and of the moment. What is explicit in the poetry is implicit in Steve Chadwick’s horn, which combines elegance and immensity in a way that would be familiar to turn-of-the-twentieth-century New Orleans. 

A dead-march is inspired by Kay’s image of a graveyard where Bessie’s ghost haunts her lovers. The music then follows the archetypal pattern of a New Orleans funeral: Fairhall dispels the dirge with some steaming train time boogie woogie, and the other musicians leap aboard, heroic in their affirmation of life’s energies. They stand as a symbol of generations of musicians who have given their all and who, in the end, have shared the fate of Bessie Smith: “she had a laugh, and that was all she had.”   

Adam Fairhall, Chris Bridges, Steve Chadwick, Tim Fairhall, James Allsopp, Gaz Hughes, Corey Mwamba and Paul J Rogers  

Wednesday 23, Day 5 

Two pianists, or rather, a pianist and a piano trio divert me today. Alexander Hawkins (St Ann’s Church) draws equally on jazz and classical, as much Messiaen as Duke Ellington, but both are transformed by Hawkins’ bravura technique. He may dazzle with cascades of notes, or - such are the dynamic extremes - charm with a serene and airy lyricism. The music he extracts is rich, serious and elevated, and seems to belong in the beautiful and sacred space of St Ann’s Church. 

Alexander Hawkins

When he calms a bit, the listener catches echoes of the past – a glimpse of Gershwin, perhaps, or Mussorgsky offering Pictures at an Exhibition in some grand saloon. This, it must be said, is akin to the eye making out faces from the random patterns on an ancient mossy wall. Then something tangible emerges from the tonal thicket, and what’s more, it’s recognisably jazz: a fantastic re-imagining of ‘Take the A Train’. Hesitant at first, the train starts with spluttering, spasmodic runs before gathering speed at an alarming rate. It’s derailed a few times by fugitive rhythms, but that only adds to the excitement. And then in, short order, following the logic of free association and the community of jazz genii, Hawkins essays ‘Love in Outer Space’ by Sun Ra, replicating each part of the Arkestra, including the percussion, on one or more of the 88 keys of the piano, which, the way Hawkins plays, is a one-man Arkestra. 

His open-ended explorations last precisely the hour allotted in the schedule, and end as they began, with Hawkins bent under the lid of the piano, crooning “siii” and “saaa” into the piano’s interior, listening hard to the resonance. 

The Bad Plus

The Bad Plus enter the large stage of the dark auditorium of RNCM Theatre and pianist Ethan Iverson essays a simple theme of song-like simplicity; the bass enters; Iverson fills in the chords with atonal harmonies, reshaping the piece. David King, on drums increases the intensity with a splashing cymbal and emphatic backbeat. Now the tune is positively florid and King is giving it ten to the dozen, but the original tune can still be detected beneath the frenetic activity. The climax comes: pp suddenly follows ff (a favourite trick of The Bad Plus). The simple theme is restored in its dying fall. A snare beat signals finality; rapturous applause and whoops follow. This is ‘Pound For Pound’ by bassist Reid Anderson, and it characterises The Bad Plus methodology and The Bad Plus appeal. Anticipation sharpens about what will come next. 

‘The Empire Strikes Backward’ (cute titles are another feature) has a trickier time signature and more strenuous activity, and illustrates the trio’s ability to deliver hummable melodies in 7/8 time. ‘Gold Prisms Incorporated’ utilises repetitive chords and boasts a pounding back beat, but the mock rock is subverted by a passage of free time and ascending chordal arpeggios are set to a dark, ominous drone. The music fractures completely, before the bombastic riff makes a conquering return, only to be superseded in another quick change by a new far-out rhythm. A bass solo climaxes this piece and more ravenous applause follows. 

And so it goes on. There were more players in The Imaginary Delta at last night’s concert in the theatre, but somehow the trio seem larger, and their presence expands to fill the space in inverse ratio to actual physical size. I ponder this during Iverson’s solo on ‘You Are’, a practical application of Bach-like mathematics to the chamber jazz format. Heads are now involuntarily nodding.      

Me, I think it was great as prog-rock but deficient as jazz, and, personally, I regard jazz as the higher art-form. The promised performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring didn’t materialise. I have mixed feelings about this. 

Thursday 24, Day 6 

Ex-Easter Island Head

Ex-Easter Island Head (St Ann’s Church) seemed to have stumbled upon a new method of making music, which is quite an achievement at this stage of the game. Benjamin D. Duvall, Jonathan Herring and Ben Fair lay electric guitars on a flat surface and beat them with mallets. There are a few refinements, which would be mysterious even if my view wasn’t obstructed in the 12th pew down: the direction the guitars face seems to be important, and the spot on the guitar body where the strike lands affects the sound. With an overlay of (conventional) percussion and augmented by discreet electronics, EEIH sound like a cross between a gamelan orchestra and Velvet Underground. 

