Spaceheads – Laughing Water

Electric Brass Records EBR006 

Sometimes it seems that Spaceheads are such a self-contained unit, they need nothing else. Put simply, Andy Diagram covers the melody and Dick Harrison takes care of the rhythm. With such a clear allocation of roles, and an equally unambiguous objective – to storm the sonic boundaries – Spaceheads have been active for some quarter of a century and, until the ideas dry up (and there’s no sign of that), there seems no reason for them to stop doing what they do. The press release, with unkind justice, refers to Diagram and Harrison as ‘ancient astronauts’. Here they come to earth in a graceful landing. 

Their last, A Short Ride on the Arrow of Time, proposed a jaunty excursion through space and time, just like the title said. Laughing Water is just right too, for music that is consistently adventurous and witty. ‘Be Calmed’, with its found sounds (someone is playing with the dial on an analog radio) is like a travelogue posted from the poolside of some luxurious continental hotel, with the guests too blissed to stir. Recording for the album, so the credits inform, began in Geneva in 2005 and finished in Cheshire in 2016. Actually much of the set has a meditative quality, presumably the Swiss counterpart to Norwegian pastoral. Music as individual and spontaneous as this is uncommonly open to the spirit of place. The passing siren, the last sound heard on the album, has a definite Swiss feel.     

But wait. Something has happened betwixt and between A Short Ride on the Arrow of Time. Laughing Water contains a sterling contribution from bassist Vincent Bertholet (of Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp), which gives the grooves a new limber elastic resonance. Otherwise, Dick Harrison’s beats are as astringent as ever, and Diagram’s flow of melody – utilising trumpet, loops and samples – still continuous and inexhaustible. And the collective chant contributed by friends on ‘Machine Molle’ – “Everybody needs a piece of the world to find peace in the world” – is at one with the Surrealists’ notion that human society can only recreate itself through joy. Here Spaceheads depart from the spirit of our mean and fearful times. ‘Quantum Shuffle’ and ‘Pedalo Power’ are characteristically dance friendly. This is social music for Zurich and Manchester Dadas, by way of Geneva, but absolutely everyone is welcome to join the party. 

Yesterday’s Cinema or, The England We All Want Back or, How Mike Turned Into His Mother Re. His Choice of Film

I haven’t done this (blogged) for a while, and can only plead major life changes (marriage, migration) and my sad conviction that nobody has time left over from tweets and Facebook to blog anymore. Still, it’s good to keep my hand in, so here, thinking of a quick and easy way to increase the sum of human happiness, is a round-up of films on youtube which have lately taken my fancy. 

Made in Heaven

An attractive bit of fluff about an attractive bit of fluff from 1952, starring Petula Clark. The plot revolves around the Dunmow Flitch. It hadn't previously registered what a Dunmow Flitch was, despite a listen to the Dick Miles album of the same name, which goes to show that enjoyably lightweight old films can be more educational than folk song narratives. 

Fame Is The Spur 

Labour politicians were weasels even back then. Michael Redgrave was an interesting fellow. A natural rebel, and drawn to edgy roles, sometimes to make the world a better place and sometimes for entertainment's sake. I’ve seen him in something else lately. Oh yes, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but that was a DVD from the library, so outside my remit here. 

I See a Dark Stranger  

A cross between The 39 Steps and Odd Man Out and every bit as good as the description might suggest. Some of the Irish characterisation is a bit quaint, but the young Deborah Kerr is at least as radiant as the young Ingrid Bergman. 

Midnight Episode 

With Stanley Holloway as a canny low-lifer who stumbles onto a murder. The story is a cut above your average musty thirties British mystery hokum. The reason why is contained in the credits, and easy to miss in small print: 'Based on a book by George Simenon'.

The October Man 

A dark study of small-town alienation. See also Town on Trial – a homegrown Bad Day at Black Rock. I rejoice in anything with John Mills in it. It's possibly a form of homesickness. 

The History of Mr Polly 

See above. For all its gentle charm, it seems to me that this adaption of the H.G. Wells book is quite profound about the human condition (albeit the male, lower middle-class, Edwardian branch).

