Monthly Archives: January 2011

Listening to Curtis Fuller

I don’t listen to much ‘mainstream’ jazz these days; my CD collection is shot through with a more-than-liberal streak of albums on Blue Note and Prestige and Impulse, but they don’t see the light of day too often.  Hard to say why that should be; after all for any  lover of what used to be called ‘modern jazz’ , the works of Coltrane, Monk, Miles, Bill Evans, Mingus etc are fundamental ‘texts’. 

 Even so, listening to these ‘classics’ is akin to eating in a favourite restaurant where the food is good but the menu remains unchanged.  You know it’s solid stuff,  but somehow that new Venezuelan/Uzbekistani brasserie round the corner is just a little bit more tempting….so it is that I have found myself drifting away from the predictable horns + rhythm section set-ups of  so much small group jazz from the late 1950′s and 1960′s towards more contemporary (and often European) stylings, where trumpeters are just as likely to be playing alongside tabla players, electronics wizards, Hardanger fiddles and kora players.  For modern musicians working in and around jazz, the world, to quote Arthur Daley, is their lobster. 

In a (silent) way, fracturing the orthodoxies of the post-bop era was one of the things that Miles Davis was looking for when he abandoned the song-based forms of his 1960′s acoustic quintets and plunged headlong into those cavernous electric landscapes of the late 1960′s and early 1970′s.  Multiple electric keyboards, tablas, sitars and jagged electric guitars were all part of the new palette that Miles was using to create a music that was jazz, Jim; just not as we knew it.

So, exploring a forgotten cache of Curtis Fuller recordings on my hard drive was a kind of archaeological endeavour for me.  I have grown to love the trombone as an instrument; it has a gruff warmth that I find appealing and Curtis Fuller – still alive and kicking, though in his late 70′s now – was always a thoughtful practitioner of the trombonist’s arts.  A native of Detroit, he emerged in the mid-50′s flowering of Detroit talent that also brought us the likes of  Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris and Donald Byrd.  After a stint in the US Army (working in an Army band led by Cannonball Adderley) he returned to Detroit to work in Lateef’s band, via which route he arrived in New York in 1957. Once there, he sat in with Miles Davis and  one of his first recording sessions was the one for which he’s probably best known, playing with Lee Morgan, Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones on John Coltrane’s seminal 1957 ‘Blue Train’ album.  Fuller’s talent was certainly in demand; after only 8 months in New York, he’d made six albums as a leader and appeared on 15 others.

Curtis Fuller (L) with Lee Morgan & John Coltrane (R), 1957 ‘Blue Train’ sessions

The trombone, apart from being fiendishly difficult to master, was usually seen as a ‘fringe’ instrument in post-1945 jazz.  There were serious practitioners like Lawrence Brown, ‘Slide’ Hampton and J.J. Johnson, but the trombone was still seen – like the flute – as being a slightly exotic addition to the abiding sax/trumpet hegemony of the era.  Apart from his innate talent, that’s probably one reason why Fuller was in such demand – the streets were awash with saxophonists and trumpeters, but trombonists were less common.  Stylistically, Fuller is well within the mainstream; the albums he made for Savoy, Blue Note and (later on) Impulse saw  him working with a wide range of performers from Jimmy Smith and Bud Powell to Benny Golson and Freddie Hubbard.  The four solo albums he made for Blue Note between 1957 and 1959 (collected as a now-out-of-print Mosaic box set) probably represent his most impressive work. and  are the most rewarding of the batch I’m listening to.  They feature a good cross-section of the Blue Note ‘repertory’ at that time – Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark, Paul Chambers, Elvin Jones and the like.  Also good is the 1962 album Curtis made for Impulse, ‘Soul Trombone & the Jazz Clan’  - terrible name, but a good record, featuring Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Cobb and Cedar Walton.

By then, Curtis had joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, staying with them until 1965, then freelancing for the rest of the 60′s, playing with ex-Army ‘roomie’ Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter among others.  As the trombone has a more natural affinity with ‘big band’ jazz, it was perhaps inevitable that Fuller would gravitate towards larger ensembles where he could get regular work.  Thus by the late 1960′s, he had done a brief stint with Duke Ellington and also subsequently worked at greater length in Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie’s bands. 