Then, not content with pioneering one innovative instrumental technique, EEIH have come up with another. Again, I’m not sure how they did this, but gently tapping the strings with a trembling hand and waving the other hand over the guitar, as if it were a theramin, produce ethereal, oscillating chords that quiver in the air. Then it’s back to the mallets and slapping. But this was not horrible noise. On the contrary, it was beguiling and hypnotic. If it was shocking, it was shocking because it was so new, but the music was more mellifluous than not. When something resembling an orthodox thrash emerged towards the end, the effect was transcendent. I have seen the future of rock ’n’ roll… 

Manchester Jazz Festival, July 2014 Pt 1, featuring Pigfoot, Arun Ghosh, John Ellis and Adam Fairhall

Friday 18, The launch night

The launch clashed with the private view of a good artist and a good friend – Peter Seal: Paintings and Collages at Bankley Studios and Gallery, until 27 July, which is coincidentally the duration of Manchester Jazz Festival – but managed to catch two and a quarter of the four bands showcased as Jazz on 3: BBC Introducing, which was recorded for future broadcast at Band on the Wall. 

We were told how the participating bands were selected (open submission before a panel of experts), but what about the audience? Was the object to find the most accurate representation of the Manchester demographic (i.e. rowdy, and indifferent to jazz)? If so, they succeeded. Of the bands, The Moss Project sounded better than I’ve ever heard them, and I’d like to hear the Peter Edwards Trio again, in a more sympathetic surrounding. 

Saturday 19, Day 1 

With Spellbound Stories, Juliet Kelly (Festival Pavilion) has combed the canon of literature to produce a batch of original songs good enough to grace any modern musical. Thus, ‘Beautiful Smile’ was inspired by Zadie Smith’s White Teeth , and Dorothea, from Middlemarch, gets a lovelorn torch song, ‘Surrender’, and the message of The God of Small Things is condensed to a catchy refrain, “The little things about you / The little things that make me love you.” Kelly herself, cheerful, ingratiating, wholesome and radiant, is set fair to occupy the niche of the Deanna Durbin of jazz.

Chris Batchelor 

Pigfoot (Festival Pavilion) deconstruct vintage jazz tunes with irrepressible glee and an expertise not often encountered in anarchy. Somehow, the venerable ‘12th Street Rag’ strays into 13/3 time and the melody of ‘Basin Street Blues’ first materialises with Liam Noble plucking bare strings from inside the piano, giving the tune an unaccustomed eerie quality. ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ retains it’s waltz-time, but the harmonic centre shifts vertiginously, until, in the most unexpected of Pigfoot’s transformations, it turns into the fondly remembered Wilson Pickett tune, ‘The Midnight Hour’. There is more shape-shifting during ‘Tennessee Waltz’. “We occasionally cross over to the dark side and play Country and Western,” explains Chris Batchelor. 

In fact, ‘Tennessee Waltz’ is played surprisingly straight, and is rather touching. Chris Batchelor’s beautifully-toned trumpet provides the emotional core of the music, and prevents it from becoming a mere joke. 

Can somebody keep that baby quiet? Oh, it’s actually Chris Batchelor fiddling with the mute during ‘Mood Indigo’. 

Here’s how Pigfoot tackled ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’, a spiritual beloved of trad-jazzers. The theme is carried by Oren Marshall’s rocking tuba, buoyed by second-line rhythms from Paul Clarvis. Oren Marshall has the deadpan expression of a Buster Keaton, and the only outward sign of excitement is when he begins to swivel his hips, which is not always easy when balancing an oversize tuba. Marshall’s hips begin to swivel during a passage of counterpoint between tuba and barrelhouse piano, with Noble doing his best James P. Johnson impersonation. Paul Clarvis proceeds to demolish the distance between Baby Dodds and Ginger Baker with a galvanising drum solo. The theme re-emerges. No, not quite. It’s become ‘His Eye is On the Sparrow’, which fits both the genre and the chronology.

But Pigfoot aren’t just crazed yahoos. A real love of the music underpins the sacrilegious behaviour, just as technical accomplishment is necessary for such zany excess, and sensitivity is a requirement for complete insanity. Paradox attaches to Pigfoot like barnacles to a reef, as befits the nation’s foremost 21st century acid trad band. 

Highly motivated, and outrageously talented, Arun Ghosh has established himself as an international figure. But his roots are distinctly Manchester, and homecomings are always events. 

The line-up of the Arun Ghosh Sextet (Festival Pavilion) includes saxophonist Chris Williams, bassist Liran Donin and tabla-player Nilesh Gulhane, from the group that made A South Asian Suite (the first two are also members of Led Bib), together with some old pals from the Manchester scene, John Ellis and Dave Walsh. 