Child in the House

On the same theme as The Fallen Idol – that fateful moment when innocence turns to knowledge, and subsequent disillusionment – and it seems to me the better film. (On the subject of Carol Reed flops, I came to A Kid for Two Farthings – too late and too jaded to be much moved, though the period charm cannot be gainsaid.) 

The Rocking Horse Winner 

The supernatural allied to a strong anti-materialist message. Brilliant, just brilliant. All lingering prejudice against Valerie Hobson (mostly to do with Jean Simmons’ disconcerting metamorphosis into V.H. in Great Expectations) has vanished. Also stars John Mills. That’s the gilt-edged guarantee. 

Cash on Demand 

As good a Hammer and as good a heist as any I've seen. 

So Long at the Fair 

Here’s a plot that is perennially intriguing: ordinary couple do ordinary things –here a brother and sister arrive in Paris for the Exposition Universelle in 1889 – only one party disappears, and everybody is in flat denial that the party ever existed; protagonist doubts sanity, etc. It was used, in another context, in The Phantom Lady, a noir in which Elisha Cook Jnr does a manic Gene Krupa turn, and whose fate oddly mirrors its plot in that no-one has seen it or knows of its existence. Anyway, there’s a satisfyingly plausible explanation for the mystery here (The Phantom Lady has some hokum about a mad criminal genius). Jean Simmons makes a fetching damsel in distress, David Tomlinson is winningly personable (after Made in Heaven, I’m going to be keeping an eye on David Tomlinson), and only Dirk Bogarde’s quiff strikes a jarring note. 

The Kidnappers

I actually remember watching this on some blessed Sunday afternoon of old. It was a gem then, and remains so today. But how easy it is to lapse into Presbyterian cadences after a viewing. The characters talk like that easily and plausibly. I like, "I don't believe grandfather is truly a dog-eater." Truly, this was the movie that raised the bar on naturalism in child actors. But it's the naturalism of all concerned, including the grown-ups, that saves The Kidnappers from sentimentality and turns it into a saving statement of humanity.

The Long Memory

John Mills as the brooding outsider again, and a convincing candidate for Britain's Jean Gabin. That is, he shouts wronged, misjudged and doomed. The Long Memory shows how romantic angst crossed the channel from fog-bound Quai des Brumes to the unforgiving estuary landscape of Kent. How dreary and magical Northfleet looks; how stark and deserted Gravesend is. Kent natives did go around singing traditional songs in 1953 (a few of the original old-timers were still around then), but how many were effectively avenging angels, I don't know. The stretchers in the plot can be excused by the film's existentialist aims. The Long Memory is the work of Robert Hamer, the gifted director of It Always Rains on Sunday and Kind Hearts and Coronets, who, as an alcoholic homosexual, knew a thing or two about wronged, misjudged and doomed outsiders.

We would not look upon its like again were it not for the dedication and discernment of youtube provider Dubjax (ten out of the twelve films above are Dubjax revivals). The Dubjax site keeps getting pounced upon by youtube's copyright infringement police, with the films removed and reconsigned to oblivion. So full credit to Dubjax, and catch them while you can. Dubjax has recently downloaded a fresh cache of musty masterpieces...

A Maharaja at the 100 Club: James Booker in London, 1977, recalled

I was eighteen years old, new in London, and eager for blues and related art forms, when I was lucky to wander into the 100 Club on Oxford Street, in, I think, October 1977, to see the New Orleans pianist James Booker. ‘Lucky’ is an understatement. I had the night pegged as the gig of my life at the time, and nothing I’ve seen since has knocked it off its pedestal. I knew Dr John - In the Right Place was already a firm favourite - and I dug ‘I Want to Walk You Home’ and ‘Walkin' to New Orleans’ like everyone else, but these didn't quite prepare for James Carroll Booker III. Introspection, vulnerability, self-examination and soul-baring emotion are not what you associate with Fats, Little Richard, Lee Dorsey and the rest. What Booker offered was outside my experience of New Orleans music. Sure, he took the piano style of Professor Longhair to new heights of virtuosity, but he offered something else: ‘gumbo’ as a secret source of healing power, perhaps. 