Curtis Fuller with the Jazz Messengers at the Apollo in Harlem, 1962

From the late 1970′s, he also became involved with Dutch ‘retro’ label, Timeless.  Right now, I’m listening to ‘Four on the outside’, recorded for Timeless in 1978 alongside baritone sax player Pepper Adams.  The music is still rooted within that small group/post-bop tradition, but introduces newer players like pianist James Williams and bassist Dennis Irwin, who give things a slightly more ‘contemporary’ feel.  From the early 1980′s, Timeless founder Wim Wigt put together ‘The Timeless All-Stars’ , an all-star post-bop band that initially featured  Fuller with the likes of Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land, as well as pianist Cedar Walton.  Scanning the horizons of that era for other prominent trombonists is a task that doesn’t take long – the likes of Albert Mangelsdorff Roswell Rudd and Grachan Moncur III were working in free jazz circles,  Eje Thelin was largely unknown outside Sweden, whilst Julian Priester had produced a couple of extraordinary albums for ECM, but that was about it. 

Since then, trombonists in jazz have almost become an endangered species, In the UK, Malcolm Griffiths and Annie Whitehead have achieved some prominence, but by far and away the doyen  of modern trombonists is Robin Eubanks, probably best-known for his lengthy tenure in Dave Holland’s bands since the 90′s, but also a bandleader in his own right.  Listening to Eubanks, the connection with Curtis Fuller is immediately apparent, but Robin Eubanks is a child of the post-war baby boom and has soaked up many other influences besides Fuller, J.J.Johnson and the like; his EB3 band use electronics and are just as likely to be inspired by James Brown as  they are by Lawrence Brown.

Latter-day Curtis Fuller

Curtis Fuller, meanwhile just keeps rollin’ along; in 1993, there was a Japanese-inspired reunion of sorts (‘Bluesette 2′) between Fuller and Benny Golson, reprising their 1959 ‘Jazztet’ liaison that produced the ‘Bluesette‘ album for Savoy. With a solid rhythm section comprising Tommy Flanagan, Ray Drummond and Al Harewood, Golson & Fuller reprise some of the original ‘Bluesette’ material and introduce some new, but like-minded tunes.  The calibre of the playing is fine, but this is really one of those ‘Jazz in Aspic’ retro projects that merely evoke echoes of an era that is long gone.  Some people will find that reassuring, whilst restless souls like myself move on in search of something that presages the future rather than merely reconfiguring former glories…..

…which is where I came in, really.  What is the value of a 1993 jazz  album (no matter how professionally-performed) that belongs, stylistically, to the late 1950′s? In another context, the enthusiasm for rock ‘tribute’ bands like The Australian Pink Floyd Show or The Bootleg Beatles is something I have always found a tad depressing.  A friend of mine has even attended an outdoor festival in Wales where the bill for the entire weekend is made up of ‘cover bands’.  Go figure….

Whilst the very existence of such bands is a testament to the power and reach of the originals, it seems rather sad that imitation rather than innovation has become the order of business these days.  Even the recent trend for rock bands to play ‘classic albums’ in their entirety on stage has worn a bit thin since Brian Wilson and Arthur Lee kicked things off a few years back.  I see that four of the original members of Roxy Music are touring shortly, playing their 1973 masterpiece ‘For your pleasure’ in its entirety.  One of the striking things about Roxy Music in their original incarnation was the way that Bryan Ferry, in his mid-20′s, managed to project the world-weariness and ennui of a crooner in his mid-60′s.  Now that Ferry is a crooner in his 60′s, what are we to think?  Perhaps we’re not supposed to think at all….

F.A. Youth Cup Round 4: West Ham U-18 v Manchester Utd U-18

A cold night in London’s East End as United’s U-18′s continued their F.A. Youth Cup odyssey with a 4th round tie at Upton Park against West Ham.

The United team was pretty much as expected; this is a team with a very strong ‘spine’ – Tom Thorpe and Michele Fornasier at the back, Paul Pogba and Ryan Tunnicliffe combative in midfield and John Cofie and Will Keane always a threat up front.