John Ellis, Liran Donin, Arun Ghosh and Chris Williams 

It’s instructive to compare Ghosh with the musicians he left behind. Dave Walsh is a genial giant, powering the ensemble in great surges of rhythm and never drawing attention to himself: in short, the quintessential jazz drummer. John Ellis is a graceful and responsive accompanist. His lack of ego makes him the ideal foil for Ghosh, whose inner being is big enough for the entire Sextet. 

‘A South Asian Suite’, the attraction mentioned in the advance publicity, incorporates the distinct musical styles of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. For example, ‘River Song’, a sweet summons to water, was inspired by the folk music of Bangladesh. Here, Ghosh evokes the ebb and flow of the river, imagines the sights and sounds of fishermen and bathers, and successfully fuses elements of western classicism (notably, his elegant, pure-toned clarinet) with Eastern tonalities and rhythms: the Brahmaputra meets Ma Vlast, if you like. The knowledge that ‘River Song’ was conceived at Chorlton Water Park makes it no less beguiling. 

Nor is ‘South Asian Suite’ all stately themes and eastern exoticism: ‘The Gypsies of Rajasthan’ is an exhilarating opener and ‘Sufi Stomp’ affirms the transcendent energy of the dervish. In its range and varied moods, ‘A South Asian Suite’ is a major achievement and a defining statement of neo-Indo-Jazz. 

So far, so sublime. The second half of the concert is something else again. Ostensibly a trawl through Arun’s back-catalogue, the music amounts to a passionate response to recent world conflict and violence. 

The addition of Jason Singh makes all the difference. A mouth musician and human beat-box (“beats and sound effects,” is Arun’s description), Singh conveys a purely human response on a purely human instrument (the voice), and imitates sirens and the tools of war to heighten the urgency of the sadly topical ‘Intifada’. ‘The Indian Fort’, inspired by Bismillah Khan ushering in Indian Independence on shehnai in 1947 atop Delhi’s Red Fort, tilts more towards the despair of Partition than the hope of Independence. Chris Williams stretches out on this one, adding pain-wracked cries to the tumult. ‘Longsight Lagoon’ banishes exoticism with modern urbanity: innocence is briefly restored with ‘Uterine’, a celebration of motherhood, with suitable whooshing and liquid sounds from Singh. Quite appropriately, this is not at all gentle towards the climax. 

‘Caliban’s Revenge’, Arun’s masterpiece, is a sustained visceral outburst, and almost overwhelming in its force. It was originally written as a piece of incidental music for a production of The Tempest at the nearby Royal Exchange. Pete Postlethwaite, who played Prospero, asked only that it should sound like The Who. Ghosh fulfilled the brief. ’Caliban’s Revenge’ is as furious as anything by The Who, albeit Walsh’s drumming is more steady and controlled that anything Keith Moon managed. (Oh, and Liran Donin’s convulsive bass is as forceful as any electric guitar.)

The Arun Ghosh Sextet received a standing ovation: how often does that happen? Further evidence of Arun’s ability to channel rock ’n’ roll power comes with the encore, a bona fide Manchester anthem in the shape of James’ ‘Come Home’. 

Sunday 20, Day 2

I took the day off, to help a friend move house. 

Monday 21, Day 3 

John Ellis 

It occurred part-way through the performance by the John Ellis Trio (Festival Pavilion) that John is probably Manchester’s finest exponent of duende, meaning, in Enrique Morente’s definition, “the mystery of the transmission of art.” 

Ellis has a gift for discovering and nurturing unknown talent. This often takes a practical form, as a prolific sound recordist with his own home studio. His musical skills, meanwhile, make him the ideal accompanist. He can be relied upon to enhance the proceedings without dominating them. This rare mix of selflessness and searching makes him an invaluable supporter of little-known songs and little-known songwriters.

Ellis is that rare thing: a jazzman susceptible to song. I’m not saying that a practical knowledge of the symmetry of diminished scale harmony and an appreciation of the well-turned phrase that cuts to the heart of the human condition are mutually incompatible objectives, just that most of us tend to put them into separate compartments and, as is only natural, as one compartment grows, the other might shrink. John Ellis, however, keeps his antennae open to both.  

Who knows ‘Johnny and June’ (by Wayne McDonald, if I got the name right)? Yet it was unforgettable for its humanity and tenderness in Ellis’ thoughtful, sensitive interpretation. The song also illustrates John’s unspoken theme, which is the tangible presence of love in everyday lives: Linda Womack’s ‘I Am Love’ is his opening song. Of course, the journey to selfhood is frequently obstructed by all kinds of ennui and negativity. Ellis’ world-view is deepened by darker feelings. To hear him sing ‘Norwegian Wood’ is to appreciate the oddity of John Lennon’s psyche. The fatalism of Ellis’ own ‘Life Will Be the Death of You’ is leavened by wry humour. 