Support came from Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts (two sets from the Thunderbolts; two sets from Booker) but I only had eyes for Booker. He certainly cut a dash, with a star on his eye-patch (he lost an eye through shooting bad heroin, it was said), and a diamond on his front tooth that flashed in the spotlight every time he smiled, or, just as often, grimaced (it was hard to tell which was which). The mystery was how anyone could acquire such musical skill and be so comprehensively, mortally wrecked when either would be a lifetime's accomplishment for lesser mortals. The concert coincided with a sustained acid flashback on the part of the performer, of which we were treated to a running commentary as he played. Innocuous songs took on a new harrowing force. ‘Lonely Avenue’, the Ray Charles tune, was not a boy-loses-girl song, as previously supposed, but was transformed into a graphic trip through cold turkey.

The entire performance was driven by freakish, fantastic anxiety. It was impossible to foretell what the maestro would play or say next. Fats Domino and Dr John tunes were strung together. Or should I say, strung out’ together: addiction was a running theme. ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ itself became a boogie-woogie rollercoaster ride that communicated elation, danger and panic in lightning succession, with the extreme mood swings that typify junkiedom: “I was in the right place, it must have been the wrong time / I said the right thing / Must have used the wrong lines…" And, in keeping with his confessional tone: “It was the right arm / I must have used the wrong vein.” ‘Junco Partner’, the ultimate doper anthem, was given a hell-bent, demonically gleeful delivery. Dark secrets emerged. It seems he sold  ‘So Swell’ to Aretha. The disclosure made perfect sense. ‘So Swell’ has the pay-off line: “You're so swell when you're well / You've just been sick so long.” Vengeful self-loathing was never Aretha's thing, whereas Booker made it his own. 

The piano-playing was incomparable. Imagine Professor Longhair raised to the level of Liszt, larded with unlikely motifs and quotations. The Woody Woodpecker theme and Flight of the Bumble Bee surfaced with obsessive regularity. And whole tunes, not just licks, were repeated. ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’, which equates personal loneliness with nuclear holocaust, received two airings. It was as if Booker had been forewarned that this was his last night on earth. In fact, he finally shuffled off to boogie-woogie heaven six years later, in 1983, at the age of 43.

The spirit of that night is most faithfully captured on The Piano Prince From New Orleans and Blues & Ragtime From New Orleans, two live LPs recorded in Germany on a tour the preceding year. He's sporting an Afro on their respective covers, whereas I remember him as he appeared on the cover of Boogie Woogie & Ragtime Piano Contest, recorded in Zurich on the 27 November 1977, and in the picture that heads this blog, with the distinctive star eye patch, which he's also sporting on the cover of Junco Partner, Island Records, 1976: the definitive studio album, not that I would pass on anything by Booker. James Booker: Manchester 1977, was recorded at Belle Vue Manchester the same week as the 100 Club appearance. The backing musicians, including Norman Beaker and Dave Lunt, contrive to iron out Booker's idiosyncrasies, but it’s a worthy document (on Document Records actually). However, Booker had evidently come down from the acid. And now comes a documentary film, Bayou Maharaja – of which I’ve heard glowing reports. 'Bayou Maharaja' looks set to join all those other titles, like ‘The Piano Prince of New Orleans’, ‘Little Chopin in Living Colour’ and ‘Black Liberace’, which so signally failed to attract attention in his lifetime. 

Niño de Elche at Manchester Jazz Festival

El Niño de Elche has come to Manchester. This, according to De La Puríssima (Eva and I bumped into her in Tampopo last week), because a “visionary” at Instituto Cervantes recommended him (and De La Puríssima) to MJF programmer Steve Mead. This wouldn’t be the person from Instituto Cervantes who introduced the afternoon set by claiming that Elche was in Valencia. (“Alicante! Alicante! Elche is from Alicante,” corrected a voice in the audience from the seat next to mine.) 

Presumably in homage to the host city, Darío del Moral, the synth player (he later strapped on a bass), wore a t-shirt sporting Peter Saville’s monochrome art-work for Unknown Pleasures. We can argue about the play of dark and light forces in the music of el Niño de Elche, but there was a sense of occasion that no-one present will soon forget. The concert was both an exemplary exercise in catharsis and a brush with immortality. Most people were expecting the Gypsy Kings. 

