Category Archives: Music – Worldwide

1970: All things must pass

I’ve just finished reading David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’, a lengthy volume which attempts to explain many aspects of why the 1960’s Hippie Dream turned sour and does so by concentrating on one year – 1970 – and on 4 groups or artists for whom 1970 was a big year; Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Beatles and James Taylor.

All 4 released albums in 1970 – Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over troubled water‘,  CSNY’s ‘Déjà Vu ‘,  James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ and The Beatles’ ‘Let it be’.  Each of those albums were important inasmuch as they signified the end of the road for both The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel,  whilst Déjà Vu demonstrated how the addition of Neil Young to the mix completely destroyed the huge promise of the first ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’ album from the previous year.  With hindsight,  only James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ can be seen in a positive light; after all, it was the template for Taylor’s hugely successful career which still endures to this day.

CrosbyStillsNashYoung 1970CSNY in 1970 – falling apart before they ever really got together

All of these albums – particularly ‘Bridge over troubled water’  – were highly successful in terms of sales but all except for the Taylor album are freighted with negative connotations.

Simon & Garfunkel’s final album was patchy.  The title track was a monster hit everywhere and became an instant ‘standard’ and there were other fine moments like the quirky ‘So long Frank Lloyd Wright’, but there were some patchy moments as well.  Overall,  the album lacked the homogeneity of 1968’s  ‘Bookends’ and, as Browne points out, many of the tracks featured either Garfunkel’s voice or Simon’s – there weren’t many moments where we were treated to the sweet joint harmonies of yesteryear.

‘Let  it be‘ was a ragbag mess of a record after the smooth fluidity of its predecessor, ‘Abbey Road’.  Few of the songs were of a quality that matched The Beatles’ achievements  at their ‘Revolver’/’Sgt Pepper‘ peak.  ‘Let it be’ revealed a band falling apart.  The only surprise is that it was released at all; few other bands would have got away with it.

Déjà Vuand the US concert tour that followed it turned Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into the world’s biggest band by the summer of 1970.  Yet the record – like the band –  is deeply flawed, lacking the unity of mood, purpose and underlying philosophy which made the 1969 ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash‘ album one of the finest début albums of all time.  By contrast, ‘Déjà Vu’ sounds like the work of 4 solo artists, which as Browne’s book reveals was pretty much the case.  Only Crosby’s hippie potboiler ‘Almost cut my hair’ avoids this label as he insisted the whole band record it live in the studio.  Looking back, it’s clear that Young only joined the CSN collective in order to further his own solo career.  It’s of some significance that Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’, another 1970 release, leaves ‘Déjà Vu’ standing – and I say this as someone for whom Neil Young’s lengthy solo career is largely a monument to self-indulgence and tedium.  All in all, it has to be said that whilst  ‘Déjà Vu’ has its momentsStills’ ‘Carry On’ and Crosby’s title track maintain the quality of the first album –  the rest is pretty forgettable.

So, for Browne’s chosen artistes, we have two bands who disintegrated in 1970 plus one who were hardly together at all and all of this came in the wake of the Woodstock dream being soured by the events at the Altamont Speedway at the end of 1969.  Even  for Taylor, who was well on his way to becoming a major artist by the end of 1970,  success was curdled by lengthy episodes of drug abuse and flirtations with the mental instability that informed some of his lyrics.   All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, but the thing is, it’s also a distorted one, because in many other ways, 1970 was a time of harvest for many of the bands and performers who had been developing their music over the previous few years.

Even a perfunctory glance at a list of the albums that were released in 1970 show an extraordinary diversity and range of talent.  This was the year of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ , of  Santana’s ‘Abraxas’, of Pink Floyd’s  ‘Atom Heart Mother’, Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn must die’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’.  How different, how much more positive could Browne’s story have been if he’d chosen these albums and artists instead of the ones already mentioned?

TrafficTraffic in 1970;  (L-R) Wood, Winwood & Capaldi

Well, of course, Browne chose the artists and albums he did because they illustrated the specific point he was trying to make about the death of 1960’s idealism and the encroachment of greed, ego and narcotics upon the hippie heartlands of yesteryear.  To be honest, his points are well-made, but I have to ask myself which of the artists he covered were on my personal ‘playlist’ in 1970.  Maybe Déjà Vu‘ – though I usually reverted to the first ‘CSN’
album by preference – and from time to time later on in the year, Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ once it strayed across my radar.  The other two were not albums I listened to at all – I always felt that ‘Let it be‘ was rubbish aside from a couple of the tracks and I found ‘Bridge over troubled water‘ too syrupy and bland.  Some people found the title track magnificent; I just found it overblown.