Both teams looked nervous in the opening 20 minutes, with the ball given away quite a lot.  Pogba couldn’t seem to get on the ball and most of the United threat was coming down the right, where Larnell Cole was having a terrific game.  United had achieved a measure of control, but even so, chances were at a premium .  It therefore came as quite a shock when United took the lead after 34 minutes.  West Ham failed to clear a United attack and Cole juggled the ball effectively before producing a dipping volley from around 30 yards which bounced just in front of the West Ham ‘keeper,  then ricocheted up and off his chest, ballooning into the path of the marauding Will Keane, who produced an emphatic downward header to score.  Unfortunately for the ‘keeper, his name is Sam Cowler, so his mistake was instantly dubbed ‘Cowler’s Howler’ by the MUTV crew.

The nearest West Ham  came to scoring in the first half was a curling free kick from midfielder George Moncur (son of ex-Hammers midfielder, John) which Sam Johnstone tipped over.

The second half was a different kettle of jellied eels as West Ham began to apply more pressure to United’s defence.  Still, clear-cut chances were few; American midfielder Sebastian Lletget, on as a substitute, probably had the best opportunity, steering the ball wide from about 10 yards out with the United net at his mercy.

United’s defence really came into their own during this period, with full-backs Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett giving good support to Thorpe and Fornasier.  Johnstone also made a couple of brave interventions as the defence held firm.  In fact a United break just before full-time almost led to a second goal; Cowler redeeming himself somewhat with a flying save to keep out a powerful volley from Cofie.

Michele Fornasier – for me, the Man of the Match

In injury time there was a moment of controversy as West Ham piled forward on the attack, a cut-back from the left byline found lively winger Robert Hall and his first-time shot definitely rebounded to safety from Michele Fornasier’s arm, but it would have been a very harsh penalty had it been awarded.  The final whistle went shortly after that incident and United had squeaked through.

In truth, West Ham lacked a real cutting edge, but they were lively and combative in midfield and gave Pogba, Tunnicliffe et al a testing evening.  United go through to Round 5, where they will face either Newcastle or Grimsby at home – which could be Old Trafford or more realistically, Altrincham.

Finally, it should be recorded that there were quite a few United fans who had travelled down for this game – serious extra brownie points to them; that takes some dedication on a chilly January evening! They formed part of a crowd of 1,405 , all packed into the West Stand.

Fergiewatch # 5: Old Trafford’s Glass Ceiling

Most sizeable football clubs in this country have a myth or two associated with their name: Everton operate ‘The School of Science’, Liverpool fans are apparently so fair-minded and such acute observers of the game that they will applaud good football, no matter who is playing it, West Ham have a commitment to playing elegant, progressive football and Manchester United have it programmed into the very fabric of the club that they will always give youth a chance.  There are probably more of these urban myths knocking about, but these are the ones that come to mind right now.

How much of this rhetoric actually bears any close examination these days is debatable.  Like most United fans, I would raise my eyebrows at the idea of ‘fair-minded’ and ‘Liverpool fans’ being used in the same sentence and as for the West Ham commitment to elegance and progession…….having watched a clinical Arsenal put them to the sword last night, I think that idea can be safely despatched to the dustbin of ancient history.

As for United, another ‘oldie but goldie’ that is regularly trotted out is that ‘the fans’ expect United to play progressive attacking football.  When I first started going to Old Trafford regularly in the late 1970′s, the thoroughly likeable Dave Sexton was manager, but no matter how nice a guy Dave was, his teams often played cautious, pragmatic football that left the Old Trafford crowd restive and twitchy, so maybe there is something to this after all.  Having said that, it’s not as though the Stretford End were going to rise up as one and walk out if the football on show sometimes failed to meet their expectations.

However, supporter power can still play its part; once Anfield attendances began to drop (as they did), Roy Hodgson’s days as Liverpool manager were definitely numbered.  Conversely, the highly effective job done by Chris Hughton at Newcastle cut no ice with Mike Ashley (or ‘My Cashly’ as he’s known up there) despite the fact that Hughton was hugely popular with most Newcastle fans.  It would have been nice if they’d boycotted the games until Hughton was re-installed , but like most fans, they ultimately support the club, not the manager, and that’s probably about right.