An ominous drone that builds. Resonating guitar strings. The stocky figure of el Niño, already half sunk in trance, is swaying. Utterly mesmerising, and el Niño has yet to speak. He holds out a poetry book (Porción del Enemigo by Enrique Falcón, as el Niño later told Eva). What follows next is not a straightforward recitation, more like a call to prayer from a muezzin blessed with a golden voice. The hairs involuntarily rise on the back of my neck (Reem Kelani was the last singer to have this effect). Eva leans forward and offers a hasty translation: “Do not let your children play in the gardens of torturers.” 

(And now echoes of distant voices. The last words of M: “We should keep a closer watch on our children”; Kevin Coyne’s ‘In Silence’: “Don’t hurt them.”)   

It isn’t that el Niño de Elche sings protest songs, it’s more that he’s somehow receptive to the pain generated by evil acts throughout the world, and transmits the intensity and rage through the medium of a powerful voice trained in flamenco. Of course, the transmission of rage is what flamenco has always done, but this is duende on a cosmic scale. And because suffering has no words, so el Niño resorts to shrieks, gasps, moans and, finally, a sustained scream. His body is subject to a paroxysm of jerks, but his hand movements are graceful. This is telling, and somehow symbolic. He has something in common with Phil Minton, the great non-verbal articulator of the visceral, and, as we know, with Ian Curtis, who took the sins of the world on his skinny shoulders. 

But perhaps I’m not adequately conveying the charisma and humour of el Niño de Elche. One song, ‘Nadie’. – “Nobody knows me / Nobody has discovered me yet / Not even the artichoke of my shower” (this free translation comes from Eva) – has him chuckling away, taking the audience into his confidence and exposing the psychosis that lurks behind charisma and humour. In short, he’s a consummate actor as well. There was a comic note too, when Raúl Cantizano exchanged his axe for a Spanish guitar (at last, flamenco!) modified by two tiny fans whose whirling blades recreated flamenco’s rapid thrum by mechanical means. The song was ‘Canción de Corro del Niño Palestino’, where suffering quickly outstrips the power of words, and the laughter soon died.

I shall go and live in Madrid if only to hear again the passion and sincerity of el Niño’s performance. 

Kit Downes and Tom Challenger at Manchester Jazz Festival

Vyamanikal, Manchester Jazz Festival, 28th July, 2016 

For the Vyamanikal project, Kit Downes and Tom Challenger decamped to rural Suffolk to explore the acoustic properties of old churches, with Kit Downes extemporising on pipe organ in a reedy sepulchral way, and Challenger responding with a minimal, keening saxophone. Singularly responsive to the spirit of place, the music was unique and full of character, and turned on the peculiarities of oft-neglected, wheezy old instruments. 

Extending the concept to historic St Ann’s Church in central Manchester is an interesting idea, though this sacred space is rich and ornate and the church organ is well maintained, with some original pipework from 1730, when it was built. Tantalisingly, Downes mentions that his father learned to play on the very same instrument. 

Downes is drawn to the subtleties of timbre and texture and extracts a thin, shifting sound; more misterioso than pomp. It’s music that evolves in a natural organic way, however, and these are just quiet beginnings. Challenger complements with plangent simplicity. A screen just behind the players shows visuals of eerie flat expanses and cornfields, presumably from the same Suffolk wilds. This invites comparison to the old BBC Christmas adaptions of M.R. James ghost stories, but it's all a bit literal: it seems a shame listeners can't be trusted to make the connection for themselves. 

Downes temporarily diverts to a small harmonium with very much the same tonal register. We’re told that the music is fully improvised and there is no reason to doubt it, but it seems very purposeful in its meditative way, and the interplay between the two players is confident. It hardly seems necessary to say that the sound is extremely haunting. Applause would only break the spell. 

Finally the organ regains some of its conventional power, and events take on a more grand guignol aspect, as if Count Magnus has arisen from the tomb. 

No, that’s a rather reductive characterisation (you see how sensational the unfettered imagination can be). Say rather that the music evokes the circle of life and death, and is more gratefully life-affirming than gloomy.