I’ve already mentioned a few of the top albums released in 1970 – here’s a more comprehensive list:

Derek & the Dominos – ‘Layla and other assorted love songs’

The Mothers of Invention – ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ / ‘Chunga’s Revenge’

Free – ‘Fire & Water’/’Highway’

George Harrison – ‘All things must pass’

Grateful Dead – ‘Workingman’s Dead’ / ‘American Beauty’

Jimmy Webb – ‘Words & Music’

Joni Mitchell – ‘Ladies of the Canyon’

IABD - Marrying Maiden

King Crimson – ‘In  the wake of Poseidon’ / ‘Lizard’

Led Zeppelin – ‘III’

Neil Young – ‘After the Goldrush’

Pink Floyd – ‘Atom Heart Mother’

Rod Stewart – ‘Gasoline Alley’

Ry Cooder – ‘Ry Cooder’

Santana – ‘Abraxas’

Soft Machine – ‘Third’

Supertramp – First Album (‘Supertramp’)

Allman Brothers Band – ‘Idlewild South’

The Band – ‘Stage Fright’

The Byrds – ‘Untitled’

The Doors – ‘Morrison Hotel’

The Rolling Stones – ‘Get yer ya-ya’s out’

Todd Rundgren – ‘Runt’

Mountain climbing

Traffic – ‘John Barleycorn must die’

Yes – ‘Time and a Word’

Family – A Song for Me’

Mountain – Climbing!

Egg – ‘Egg’

Miles Davis – ‘Bitches’ Brew’

The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘Burrito Deluxe’

Country Joe and the Fish – ‘C.J. Fish.’

Blodwyn Pig – ‘Getting to this’

IF

The Who – ‘Live at Leeds’

Ginger Baker’s Air Force – First Album

Dave Mason – ‘Alone Together’

Fotheringay – First Album (‘Fotheringay’)

Quicksilver Messenger Service – ‘Just for Love’ / ‘What about me?’

Nick Drake – ‘Bryter Later’

Tim Buckley – ‘Starsailor’

Quintessence 1970

Spirit – ‘The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’

Roy Harper – ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’

If – First Album & ‘If 2’

It’s a Beautiful Day – ‘Marrying Maiden’

John McLaughlin – ‘My Goal’s Beyond’

Quintessence – ‘Quintessence ‘ (Second album)

John & Beverley Martyn – ‘The Road to Ruin’

OK,  so here are close to 50 LP’s which also saw the light of day in 1970 and might paint a rather less negative picture than Browne offers in his book.  People often talk of 1967 as being the magical year for music  but for me, 1970 is the year that really counts.  You can make your own mind up about that.

After this, of course, there was Bowie and The Eagles and  Little Feat and  Steely Dan – overall,  something new.  Whilst the 60’s was a fading dream , the 70’s offered something different.  1970 was a year that marked the dividing line between the two decades and gave us a whole new set of possibilities.

Listening to Sara Isaksson & Rebecka Törnqvist

Just occasionally, simple is best and that’s certainly the case with ‘Fire in the Hole’  (Moule Recordings, 2006) by Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Törnqvist, two Swedish singers in their forties who have come together to record an album of Steely Dan covers using mainly unaccompanied keyboards and their own voices.

There are 12 tracks in all on this short-ish album, all drawn from Steely Dan’s key period – roughly 1971 -1980.  The band were always renowned for their sophisticated arrangements and their ability to  slide seamlessly from one sub-genre to another, often thanks to input from the best musicians around at the time.  The likes of Jeff Baxter, Wayne Shorter, Dean Parks, Steve Gadd and Michael McDonald have, over the years, all brought their talents  to  bear on Becker and Fagen’s artful compositions, but  Isakssson and  Törnqvist offer us something just as compelling by stripping away all the horn arrangements, percussive fol-de-rols and slinky guitar parts. 

Rebecka Törnqvist (L) and Sara Isaksson (R)

It is, in fact, the very simplicity of the arrangements that works in their favour, helping to expose the skeleton of the songs and emphasise the (often) astringent lyrics.  What quickly becomes clear, if we weren’t already aware of it, is the fact that Walter Becker & Donald Fagen are very fine songwriters and the songs themselves are muscular and powerful enough to withstand this stripping-down process; indeed, it enables us to re-experience them anew and appreciate them all over again.

As for Törnqvist  and  Isaksson, they have both experienced some success domestically in various rock and pop bands since the 1990’s and were both previously members of a band called Gloria, who had a good deal of success between 1999 and 2003.  They have toured domestically around the success of ‘Fire in the Hole’ but the enduring popularity of Steely Dan and the simple effectiveness of the album have led to a good deal of interest from overseas.