At such times one looks to the swinging, funky, soulful piano to grasp the life-affirming message. There seems to be more for the musicians of the Trio to do this time (last year, at Bridgewater Hall, Ellis seemed literally to be plucking the songs out of empty air). Drummer Rob Turner is a matchlessly discreet patterer on these occasions, and bassist Pete Turner too, is a sympathetic and intelligent partner. In fact, someone told me that he holds down a day job as a nuclear physicist, which is one of those little surprises that seem to surround John Ellis. 

John Ellis and Pete Turner 

No satirical intent is discernible in the solo piano recital by Adam Fairhall at St Ann’s Church, just a deep reverence and knowledge of jazz history. His highly personal synthesis carries the techniques of stride and harlem piano over to the far more rigorous sphere of free jazz. ‘I’m Getting Sentimental Over You’, the opener, nods to Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, and is rich and fulsome enough to please any swing lover. The improvisation that follows could be an extended variation on ‘I’m Getting Sentimental Over You’, albeit with oblique harmonies and fugitive tonality. The virtuosity persists when he moves to the Dulcitone, a small, century-old, portable piano which (he said) was suitable for the sacred space as it was a commonplace in places of worship too poor to have their own instrument. It emits a cushioned, dulcet rumble, as Fairhall crafts lines of meshing rhythms, with a different time signature for each hand. 

Adam Fairhall 

‘Egyptian Fantasy’ doesn’t quite go to the extremes of deconstruction favoured by Pigfoot, but it does show how fearlessly Fairhall reaches backwards and forwards in time for ideas. He is also unafraid to experiment in front of an audience, which is a profound asset. 

Svarc Hanley Longhawn (Matt and Phred’s), a guitar driven jazz-rock trio on the model of Tony Williams’ Lifetime, are… interminable. 

Martin Carthy, Band on the Wall, Manchester

July 17, 2014

‘John Barleycorn’, that most English of songs, sets the tone nicely. Seeing Martin Carthy in full flight, possibly at the same age the old-timers were when the stripling Carthy saw them (Sam Larner in ’58 at the Ballad and Blues Club was a life-changing moment, apparently), is both poignant and strangely heartening. With luck, dedication and long life, we might all become old-timers, just like our first idols. But whereas the original country singers seldom bothered with instrumental virtuosity and were content just to put the song across, Carthy has it all, as an enthralling storyteller with a distinctive, forceful guitar style.   

He’s also, undoubtedly, travelled further and performed more widely than Sam Larner, Walter Pardon et al. He’s as comfortable with an audience as you or I would be in a pub with some dear old friends, and his conversation is compelling. What did I learn? For one thing, Carthy got ‘Scarborough Fair’ from The Singing Island, a songbook compiled by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, and MacColl got it from Mark Anderson, a retired miner, in Yorkshire in 1947. Thus, with typical self-effacement, Carthy undermines his major claim to fame in pop culture (the unspoken message: yes, he taught ‘Scarborough Fair’ to Paul Simon, but he only had it from a book). This comes in the introduction to ‘The Bonny Moor Hen’, another song with an Anderson source. It’s characteristic of Carthy to sidestep the obvious too. 

With such a vast repertoire, Carthy can chase threads and follow the inspiration of the moment in structuring a set. A poacher theme begins to emerge, as ‘The Bonny Moor Hen’ is succeeded by ‘The Bold Poachers’, which escalates to a wider sense of injustice - ‘My Son John’ is an odd mix of heartlessness and indignation, but powerfully conveys its anti-war message - to be dispelled by this indisputable bit of advice from the Music Hall song that follows: “Don’t go in the lions’ cage tonight, mother.”  

A swift change of guitar, and a less swift tune-up, and Carthy confides that he was electrified when he read the first four and a half verses of the next song. This turns out to be ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’, one of those big ballads that Carthy specialises in, and a transforming song in every sense. It may be that the English folk canon rebounds in instances of cross-dressing, infanticide, magic realism, courtly intrigue and bloody revenge - but all in one song!? 

And note the strange stretching of time. The original atrocity is conveyed with the terseness and dispassion of an account by a shocked survivor. (“My mother did me deadly spite, for she sent thieves in the dark of the night…”) whereas retribution, when it comes, is lingered over and savoured in every detail (“the fire took first all on her cheek…”). 

Why only the first “four and a half verses”? Could it be that ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’, in its definitive form, is largely the product of Martin Carthy’s craft? The notes on the inner of Carthy’s LP, Shearwater, are informative. If I understand right, Carthy bypasses the Broadside version and expands on a short text by Sir Walter Scott, and sets to a tune learnt from Hedy West. And the riff, surely, is Carthy’s own invention. Forget ‘Scarborough Fair’: ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’ is Carthy’s towering achievement. 