At United of course, with Alex Ferguson into his 25th year on the Papal throne, club & manager have become almost indivisible in the eyes of many.  Grown men with young families of their own have lived their entire lives with Ferguson as United boss.  Ryan Giggs made his first-team debut at 17 and has played out his entire 20-year career under Fergie’s baleful glare.  When Fergie does finally walk away from the job, the impact will be seismic.

As a United fan, it’s obviously my fervent hope that once this happens, the club moves on swiftly under new management in order to prevent the kind of ‘Spirit of Shankly’ navel-gazing that has hamstrung successive Liverpool management regimes since the late 1980′s.  Yes, Fergie has been a revelation, United’s most successful manager ever despite his obvious shortcomings as a human being, but there again, maybe it needed a dictatorial sociopath to do what he has done.  What is to be avoided at all costs is too much regret and introspection.  The show must go on and the recent history of Liverpool FC should offer an object lesson in what can happen to a club if they spend too much time wallowing in past glories.

As for Ferguson’s legacy, I think that can safely be left to the man himself, to MUTV and the club Marketing Department.  There will be no shortage of book deals and after-dinner speaking engagements for Fergie if that’s what he wants to do.  Fine, but now let’s get on with ensuring that the tradition of success he has established isn’t all frittered away. 

Regarding the myths associated with the club, I think it can be said with some certainty that Fergie’s teams have largely honoured the commitment to play attacking football, to the extent that when they went to Barcelona in the first leg of the 2008 Champions League semi-final and ‘parked the bus’ (as Mourinho might say) to get a 0-0 draw, it was one of the first times I can remember pragmatism winning out over romanticism during Fergie’s tenure.  Credit to the old grouch for that, at least.

Rafael da Silva knows how to win over United fans….

The much vaunted ‘commitment to youth’ sees us on much shakier ground.  Much is made of the ‘Golden Generation’ of young players now in the twilight of their careers who came through in the 1992 FA Youth Cup team – principally, Beckham, Butt, Neville, Scholes and Giggs.  Even Ryan Giggs, who generally manages to avoid the empty psychobabble you get from most footballers in interviews, dutifully parrots the company line about how youth will always get its chance at Old Trafford.  Try telling that to a substantial number of promising youngsters who have progressed through the United Academy system and moved on to other clubs since the late 90′s – often without ever really getting a chance to cement a place in the first-team squad.

Apologists for this approach would say that whilst the best of these players might look like world-beaters in the Reserves or Academy teams, becoming a United first-teamer is a different kettle of fish.  I wouldn’t disagree, but would cite Darren Fletcher as an example of the inequity of whatever selection process goes on inside Fergie’s head.   For the early years of his United career, it was perfectly clear to all who watched his occasional first-team forays that Darren Fletcher was simply not good enough to play for United on anything other than an occasional basis. 

Darren Fletcher has learned to recognise what goalposts look like…

Fletcher, a player of modest skills but boundless energy, has since cemented a place in the squad without ever offering much except effort.  He has done so, at least partially because he was given an almost infinite number of chances to overcome the prejudices of the ever-critical Old Trafford crowd and realise whatever talents he does possess.  To some watchers, this is just further evidence of Ferguson’s ability to turn base metal into something shinier, but there are many former United youngsters who have buzzed around the fringes of the first-team squad but never had a fraction of the opportunities accorded to Fletcher.   To roll out a few names; if the likes of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Richard Eckersley, Giuseppe Rossi, Chris Eagles, David Jones, Phil Bardsley and Ryan Shawcross had been given as many chances as Fletcher has been given, who knows what they might have achieved?

The fact is that Ferguson obviously has his favourites and Fletcher is paramount among them.  Of the current squad, Darron Gibson and Federico Macheda are being accorded a similar degree of tolerance.  In flashes, Macheda has shown considerable promise, but he remains an irritatingly moody performer, selfish and petulant for much of the time.  If he ever becomes half as good a player as he thinks he is, we may be on to something.  Gibson has shown some facility for hammering in spectacular long-range goals but offers little else in a midfield currently bereft of much in the way of creative guile.