On paper, the idea of two mature Swedish female singers recording an album of  30-year old Steely Dan songs seems like a recipe for commercial disaster, but somehow it just works.  Stand-out tracks for me would be ‘Don’t take me alive‘ and ‘Pearl of the Quarter’, but I guess everyone will have their favourites.  If your interest is piqued, the album is available here:

http://cdon.eu/music/isaksson_sara_%26_rebecka_t%C3%B6rnqvist/fire_in_the_hole_-_sara_isaksson_%26_rebecka_t%C3%B6rnqvist_sing_steely_dan-623848

Listening to Tigran Hamasyan

“The piano’s world encompasses glass-nerved virtuosi and stomping barrel-housers in fedoras; it is a world of pasture and storm, of perfumed smoke, of liquid mathematics.” (Kenneth Miller)

I’ve blogged previously (1/4/10 about Espen Eriksen’s Trio and also on 16/4/11 about the Esbjörn Svensson Trio in a piece about Magnus Öström) about the relative explosion of piano trios in modern jazz that took place from about 1995 onwards. 

Seems that things have gone a bit quieter of late; Esbjörn has, sadly, left the building whilst the likes of Brad Mehldau have settled in nicely alongside established forces such as Keith Jarrett, John Taylor and Bobo Stenson.

It was, therefore, probably time for a ‘new kid on the block’, so the arrival of the prodigiously-talented Tigran Hamasyan is perhaps opportune.  Hamasyan is just 25 and born in Armenia, though he is now based in the USA.  In appearance he resembles a disshevelled elf after a night on the tiles; a mop of unruly curls evoking memories of Tim Buckley and mid-60’s Dylan.  To date, he has produced 4 studio albums, the most recent of which, ‘A Fable’, is an album of solo pieces issued this year.   He has also lent his distinctive talents to the oud player Dhafer Youssef’s latest quartet.

Returning to Kenneth Miller’s quote at the top of this piece, Hamasyan would definitely come under the ‘glass-nerved virtuosi’ sub-heading.  First and foremost, what you hear on his recordings is his formidable technique.  Now, I barely know one end of a piano from the other, but Hamasyan’s playing on ‘A Fable’ seems to look more to the likes of Liszt, Scriabin and Debussy than it does to Monk, Ellington or Tyner.  The guy plays with steel fingers, producing rolling arpeggios and ostinati that seem to owe far more to the classical tradition than they do to jazz.

Then, there’s the Armenian factor; Hamasyan happily embroiders his playing with the folk-tunes of his ancestral homeland, something that again evokes the Russian classical composers – Borodin, Balakirev, Mussorgsky – who in the 19th century popularised Russian folk music in the same way that Vaughan Williams did in this country.

 ‘A Fable’ is in any case some way from being a by-the-book solo jazz piano outing; Hamasyan adds percussion and also sings on several cuts – either wordless vocals to embroider the melody or, in the case of ‘Longing’, a proper vocal performance of a poem by the Armenian writer Hovhannes Tumanyan.  There is only one bona fide ‘jazz’ tune on ‘A Fable’ and that is ‘Someday my prince will come’,  played as a lilting waltz, but one that looks to Vienna rather than Manhattan.

To hear Hamasyan in a more conventional ‘jazz’ setting, we have to backtrack to his 2007 album, ‘New Era’, recorded in Paris for Nocturne Records and featuring Francois and Louis Moutin (presumably brothers) on double bass and drums respectively.  ‘New Era’ also features a couple of standards – ‘Well you needn’t’ and ‘Solar’ but whilst Hamasyan copes easily with the technical demands of the pieces, he adds little to our understanding of these venerable chestnuts, conspicuously failing to find any nuances  that haven’t been visited a thousand times by players infinitely less adept. Where ‘New Era’ comes to life is on the two overtly Armenian pieces, ‘Zada Es’ and ‘Aparani Par’, both of which feature the Armenian reeds player Vardan Grigoryan on duduk, shvi and zurna.  I only recognise the first of these, as Didier Malherbe has made the duduk a central voice in the music of the Hadouk Trio, but what is beyond doubt is that the addition of these instruments connects Hamasyan with a tradition where he clearly feels more at ease.  Hmmm… Hamasyan playing alongside the Hadouk Trio; that would be a mouthwatering prospect……

The cover of ‘New Era’ with Tigran Hamasyan looking uncannily like either (or both) Rafael & Fabio da Silva of Manchester United

The other Tigran Hamasyan recording I have been listening to is  a French radio broadcast from a jazz club in Dunkerque in June of this year.  This sees him collaborating with 2 fellow travellers on the ‘World Jazz’ expressway, French/Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê and Swedish bassist/cellist Lars Danielsson.  This is clearly a comfortable fit for Hamasyan and it’s to be hoped that someone drags these three into a recording studio sometime soon.  Perhaps someone will tell him that he doesn’t need to throw in the odd jazz standard to prove his worth. 