Another running theme, implied rather than declared, is the undeniable blessing of possessing a strong wife. This was the sub-text of ‘The Lochmaben Harper’ and also, in a more backhanded way, ‘The Devil and the Feathery Wife’. Of course, amateur psychology can only get you so far. Let’s not make too much of the fact than an alternative title for another song (performed on his recent tour with Eliza) is ‘The Daughter in the Dungeon’). 

A word too for Carthy’s highly individual guitar style, with its surging rhythm and syncopated accents, often following the melody line like a second voice. ‘The Third Man Theme’ was a happy choice of encore, bringing black and white film into Carthy’s revivalist remit: as if digesting and embodying the best of all previous folk music was not enough! 

Madrid, a 23 Hour Party People Town (key words: flamenco, sangría, paella, neuroscience, fish, urine, Gil Scott-Heron)

Saturday, 12 July, Madrid 

Undoubtedly Room 412 at the hotel on Calle del Pozo, just off Puerta del Sol in Madrid, is an amplifying chamber, doubling the sound of all the nearby bars, and magnifying it far beyond the level audible on the street.  There are always people shouting, as in the UK, with the difference that the shouts in Madrid add to the general merriment, whereas the shouts in the UK tend to be made alone and go unanswered.

Eva lay awake last night, which is unusual, as the noise is all part of the colourful Madrid ambience for her. Certainly there was nothing on the scale of Wednesday night, when Argentina won the semi-final of the World Cup, and Latin supporters came out in force to celebrate, and passed below our window to converge at Sol, making a tremendous racket. Unfamiliar and exotic chants were punctuated with thunderous volleys from ad hoc drum choirs, and the car hoots were ubiquitous. (Earlier, we had seen our new neighbour check in - a glum, single, Australian matron, clutching her Lonely Planet Guide for protection. God knows what she made of it.) 

But last night I slept like a baby, pleasantly exhausted by a full day of Neuroscience at the 10th AIMS Conference on Dynamical Systems, Differential Equations and Applications, the reason for our visit. At one point we were given a tour of the labs. Two fish tanks, blacked out to prevent light reaching their piscine inhabitants, were connected to a computer which intercepted messages from one and relayed them to the other! All this, a Richard Hamilton exhibition at Reina Sofía (The White Album might be his finest hour, as it was the Beatles) and the joyful reunion of Eva and her dear friend Amparo. No wonder I slept soundly. 

My subconscious, innocent of political correctness, transferred the shouts from Puerta del Sol to a Harlem ghetto, and I dreamed I was interviewing Gil Scott-Heron. In fact, the most visible black people in Madrid are African immigrants touting pirated goods on the street and, in short order, fleeing from the police that pursue them in cars, with all their merchandise wrapped in a bundle on their backs. (I saw this happen a few times.) 

Anyway, in my dream Gil Scott-Heron announced that he was joining the Stylistics. This isn’t as unlikely as all that (reasoned my waking and rationalising self): soul singers, even anodyne pop soul singers, sprang from the same culture as the Black Panthers, and were often one and the same. All that ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)’ was merely a cover for more subversive activity. On occasion, even slick orchestral soul acts like, say, The Main Ingredient made surprisingly trenchant social observations. I can quote chapter and verse when I get home.

On awakening I remembered that Gil Scott-Heron was dead. So that’s another no-show, I thought. 

Radical consciousness often appears in unexpected places. There’s no institution like Reina Sofía for celebrating the spirit of Republicanism and mourning the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War. It's the home of Picasso's 'Guernica', after all. Yet the gallery is named after the wife of Juan Carlos, the lately abdicated and disgraced king of Spain. 

Similar beacons are everywhere in Madrid, evinced in Republican flags hanging from balconies in Antón Martín and defiant, savvy graffiti like ‘La lucha es el único camino’ (‘fight is the only way’), and ‘¡que se vayan los borbones!’ 

On the other hand, our favourite Madrid bookshop, La Fugitiva, seems to exist as a teashop these days. It’s managed by Clea, who will recommend the best world literature alongside the best iced teas. She called upon me to back her up about George Eliot. “You’ve read Middlemarch, haven’t you, Mike?” “As it happens, I have, in my time. Yes, George Eliot cuts very deep.” All in vain, alas. The customer, from North America, remembered that he had a copy at home, and opted for cheesecake instead. Eva bought a copy of Contra la Ceguera by Julio Anguita. It was the first book Clea had sold all day. 

It’s easier to sell cake than raise consciousness, it seems. 