The concern is that United are currently nurturing a crop of particularly talented youngsters who are just making the transition from the Academy to the Reserves.  I have previously waxed lyrical in this blog about the likes of Joshua King, Will Keane and Paul Pogba and to that list you can probably now add Tom Thorpe and Ryan Tunnicliffe as being players of huge promise.  It is possible, without too great a stretch of the imagination, to see all of these players being an integral part of United’s first-team squad in the years to come.  Will they get the chance, though?  To say that Pogba evokes memories of a young Patrick Vieira and Keane a young Dennis Bergkamp is high praise, I know, but that’s the current reality of the situation and a true indication of their promise.  The problem is that their future at United is likely to be determined by how they fare in a handful of Carling Cup games and whether or not they are going to get the Fergie seal of approval in the way that Fletcher, Macheda & Gibson have done.

If you go right to the root of it, the transfer fees brought in by the youngsters like Eagles, Rossi, Jones and Kieran Richardson who don’t make the Old Trafford ‘cut’ probably pay the Academy bills for a season and the club may feel that this is justification enough for their policies in this area.  Even so, all of those players must necessarily have  become  aware of the ‘glass ceiling’ that exists between the Reserves/Academy and the first-team squad.   What is galling, frankly, is the thought that journeymen like Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson, not to mention so-called ‘squad’ players like Michael Owen, Wes Brown and John O’Shea (all injury-prone and well past their best, frankly) are occupying first-team slots that could be used to draft in these youngsters and give them the opportunities their skills deserve.

Come in # 7; your time is up…..

No doubt, the folklore about United’s promotion of young talent will persist because it’s a comfortable myth that everyone connected with the club would like to believe in.   In reality, though, the emergence this season of Rafael da Silva as first-choice right back is the first evidence of a ‘home-grown’ player really breaking through since O’Shea and Fletcher about 4-5 years ago.  Let’s hope that in due course, Pogba, Keane, Tunnicliffe et al get a decent run at staking their claims to greatness.  Of course, by the time that happens, there may even be a new Sheriff in town…..

Update: Ironically, yesterday’s ‘Observer’ carried a feature on United’s ‘re-investment’ in youth.   Amongst other things, it suggests that Fergie gave up gambling on expensive foreign imports after getting his fingers burnt with the likes of Eric Djemba-Djemba.   Where does that leave Bebé, a player who Ferguson had apparently never seen ‘in the flesh’, but for whom we allegedly paid £7.5 million?

Here’s a link to the article:

 http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2011/jan/16/manchester-united-alex-ferguson-transfers

50,000 hits…..

Well, I’m impressed, anyway…..

Thanks to all those who have visited and especially to those that keep coming back….

FA Youth Cup Round 3: Manchester United U-18 v Portsmouth U-18

It’s that time of year again and on a filthy night of rain and blustery winds in Altrincham, United’s U-18′s took on Portsmouth’s U-18′s to see who would go through to play West Ham at Upton Park in the next round.  For the players, the game was an interesting proposition as Portsmouth are not a team they would have encountered before.

United have some very talented second year Academy players right now and on paper, this looked a comfortable home draw against a team who have been leaking goals and losing matches in their League Section this year.  However, from the off,  United were sluggish whilst Portsmouth looked busy, pressing United all over the pitch.    Could be that their lack of games recently – this tie was twice frozen off – was working against them, though Portsmouth have been similarly hampered and it didn’t seem to affect them

In time, however, United gradually established control with Ryan Tunnicliffe and Paul Pogba increasingly influential in midfield. Up front though, strikers Will Keane and John Cofie were finding it hard to elude their markers, so it was perhaps no surprise that when they finally broke through just short of the half-hour, it was a long-range strike that undid all Portsmouth’s hard work.

Pogba scored it and what a gem it was, curled in at pace from about thirty yards out and leaving Portsmouth goalkeeper Tom Fry grasping at air.  A bona fide screamer.  The young Frenchman continues to impress with his strength and power, combined with some cute ball skills for such a big guy.  Last year, I had him pegged for a first-team debut, but it never happened.  With United out of the League Cup it may not happen this year either; Fergie is unlikely to use the likes of Pogba & Will Keane in the FA Cup whilst the Youth Cup run continues.

Paul Pogba; influential throughout plus a great goal

United upped the pace after half time and with the stands full of footballing royalty – Sir Bobby, Fergie, Wilf and Paul McGuinness, Mike Phelan, David Gill and, erm, Peter Reid in a dodgy fedora – they began to press Portsmouth back, forcing a succession of corners.  From one of these,  ‘keeper  Fry came to the near post to collect, but succeeded only in deflecting the ball into his own net.