Sitting on the hard drive right now are two further Hamasyan recordings – a recording he made in California about three years ago with a band called Red Hail.  I’ve dipped into this and it certainly offers an indication of where Hamasyan may be coming from, if not where he’s headed.  ‘Aratta Rebirth’ seems – at a first and cursory listening – to be a mixture of Armenian folk songs, heavy metal and even Prog Rock, with Hamasyan deploying a full arsenal of electric keyboards alongside his grand piano, with  Areni Agabian’s vocalising, scorching electric guitar from Sam Minaie and thoughtful reed-playing from Ben Wendel.

Yet to be investigated is ‘World Passion’, Hamasyan’s first album, again on Nocturne and recorded with a quartet involving Wendel on saxophones back in 2004. 

From what I’ve heard so far, it would seem that Tigran Hamasyan is almost too talented and eclectic for his own good.  In less than 10 years, he has already explored a wide variety of genres and has seemingly yet to find his own distinctive ‘voice’.  When he does, I suspect that the retreads of old post-bop standards will be consigned to the dustbin of history – and, when he does, I suspect that the results will be spectacular.

Listening to the Nyckelharpa

Where all this started is with  Bazar Blå  (literally ‘Blue Bazaar’), who  are a 3-piece Swedish folk-band.  Their music is inspired by the Swedish spelman tradition whilst leaning slightly towards the music of other cultures, notably the Middle East.  They are Johan Hedin (Nyckelharpa), Björn Meyer (Bass) and Fredrik Gille (Percussion).

They’ve been playing and recording since the 1990’s, but I’ve been listening to 2 of their more recent albums – 2004’s ‘Nysch’ and 2009’s ‘Lost’, both of which are extremely good.  Many non-Scandinavian readers might be completely unaware of what a nyckelharpa is and explaining the details is probably going to stretch my extremely limited musical knowledge beyond its comfort zone, but I will try.

Nyckel’ is the Swedish word for key and this gives the clue to the nature of the nyckelharpa.  The instrument is roughly the size of a guitar and is generally slung round the neck and played with a bow.  The ‘neck’ of the nyckelharpa is festooned with wooden keys, which are used to change the pitch of the instrument.  This means that the nyckelharpa has more in common with the hurdy-gurdy than with the violin.  Whilst there are a number of variations, modern chromatic nyckelharpas tend to have 16 strings – 3 melody strings, 1 drone string and 12 resonance strings. 

Finnish nyckelharpa player Ärto Järvela

If you need more information, you’ll have to talk to an expert!  What interests me about the nyckelharpa is its sound, akin to a Hardanger violin, but with a fuller tone.  It’s an ideal instrument for exploring the massively rich traditions of Swedish folk music with its astringent harmonies and stately polkas, often infused with overtones of melancholy – the Swedish Blues. 

My introduction to the folk music of Sweden came about 40 years ago via a jazz album – Jan Johansson’s timeless ‘Jazz på Svenska’, (Jazz in Swedish) released in 1964.  It’s a wonderful record, only just over half an hour long, but with its stately, sombre mood and sparse arrangements for Johansson’s piano and Georg Riedel’s bass, it is an absolute classic and one of my favourite albums of all time.  Johansson plays a selection of a dozen or so classic Swedish folk tunes with extraordinary delicacy and lightness of touch,  refusing to cut loose and over-elaborate.  People will say that there are echoes of Brubeck and even (gawd ‘elp us) Jacques Loussier, but ‘Jazz på Svenska’ is far better than any such comparisons might suggest.

When I first heard this album in the 1970’s, most Swedish folk music was operating beneath the radar of utlendinger like me.  Sure, if you lived there, particularly in ‘folk-rich’ areas like Dalarna & Oppland, there was plenty going on at local level, but at a time when other cultures were actively championing the folk music traditions of their countries (Planxty & The Chieftains in Ireland, Fairport Convention et al in the UK, Alan Stivell in Brittany etc, etc) the Swedes seemed somewhat reticent.  Occasionally, something would poke its head out of the pine forests – there was an album on Sonet by some spelmanslag fiddle orchestra, but that was presented almost as an ethnographic exercise.  Organist Merit Hemmingson and her band produced a few albums of Swedish folk-meets-Jimmy Smith stuff, but no-one was really moving things along until relatively recently.  This always struck me as bizarre for a country with such a strong sense of its own traditions, but there were probably reasons and they are a trifle murky.