The Impossible Gentlemen at Manchester Jazz Festival

Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, Royal Northern College of Music

Let’s Get Deluxe is the title of the new album and an unnecessary statement to apply to The Impossible Gentlemen. They can’t help but get deluxe. Unfailing quality is a given. The tune opens the concert – something of MJF veterans, this is their fourth appearance under that banner – and it slips down like a treat: high-calibre jazz funk, effortlessly sustained by guitarist Mike Walker’s joie de vivre. Though capable of emulating the immaculate polish of a Crusaders or Steely Dan indefinitely, the Gentlemen opt for different colours, different moods. The second tune (sorry, I didn’t catch the name) is more cussedly prickly; ‘It Could Have Been a Simple Goodbye’, dedicated to John Taylor, is an opportunity for Walker to wear his heart on his sleeve, always gratifying to behold. The central Impossible partnership is between Walker and the pianist Gwilym Simcock and how the latter’s virtuoso, slightly academic muse has been tempered by Walker’s warmth! The dazzling gaucherie has been laid aside in favour of something that swings, and, though capable of chopping time with the precision of an atomic physicist, he restrains himself from doing so. 

‘Dog Time’ starts with Mike in ominous free-form and climaxes with exultant baying, with sinister stalking in-between. There’s a cinematic component to the band as well, offering soundtracks to non-existent movies, with listeners in the role of cinematographer. ‘Dog Time’ is clearly a spaghetti western, with a full cast of desperadoes and badmen. 

The addition of Iain Dixon’s saxophones (and occasional keyboards) adds to the expansive sound. He plays with confidence and can vie with Walker for tenderness. Drummer Adam Nussbaum swings the band with considerable power, but his chief asset is to mix unbridled power with delicacy. On ’Speak to Me of Home’ he gauges the intensity with precision.  Do we miss Steve Swallow? With respect, we don’t, not when bassist Steve Rody holds the centre with such unruffled authority. He’s a conventional time-keeper of immaculate clarity, but then clarity is the sign of a Gentleman. 

‘Barber Blues’, graced by a little fugue between Simcock and Walker, slips into a drum solo by Nussbaum, interrupted by a trick coda that catches some of us out. These guys are playing games with us. ‘Propane Jane’ locks into a solid groove and, again, Mike Walker lights up the night. A true guitar hero, Walker’s trajectory from macho swagger (don’t knock it: swagger is Manchester’s great gift to music) to paragon of warmth and sensitivity is one of the great jazz stories. ‘Clockmaker’, reserved for the encore (and written for Iain Dixon’s dad, Walker reminds us) is something of a Greatest Hit, and an eloquent expression of joy. 

In a word, perfection. 

Zoe Kyoti, Wishbone

Whest Records WrL-3010 

Technically, Wishbone is Zoe Kyoti’s solo debut, but there’s a familiarity about the songs, an aroma of Greatest Hits, which can be explained by the fact that some are much-loved in stripped-down versions by Zoe’s occasional string band, The Magic Beans. ’Monsoon’, with two previous incarnations – on The Magic Beans’ debut and Matt Owens’ album, The Aviator’s Ball – has achieved the status of a classic by now. Here powerful nature becomes a metaphor for the necessity of letting go to achieve selfhood, at whatever destructive cost. An ecstatic hymn to bliss, and deeper than anyone suspected, ‘Monsoon’ opened the floodgates to Zoe’s creativity. All the songs on Wishbone are self-penned or co-writes, and constitute a defining statement of the Kyoti aesthetic. 

She has a very feminine capacity for finding fresh personalities to inhabit with every song. The title track blends sensuality and restlessness in a very winning way. ‘Don’t Spend Your Love On Me’ comes close to uncovering the scam on which mass entertainment is based (it’s as if Dusty Springfield admitted she didn’t only want to be with you). 

In ’My Evil Soul’ Zoe play-acts the femme fatale with great gusto (to sweet Hot Club guitar licks from Uli Elbracht), but the demons are real on ’Old Rope’. Zoe loses all inhibitions in this especially sombre song, relieved only by a neo-psychedelic chorus. When it all gets too dark, she can always return to unabashed beauty, of which ‘No Way Back’ and ’Anything You Can Dream’ are prime examples. 

But it seems that prettiness is no longer enough for Zoe Kyoti. Seductive charm comes easily, and her ability to enchant and beguile is a given. Yet Wishbone is interesting for the way the desire to please co-exists with hints of depravity and malice and just enough dark side to exude a heady sense of danger. This of course, makes Zoe more attractive than ever, and so we come full circle. 

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