2-0 rapidly became 3-0 following a typically incisive run from the fast-improving Tunnicliffe, who fed Will Keane on the edge of the area.  The Stockport-born striker danced round a couple of challenges before blasting home a left-foot piledriver from about 10 yards out.

Ryan Tunnicliffe – strength and power from midfield

United’s dominance was now pretty much complete and Keane could have had a hat-trick.  First brother Michael’s raking through ball set him free in the centre-forward channel and he raced through to score only for the referee to uphold a highly dubious offside decision.  Then a similarly impressive pass from Pogba found Larnell Cole bursting clear down the right wing.  Keane slid home Cole’s low cross at the near post but this time had strayed offside.

With 15 minutes left for play, Will Keane won a penalty following a typically impressive piece of sleight of foot inside the area.  Having missed his last penalty, he handed the task over to Dutch winger Gyliano van Velzen.  Van Velzen scored with his first attempt, but Cole had encroached by about 5 yards before the kick was taken.  Fry dived to his right to cling on to the retake and somehow it was still only 3-0.

United being United, you almost knew what was coming next.  First, United made three substitutions, with Cole,  Michael Keane and Michele Fornasier giving way to Jesse Lingard, Zekky Fryers and Alberto Masacci.  Fryers – a full-back by choice – was stationed at centre-back and was probably slightly culpable as Portsmouth’s most impressive player, Australian Ryan Williams, darted through a static defence to score 10 minutes from time. 

If that goal was unfortunate Portsmouth’s second, coming on the 90-minute mark, was a personal catastrophe for United goalkeeper Sam Johnstone who had been virtually unemployed all night apart from the odd backpass.  As the game ticked on into added time, Johnstone  unfortunately allowed Williams’ accurate but unremarkable shot from the angle to beat him on his near post.   All of this was a bit irritating after United had been so dominant, but it was also a little more alarming once you took into account the fact that Portsmouth had drawn a recent game with Leicester 5-5, having been 5-0 down with only eleven minutes to play.

Happily, there was to be no repeat as United played out time. 

Those who would have impressed the watching Ferguson would really be the usual suspects, who basically form the spine of the team.  Tom Thorp and Michele Fornasier were great at centre-back, Pogba & Tunnicliffe ran the midfield, whilst Keane and John Cofie threatened increasing danger as the match wore on.

A victory and a trip to West Ham in Round 4, then, but they will need to cut out the sloppiness that gave Portsmouth an undeserved ray of hope at the end of the match.

Finally, many happy returns to Michael & Will Keane, who turn 18 today.

And they’re still having to wear matching outfits…..Somehow, I sense that the photographer has failed to put Michael (L) and Will Keane (R) at their ease……Happy Birthday, boys…

 

Listening to Huntsville…..

What’s in a name? When people talk about ‘world music’, they’re generally referencing a body of work that exists outside of  the standard Euro-American rock/soul/folk/jazz continuum. 

Using such rigid definitions, Ry Cooder’s 1970′s  Warner/Reprise albums are generally defined as blues or rhythm & blues, give or take the odd calypso or jazz tune.  On the other hand,  the albums he has produced with Manuel Galbán and Ali Farka Touré are seen as world music, in part because they are inspired by a musical tradition that originates in the music of Cuba (Galbán) and Mali (Touré) respectively.

Music often resists such categorisations; the harder you try to label it, the more it slides away from you.  Not for nothing does iTunes feature a genre definition called ‘Unclassifiable’.   In addition, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred; in the forty-something years since George Harrison decided to use a sitar on ‘Love you to’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’, the music, the styles and the instruments of the non-Euro/American world have moved in and made themselves at home. 

 Once we got past the novelty sitarists of the mid-60′s,  a new group of performers began to emerge -usually, but not exclusively in jazz circles.  These players either promoted the use of specific instruments – Don Cherry playing a douss’n gouni or Malian lute, Charlie Mariano introducing the nadaswaram (an Indian reed instrument) – or like The Incredible String Band, embellished their songs with a whole range of African, Middle Eastern and Asian instruments; plucked, blown or beaten.  The plaintive singing style of Robin Williamson & Mike Heron kept things within the folk tradition, but the framework for their songs often had as much connection to the music of India or Morocco as it did to anything remotely European.