The revival of ‘Roots’ culture came late to Sweden.  Now there are bands like Bazar Blå, Frifot and the excellent Väsen who happily update the folk tunes of their country for modern audiences, both at home and in the midwest heartlands of Scandinavian/American Minnesota.  Hoven Droven have successfully blended Swedish folk with thunderous guitar rock;  finally, it’s all happening….

Bazar Blå on stage

So, what took the Swedes so long?  The answer is probably connected with their cultural interconnection with Nazi Germany during the 1930’s and the War Years.  In the Nazi worldview, one of the scourges of 1930’s society was what they referred to as ‘decadent art’.  This meant most jazz and dance music of the times, most ‘modern art’ and anything where any Jewish influence could be detected.  For the Nazis, a key concept was that of ‘das Volk’; not just a head-count of the German race, but an over-riding semi-mystical concept of collective memory, linking to the ancient tribes of Germany.  In this context, cities were bad news for the average German.  These healthy Aryan sons of the soil came from solid rustic roots, tied to the land and to tradition, only to be corrupted by the Jewish-inspired decadence of modern urban life.  In an effort to combat this, Hitler and the Nazi ideologues encouraged camping and hiking, trying to reconnect post-Weimar Germany with its bucolic Teutonic roots.

Predictably, the Nazis were looking for fellow-travellers and inevitably looked south to their Germanic neighbours in Austria, but also looked north, to the Norse sagas and folk traditions of Norway and Sweden. 

Swedish-German musical relations were also influenced by different views on music and politics in Sweden and Germany. For Nazi politicians, music and politics ran together and music was to give expression to Nazi ideology. In Sweden, music and politics were to be kept apart. Most Swedish composers and musicians defined their engagement with Nazi Germany as purely musical work. The Nazi government, for its part, used Nordic composers and music to confirm Nazi ideas on race biology and to spread Nazi propaganda.

‘Music & Politics’ 

http://www.music.ucsb.edu/projects/musicandpolitics/archive/2009-2/garberding.html

Swedish anti-aircraft defence, 1940

Sweden remained neutral in both the World Wars of the last century and during World War 2 they did good business with Nazi Germany, shipping timber and iron ore into various Baltic ports.  However, it’s likely that the kinship went deeper than that.    In the 30’s, folk traditions were big news in Sweden as well, though they probably lacked the overtly political overtones found in Germany.  Some of this was about a reaction to the frightening pace of 20th Century life – cars, planes, electricity, bombs, factories – all of these things had rapidly and forever changed the landscapes of the pre-Industrial world.  For some, a retreat into the traditions of folk art meant a  reassuring reconnection with an era that had now largely been consumed and superseded by ‘the Modern’. 

The Swedish word folklig is still a word with mainly positive connotations—for example, meaning “natural,” “original,” and “simple.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept was often used to describe an authentic national culture that was threatened with extinction and had to be saved by collecting “folk culture,” among other things (Frykman 1993: 140, Lilja 1996: 31). Many people in Sweden during the first half of the twentieth century considered a concern for folklig musik as a remedy against “foreign mass culture,” and an effective protection for “the preservation of Swedishness” (Ling 1979: 22, Bohman 1979: 56–57).

‘Music & Politics’ 

http://www.music.ucsb.edu/projects/musicandpolitics/archive/2009-2/garberding.html

Like most European countries, Sweden was infected with the virus of Fascism during the 1930’s but their tendency towards liberalism and tolerance meant that it never gained the same foothold as it did in Germany & Italy.  Swedish neutrality both before and during World War 2 was a question of brinkmanship; knowing when to resist and when to give ground to the combatants.  Once the Nazis had occupied Denmark and Norway, Sweden was trapped in its Baltic pond, heavily dependent on German goodwill for its survival.  Under the circumstances, economic and cultural interaction between Sweden and the Nazis was less of a source of controversy than any military involvement.   For their part, the Nazis enthusiastically espoused the folk art and music of their northern cousins.  Somehow, Sweden managed to maintain her neutral stance throughout the War, but the association of folk traditions with right-wing politics meant that once the Nazis had been defeated, younger Swedes were looking to American jazz and rock rather than to their own cultural heritage.  Folk music survived domestically but  inevitably diminished as its practitioners grew older and died.