Beer and flesh find more ready takers. which is to say, there’s an awful lot of prostitutes on the streets, from the very young to the very old. And the middle-class are feeling the pinch too, though their response is more respectable. Busking opera singers and classical guitarists rub shoulders with living statues in the main thoroughfares of Madrid. More seriously, a cultured fellow was selling his book collection ranged, like the African immigrants' wares, on a blanket on the ground. This, near El Retiro, the great public park of Madrid. He was having about as much success as Clea. And the gentleman who approached me selling paper tissues had a look in his eyes I shall not forget soon: a combination of pride and shame, amounting to desperation.  

One of the cheerful figures who greet and pose for snaps with visitors to Puerta del Sol (in return for loose change, if they’re lucky), removed the woollen head of her Minnie Mouse costume to reveal a sweating, anxious, middle-aged Latin American lady. It was equally hot work for the living statues. I recognised the Alien from Alien, a bear (modelled on the statue of bear and tree that adorns Sol) and Jack Sparrow. Jesus Christ enjoyed a quiet pull on his cigarette before mounting his cross. 

All this tarnished the bliss of a very good trip. I didn’t want for flamenco, sangría and paella. Funnily enough, these were the three things chosen for special approbation by a bar owner in Lavapiés when Eva asked for a glass of sangría. Flamenco, sangría and paella, it seems, form the holy trinity of Spanish tourist cliches. No, one must ask for “tinto de verano”, never sangría, and paella, well, paella was taboo. Eva refrained from saying that she comes from Alicante, the home of paella, and we were just on our way to see Eva’s flamenco teacher, Amelia Vega, perform at a small club, Candela. (Did I say? Eva had taken the opportunity of the conference to enrol at a flamenco dance course at Amor de Dios, above the Antón Martín market.) In the event, I think even the grumpy bar-owner would have applauded a genuine manifestation of Deep Madrid. The concert was marvellous, and incidentally revealed why Madrid has no free jazz scene: flamenco is free jazz. 

(Incidentally, a Metro ride to Ciudad Lineal and a short hop across the road, will take you to La Arrocería de María, the best paella restaurant in Madrid.)

Sunday, 13 July, Madrid 
Our siesta was disrupted by a party of English football hooligans. If I said that the English shout alone and go unanswered, I was wrong: there was plenty of unison shouting and singing. Interestingly, their repertoire included ’Starman’ by David Bowie, ‘America’ by Simon and Garfunkel and ‘Dirty Old Town’ by Ewan MacColl, topped by a finale of “Zeig Heil”, the Nazi salute, performed with such gusto that they could only follow with a hasty exit before the police arrived. What would the radical troubadour MacColl have made of sharing such company? 

The carousing here goes on for 23 hours a day. I say 23 hours because there’s a break between 7am and 8am when the last drunks have staggered home, and the debris is swept away. The once familiar street cleaning machines have been out of action since the great Madrid Garbage Strike of 2013, when City Hall laid off 1,134 of 6,000 cleaners. Since then, Madrid's smart streets have been getting progressively more shabby, and the smell of urine is now all pervasive.

No, look, it's been a great holiday (even if last night was the equal of the Argentina win for rowdy noise - a bugle was flourished). So don't think me jaundiced when I say that Madrid is a city overwhelmed by decadence. Always a place of rampant hedonism, the extremes of wealth and poverty, pleasure and misery have been thrown into broad relief by the ongoing crisis of the recession, exacerbated by the most brazenly corrupt ruling class in Europe. There is dissent, and plenty of it, but those in favour of radical and social change are outnumbered by the party people. These days, revellers at pavement cafes are barely disturbed by riot police charging about in their midst, aiming their batons at peaceful protestors. Old-school feminists (we found a very good feminist bookshop, Mujeres Compañía Librería, in Calle la Unión) can only stand aghast at a rising generation who choose to demonstrate girl power by donning uniform pink taffeta and bunny ears and cruise around in a stretch limo yelling excitable things out of the window and otherwise behaving badly (another dubious import from the UK, I'm afraid). All the Indignados and communards who occupied Puerta del Sol on the 15th May, 2011, have so far failed to channel the revolutionary energy of the bellicose drunks of Calle del Pozo.  

Pics to follow, readers. I have a plane to catch.  

My Elusive Derams

Here’s a correspondence I had, or, present tense, I’m having (it’s so fresh) with a fellow hopeless vinyl addict: – 

Morgan to me, ten hours ago. 

Completely out of the blue and amongst a box of proper charity shop dross I picked up a mint hum dono today. Went up to counter hoping that it was part of a larger collection and asked if they had any more. The woman said yes and said she'd only just put the harriott one out. Proudly she took me to the cabinet and showed me the Charlie kunz Lps she'd priced up at £20 each!