The growing multi-culturalism of the modern West also ensured that previously exotic imports like reggae, salsa and Congolese/Zairean soukous came to Paris or Manchester or New York with the new waves of incomers from the countries where they originated.  Sometimes the new styles were reproduced more or less au naturel as with British-based reggae bands like Misty in Roots or Aswad, whilst other genres joined with established styles to form new hybrids -  to offer just two examples at either end of the spectrum – the British/South African free jazz orchestra, The Brotherhood of Breath,  blended post -Ornette improv with township jive & marabi, whilst in New York City in the 1980′s, Kid Creole & the Coconuts successfully blended reggae, salsa and soul with Broadway musical stylings to form an exotic brew that enjoyed considerable chart success.

None of which gets us any closer to Huntsville, whose very name is designed to confuse us.  Huntsville (the place) is either the Texan birthplace of Sam Houston or the Alabama location of a major NASA installation.  There’s a Huntsville in Canada, too and probably a few others.  Perversely, Huntsville (the band) are a trio of Norwegians comprising  Ivar Grydeland (guitars), Tonny Kluften (basses) and Ingar Zach (percussion).  Grydeland also plays banjo & steel guitar whilst Zach – and indeed the whole ensemble - add all kinds of percussive effects,  both organic & electric, to the mix.  The music they make on their second album – ‘Eco, Arches & Eras’ (Rune Grammofon, 2008) is nearly as wilfully misleading as their name.  Rune Grammofon have made a habit out of recording largely Norwegian ensembles whose music skirts the boundaries of free jazz, industrial noise, trance and other left-field genres.  Huntsville fit comfortably into that template whilst remaining a deal more accessible than some of their label-mates. 

Huntsville on stage

It’s in our nature to try and understand what we’re listening to by referencing other previous listening; so, Huntsville take on board elements of German 1970s rock typified by Can along with 1980′s fringe performers like 400 Blows.  This is leavened with strong doses of Americana; mournful steel guitars hoot in the background whilst what Donald Fagen & Walter Becker described as ‘angular banjos’ fade in and out like transmissions from a bluegrass radio station on Mars.  All of this is propelled along by electronically-generated tabla drums and judicious use of a shruti box, which is one of those hand/bellows-driven drone devices I first encountered watching the late Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan. 

Essentially, Huntsville are plundering different traditions – Indian music, country, art-rock, free jazz, bluegrass etc and making a hybrid all of their own.  It strikes me that there is little in here that could be said to originate from the traditions of their own country.  Huntsville are in fact a true ‘world music’ ensemble inasmuch as they have listened to and absorbed much from many other cultures and synthesised it into something that is entirely their own.

All of this could sound like the proverbial dog’s breakfast, but thankfully, it doesn’t.  Huntsville veer from pastoral miniatures like ‘Tudor‘ to 15-20 minute long excursions that demonstrate the full range of their influences and talents.  ‘Eco’ covers most of these bases; the ‘angular banjos’ are there, as are galloping tabla passages, thunderous electric guitars and, for good measure, a brief vocal cameo from Sidsel Endresen.

The bonus of ‘Eco,  Arches & Eras’ is that it features a second CD recorded with guests – Wilco’s Nels Cline and Glen Kotche are on board for the 54-minute blow-out, ‘Eras’, recorded at the 2007 Kongsberg Jazz Festival.  Interesting to hear how Huntsville translate their studio shenanigans into a live environment, but with help from their guests, they manage pretty well.  ‘Eras’ builds through various moods to a thunderous cacophony of electric guitars, fading away to a repetetive and more pastoral conclusion.

‘Eco, Arches & Eras’ – Rune Grammofon, 2008

Describing what goes into Huntsville’s music is easier than writing about the music itself.  That’s a bit like trying to describe the taste of an oyster or the colour green or the cry of a seagull.  Some things just have to be experienced.  All that can be said with any certainty is that if your ears are open and you have at any point enjoyed music that dabbles around the fringes of jazz, country and experimental rock, you may well enjoy what you hear.