After Jan Johansson came the ‘Roots’ movement of the late 1960’s, who were able to adopt the instruments and the repertoire of Swedish folk, free from the taint of wartime politics.  Since then, the tide has gradually turned, with Swedish folk bands making significant inroads internationally via labels like Northside and even ECM.  Availability of CD’s via the internet has also had a major impact as even the smallest of Swedish labels is now able to reach an international audience.  I read somewhere that there are now an estimated 10,000 nyckelharpa players in Sweden – it would be interesting to compare that with 50 years ago.  Also,  the nyckelharpa is finally beginning to escape its parochial roots and become part of that repertory of international instruments – sitars, koras, tabla drums, uilleann pipes and the like – which are cropping up on recordings of music divorced from their immediate origins.  A case in point would be the Spanish nyckelharpa player Ana Alcaide; born in Madrid and now resident in Toledo, she won an Erasmus Scholarship to study at the University of Lund in southern Sweden. 

Ana Alcaide

Already a competent violinist, Ana adopted the nyckelharpa during her stay in Sweden and apart from playing in various Celtic bands in Spain has also recorded 2 CD’s of solo nyckelharpa material which taps into the music of Spain’s Sephardic communities alongside material originating in Sweden, Germany and Greece.  Bazar Blå, too, are blending their indigenous folk tunes with the tonalities of music from Turkey, Lebanon and further east.  Their percussionist Fredrik Gille plays a whole range of instruments, but is particularly adept with the bendir or Arabic frame drum, itself a distant cousin of the Irish bodrhán.  This is nearly as much a key component of the band’s sound as Hedin’s nyckelharpa.

At one point, it seemed as though the Nyckelharpa was destined for obscurity and even complete oblivion, but the revival of the Swedish folk tradition and the emergence of World Music means that it may well now reach a wider audience than ever before.

Recommended Playlist

Väsen – ‘Essence’ (1994) / ‘Live at the Nordic Roots Festival’  (2001)

Bazar Blå – ‘Nysch’  (2004) / ‘Lost’ (2009)

The Nyckelharpa Orchestra – ‘Byss-Calle’  (2000)

Ana Alcaide – ‘Viola de Teclas’ (2006)

Jan Johansson – Jazz på Svenska’ (1964)

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.

Listening to Susanna Wallumrød

Susanna Wallumrød is a 31-year old Norwegian singer who first came to prominence in 2004 as one half of a duo called Susanna & the Magical Orchestra.  The other half of the equation (give or take the odd guest contribution in the studio) is Morten Qvenild, who plays a wide variety of keyboards behind Susanna’s ethereal vocals.

‘Ethereal’ is a word that seems to feature quite heavily in descriptions of Susanna’s music.  Also popular are ‘glacial’  and ‘icy’, signifying the fact that because Susanna comes from somewhere in the wastelands to the north of Newport Pagnell Services, she’s ‘Nordic’ and these adjectives are therefore apt ways of describing her music. If there was map of this area, it should read ‘Here there be clichés’ , not to mention ‘a great deal of unimaginative journalism’.  Bands from Scandinavia must get heartily sick of all the ‘glacial’ ‘icy’ stuff that’s used to describe their music, but that’s a topic for another day and another rant.

Susanna Wallumrød

What Susanna’s singing style does project is fragility.  Her high soprano breathes and whispers its way through a repertoire that takes in sources as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Joy Division, Dolly Parton and Kiss.  At times it seems as though her voice must crack, but she’s made of sterner stuff.  Increasingly, there are larger numbers of self-penned songs appearing in her repertoire, but she continues to plunder the rock & roll archives in a diligent quest to unearth songs that you might expect her to sing, like Nico’s ‘Janitor of Lunacy’  or Roy Harper’s ‘Another Day’ and songs that come as a total surprise, like Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’.

My first exposure to Susanna & the Magical Orchestra came at 2005’s Wychwood Festival, where she & Qvenild played a 45-minute set in front of myself, the members of Jaga Jazzist (Qvenild is a former member and JJ had come off stage about an hour beforehand, having played a tremendous set) and about 150 or so bemused punters who thought they were at a Folk Festival.  The pace of the presentation was so low-key as to be virtually non-existent and the songs all proceeded at a slow and stately tempo.  Notable among them were the usual mixture of the predictable and the odd – Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’  and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene‘ have surely never featured on the same setlist before.  To begin with, it all sounded a little too minimalist for its own good; you somehow felt that if some beer-sodden wag were to lurch to his feet and start calling out for ‘Smoke on the Water’ or ‘Freebird‘ the duo on stage might just have disappeared in a puff of glacial, icy smoke.  The thing is, nobody did, and after a while you began to focus on the voice, on the way they had deconstructed/reconstructed their chosen songs and on the mood being woven by the two of them.  Even a hackneyed piece of Nashville ham like ‘Jolene’ somehow sounded fresher and newer for being put through the Magical Orchestral filter.  They concluded their set to warm applause and though it wasn’t the best set at the festival, it was up amongst them.