So that's one found in 18 years since I last saw you walking out of the withy grove junk shop that time.  Btw the price it sells for is shocking, if I'd known that I might not of put it in my bike bag for the 20 mile journey back home. 

Sent from my iPhone

wildchild to Morgan, ten hours ago. 

Joe Harriott? Which one? You don't say in your excitement. Yes, it hasn't happened to me in the 18 years since bumping into you outside the Withy Grove junk shop, or Paramount by name. What was I clutching? Nucleus, I think. I'd picked up a Mike Westbrook a couple of days earlier. They had a priceless cache of Brit jazz and were only putting them out in dribs and drabs. 

Well done!   

Morgan to me, nine hours ago  

Oh, it was Hum dono joe harriott quartet. Your right, I dont think you had that one, henry lowther and Michael Garrick were the other 2 I remember. 
What was unusual was the quantity they had in paramount. Now you just get the one in a pile of average stuff. On Tuesday I got an Lp by accolade on the same label as joe harriott, and music was ok but it had Christian lyrics. Again all the other records in the box were average to bad. 

Sent from my iPhone

And my reply: – 

Hum Duno, eh? (A quick check of popsike.) That's a cool grand, then. Well done! That beats any individual item I picked up at Paramount, though collectively, as you say, it was a once-in-a-lifetime find. 

I was there when this mouth-watering collection of Brit jazz appeared, scattered in odd piles about the counter (Tubby Hayes' Mexican Green, I remember, was sitting on top). Naturally, the man was surly and unhelpful when I asked, and clammed up: he hadn't bought the collection yet: go away. This put me in a dilemma. I didn't want to alert him to the pricelessness of the haul (in retrospect it was more priceless than we knew), and I didn't have the means to strike any deals. So instead, I just haunted Paramount for the next few weeks, and I was ready to give up, when, like the first swallow of spring, I spotted Mike Westbrook's Marching Song Vol.2 in the Classical section for £2, and I knew my vigil had been rewarded. 

Sporadic raids on Paramount in the next few weeks netted Child Song by Henry Lowther, Belladonna by Nucleus, ah, Labyrinth by Nucleus, Love Songs by Mike Westbrook. Yes, and Once Upon A Time by Alan Skidmore, Flare Up by Harry Beckett and Will Power by Neil Ardley, Stan Tracey, etc. Alice in Jazzland by Stan Tracey was another. Then there was Michael Garrick's Mr Smith's Apocalypse and Troppo by the same. Anything else? I think John Surman by John Surman. Oh, and let’s not forget Integration by Amancio D’Silva (or Etudes by John Mayer or Synthesis by Laurie Johnson).  

Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriott (he almost certainly would have been there) eluded me, alas. 

Yes, it makes one sigh for the golden age of record collecting, and the splendour of holy vinyl we've lost, found, and mislaid again along the way. 

Give not that which is Holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet... 

Matt. 7:6 (talking about Christian lyrics, Jonathan) 

Spaceheads: Trip to the Moon EP


Trip to the Moon EP 
Electric Brass Records EBR003  

The terrain explored here is electro-acoustic, with each of the Spacehead pair resolutely on either side of the hyphen. Andy Diagram is an electro Tweedle-dee, armed with a mobile phone attached to a trumpet with a fish slice (the mobile controls the technology that modifies the trumpet sound). Whilst Dick Harrison is an acoustic Tweedle-dum, complementing and setting off Diagram’s kinetic grandiosity with organic wood-and-skin rumbles. 

With Trip to the Moon, an EP with a sidereal theme, the future emerges from the past, and vice versa, which makes for lots of delightful anachronism and playful anarchy.

For example, the vehicle for the lunar trip is not a rocket but a steam locomotive. The opening ‘Cosmic Freight Train’ gathers momentum  in the time-honoured tradition of musical trains like ‘Pacific 231’ or ‘Chatanooga Choo-Choo’, but something unexpected happens at cruising speed: the beats become trippier than anything Honegger or Glenn Miller could have imagined, and the glide is underpinned by a deep roots reggae bass (courtesy of guest artiste Paddy Steer).   

And so it continues: cosmic klaxon, tinkling bells and diamond hard beats characterise ‘Trip to the Moon’ until Diagram drops in a quote from ‘Theme From A Summer Place’, sounding for all the world like a lounge lizard in the cocktail bar at the end of the universe.   

‘Dirty Planet’ is scuzzy, honking and clamourous,  and explains why Spaceheads will always be renegades on the experimental music scene. They’re much too fun to be serious! ’Spooky Action’ starts like a theme from a fifties sci-fi b-movie, complete with a part for faux-theramin before gaining quite alarmingly in intensity.       