Susanna & the Magical Orchestra – Punkt 09, Kristiansand

S&TMO have produced three albums on Rune Grammofon to date – the latest unimaginatively entitled ‘3’ – and they seem to be moving towards a larger complement of self-penned material. ‘3’ is really a terrific album, with telling contributions from guest musicians like Andreas Mjøs (from Jaga Jazzist)  & Erland Dahlen.  They really seem to be hitting their stride.

However, Susanna Wallumrød has another string to her bow, going out and producing albums in her own name.  I’ve been listening to a recording of her made at Bergen’s ‘NattJazz’ festival back in May.  Here she  is partnered with her husband Helge Sten (guiding light of Supersilent, otherwise known as ‘Deathprod’ and the eminence grise behind many Rune Grammofon projects) who plays guitar and helps out with the singing and Pål Hausken on drums.

Susanna and Helge Sten on stage

This is a set of cover versions with sources as diverse as Bonnie Prince Billy and Agnetha Falskog, but whilst Susanna’s voice is the common factor, the dynamics of her ‘solo’ band are rather different.  She plays grand piano throughout in contrast to Qvenild’s electronic keyboards, Sten interjects with occasional bursts of Eivind Aarset-style guitar and Hausken provides a gentle percussive counterpoint.

The performance also encompasses an amusing interlude where Susanna and Helge Sten launch into an impassioned duet version of Prince’s ‘For you’, but then make a complete dog’s breakfast of the lyrics and have to be reminded of them by a member of the audience. 

Taken together, Susanna’s work with her own trio and with the Magical Orchestra is stacking up into a growing and impressive body of work.  The music remains a ‘mood’ thing but just as there are times when only Thelonious Monk or Traffic or Marvin Gaye will do, so there are times when Susanna’s voice can spin a quiet web that is both haunting and satisfying.  But glacial or icy?  I don’t think so.

Currently, the NattJazz website is hosting a video stream of this concert.  Here’s the address:  http://www.nattjazz.no/index.php?Stream=Ja&counter=7

Listening to Black Uhuru

I’d really love to be able to sit down with Chris Blackwell and ask him what he thinks happened to reggae music from the mid-1980’s onwards.  From the mid-70’s onwards, labels like Blackwell’s Island had worked assiduously to cultivate a white audience for Jamaican music, the UK had unearthed a number of hugely promising ‘local’ bands like Aswad, Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse,  top Jamaican acts were touring the world, the US market was starting to open up and reggae seemed to be integrating itself into the mainstream.

And then, in the space of about five years, the tide receded and – in international terms at least – reggae resumed its status as  a ‘local’ phenomenon that only occasionally made waves in the wider world.  Toasters and DJ’s and  seemingly a million songs about ‘Water Pumpee’,  Sting’s cod-reggae songbook, ‘Lovers Rock’ and European post-punk bands  like The Slits, Psychedelic Furs and The Ruts/Ruts D.C producing dub versions of their stuff……all very weird.

Of course, the untimely death of Bob Marley was a major factor in all of this.  Marley was the one true international superstar Jamaica had produced and  reggae’s poster boy.  For all that the critics waxed lyrical about Dennis Brown, Ijahman Levi, Culture and The Wailing Souls etc, Marley’s tragic demise was a hammer blow to Jamaican music in the international markets.

The question was, who was going to step up to the plate?  To some extent, it depended on how and via whom your records got out to the wider world.  For example, The Wailing Souls were making a succession of brilliant records throughout the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but none of them except 1979’s  ‘Wild Suspense’ appeared on a ‘crossover’ label like Island or Virgin.  In the UK, their albums seemed to emerge via Greensleeves for a while, but although Greensleeves had a distribution deal with EMI, they seemed, frankly,  much more interested in servicing the tastes & needs of the black community than they were in crossing over to a wider (and whiter) audience.

In the early ’80’s, the one band that everyone perceived as being ‘the next big thing’ were Black Uhuru. The band had been running in one form or another since 1972, with Don Carlos an early member.  The band’s leading light, however was Duckie Simpson, who recruited Errol Nelson and lead singer Michael Rose to the band.  Their first album, ‘Love Crisis’ was released in 1977 but  Nelson left the following year and was replaced by ‘Puma’ Simpson, a native of South Carolina.  This ‘classic’ line-up of Rose, Simpson & Jones began working with Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare and  were quickly signed to the duo’s new Taxi label, providing Taxi’s first ever release  with their ‘Observe Life’ single.  This was the first of a whole string of successful singles including ‘General Penitentiary’  and ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?‘    Many of these were collected as the band’s second album, ‘Showcase’.   The success of the Sly & Robbie sessions led to the band being signed by Island Records in 1980 and, beginning with their first Island album ‘Sinsemilla’, the band quickly acquired the approval of European and American critics, allied to increasing record sales.