It’s undeniable that Diagram has a genius for constellated anthems, which he executes like a bugler leading the charge of a celestial Light Brigade, or an unruly cherub from some heavenly choir (angels playing trumpets is a recurring visual motif on Spaceheads sleeves, and reappear here). Whereas Harrison is the rooted one, always anchoring the music in solid terra firma, and grinding, grinding, grinding behind Diagram's skittish euphoria. Spaceheads are a truly cosmic odd couple, and the Trip to the Moon EP is a deep, solar joy. 

Wizz Jones & John Renbourn

Band on the Wall, Manchester, June 5

Wizz Jones is something of a hero in this household, chiefly because of a 54 year-old television clip unearthed on youtube: - 

Woody Guthrie lives! If Wizz Jones’ guitar doesn’t actively kill fascists, it’s certainly seen off a few Torquay councillors! 

“I’m only interested in playing the guitar and travelling,” Jones told Alan Whicker on Tonight in 1960. Faithful to the beat philosophy, Jones busked his way around Europe and Africa, before returning to the UK. The best of his generation were all travellers and free spirits. Think of Clive Palmer, Andy Irvine, Allan Taylor, Anne Briggs. Whereas the adoption of a beatnik lifestyle in the States led to jazz, UK beatniks tended to gravitate towards folk. Or, more accurately, folk and blues. In all these cases, records were incidental, or positively accidental, by-products of the lifestyle. Good beatniks are determined anti-careerists. 

Wizz’s clear vitality, not to mention his shock of unruly grey hair, testify to the efficacy of a life spent doing just what you love best. He plays ‘Song to Woody’, ‘Black Dog’ and ‘The Glory of Love’ and his own ‘Lucky the Man’, and roars them like a busker competing with the trains in the Paris Metro or the attractions of a bustling Marrakesh marketplace. He strikes every string very hard and sometimes shakes the guitar for added resonance. What Wizz lacks in finesse he gains in force. 

Which makes him the ideal partner for John Renbourn, who is exactly the opposite. 

The first song they share is Archie Fisher’s ‘The Mountain Rain’. This little beauty about vengeance killing demonstrates that Archie Fisher is a songwriter of the first rank. And its treatment - oddly lyrical given its grim nature - finds a perfect counterpart in Renbourn’s accompaniment, which is deft and light of touch. ‘Strollin’ Down the Highway’ closes the first set with a nod to the late, great Bert Jansch. 

During the break, I get Wizz to sign my copy of The Legendary Me

A vintage shot of John and Wizz 

The show is designed along symmetrical lines, so John Renbourn heads the second half with a short solo set. He opens with ‘Sweet Potato’, a tune by Booker T & The MGs he first essayed on Sir John Alot. The version tonight is less Gabor Szabo and more Tal Farlow, dare I say, as he treats Booker T’s groovy riff to a veritable chromatic blitz. 

‘The Snow That Melts the Soonest’ is his first vocal contribution and contains another shock. The distinctive wispy burr of old has been replaced by something deeper and more uncertain of pitch, prepared to settle for recitation if the melody presents too great a challenge. Or it may be that folk singing is not what he wants to do. Tonight he would rather be the hipster philosopher Mose Allison (who gets two songs, ‘Getting There’ and ‘You Can Count On Me To Do My Part’) or the fingerpicker Merle Travis (‘The Cannonball Rag’), whose exuberant virtuosity is in no way dimmed by the gentleness and delicacy of Renbourn’s delivery. ‘Great Dreams From Heaven’ channels both Ry Cooder and Joseph Spence. The voice is coming into focus now. It’s like meeting someone you may not have seen in years at an unexpected moment. The middle-aged, if not positively elderly, features of a stranger are, within moments, overlaid by the familiar, timeless outline of an old friend. By ‘Lord Franklin’, perhaps the best-loved Renbourn song of them all - here adorned with a blues paraphrase and some sumptuous extemporising - the contours are fully in place again. 

Dylan gets a second appearance with ‘Buckets of Rain’, featuring a relaxed vocal from Renbourn and a friendly exchange of fire between the guitarists. And Bert Jansch makes a return with ‘Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning’. Wizz takes lead vocals on the Jansch tunes, and Renbourn takes lead guitar, with the pair emulating the old relationship between Bert and John quite instinctively. 

With ‘Bad Influence’, the Robert Cray song, the pair are in danger of slipping into blues default mode. Actually, although I miss the baroque side of Renbourn’s genius, it’s none the worse for the casual nature of the music-making. It’s a pleasure to see two old-timers enjoy themselves so much, so the pleasure just multiplies. “Anyone would think we planned this,” Jones says at one point. “No,” replies Renbourn simply.  

‘Cocaine Blues’, complete with beatnik-inspired Tangiers reference, provides the encore.

John Renbourn and Bill Leader reunion, BOTW, June 5, 2014 (with the author looking on) 

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