Next came ‘Red’ (1981) an album that virtually defined Uhuru’s sound, with Rose’s increasingly assured delivery rising out of the unison and harmony vocal passages and Sly & Robbie’s underpinning thunder forming a rock solid foundation.  This, allied with the social awareness manifest in their anthemic songs propelled them to even greater heights and they toured in Europe and the USA with considerable success.  Ironically, though, whilst still perhaps thought of in Jamaica as a ‘singles’ act, Black Uhuru’s reputation elsewhere was based on their albums.  They projected a militant stance and their recorded output – unlike Bob Marley’s – was never  really ‘softened’ by the inclusion of  any love songs.

Serious t’ing – the classic Black Uhuru line-up; (L-R) Duckie, Puma, Michael

The band toured ‘Red‘ on both sides of the Atlantic and I first caught up with them at Birmingham’s long-demolished Bingley Hall, where most of Handsworth seemed to be in attendance.  One guy was actually hanging from a cross-beam that overhung the stage and the band refused to come on until he removed himself. ‘Come down off the beam, Rasta!‘ bellowed the m/c and in the end he did, to general applause.  Once the show got going (about 2 hours later than scheduled, as I recall), Black Uhuru were formidable but, to be honest, a trifle humourless. 

1982 saw two Uhuru releases – a live album/video; ‘Tear it up’ and a new studio collection, ‘Chill Out’.  Following Bob Marley’s death the previous year, many were expecting Black Uhuru’s blend of militant Rastafarian politics, top-line studio production and compelling live shows to propel them into the role of reggae’s leading practitioners.  Island released multiple versions of ‘Darkness’ from ‘Chill Out’ as a single, but the expected breakthrough never came, despite extensive touring. 

Caught the band for a second time  at Leeds University Students Union, where future broadcaster and son of Rochdale, Andy Kershaw,  was at that time  Entertainments Officer.  It would probably be fair to say that the black communities in Chapeltown and elsewhere in Leeds didn’t take kindly to the idea of Black Uhuru being in town and them being denied entry, so they came out to Headingley anyway and found their way in any which way they could – usually illegally.   In the end, the packed house was probably only about 75% ticket holders, but the band put on a tremendous show so nobody really cared.  Condensation ran down the walls in rivers whilst clouds of ganja smoke rose to the ceiling.  I couldn’t really hear Robbie Shakespeare’s bass so much as feel it through the soles of my feet.   Memorable.

Black Uhuru in action, Rockpalast, 1981

In 1984, Black Uhuru released ‘Anthem’ , probably their strongest album since ‘Red’ and again toured widely, but the perception was growing that they hadn’t really grasped the torch abandoned by Bob Marley and weren’t really crossing over to wider audiences.  Island really gave them a huge push in both America and in Europe, but their sales and their reputation remained resolutely mid-table.  Whatever they were planning next came to nothing as Michael Rose fell out with Duckie Simpson and left the band to resume his solo career and  (so I was told) run a coffee farm  in the Blue Mountains north of Kingston.  Cups of java aside, this turned out to be  a case of diminishing returns for both parties.   Rose’s solo career was thereafter restricted to intermittent and purely local success in Jamaica whilst Uhuru replaced him with Junior Reid, but were then dropped by Island and pretty much fell off the international touring bandwagon

And that was pretty much that, although the band has stuttered on in one form another to the present day, whilst never coming close to regaining their former reputation.  Sadly, Puma Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989 and died the following year.

Taxi Records have now released an audio record of Black Uhuru from their final ‘big’ tour.  Recorded at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom in 1984, it shows the trio + Taxi House Band (including Sly & Robbie) in stellar form.  Entitled simply ‘Chicago 1984’, it’s a great live document of a band who, ever so briefly, seemed to have a glittering future ahead of them but somehow contrived to blow it.  They left behind a considerable recorded legacy and this new release is a welcome addition to that.

After Black Uhuru (during their Island/Taxi years), there was never to be another Jamaican band who would come close to emulating Bob Marley’s crossover success.  International audiences eventually embraced Roots Reggae, Rockers & Dub thanks to Marley’s pioneering, but no other Jamaican trend –  Dancehall, Lovers Rock, Reggaeton  or any other such variation – has ever come close to the international impact created by Bob Marley and those who came in his wake – Black Uhuru, Peter Tosh, Third World, Inner Circle, Culture et al.  Reggae has resumed its role as the defining popular music of Jamaica but as the Roots & Rockers performers grow old and pass on, it is hard to envisage how reggae will ever regain the centrality it once enjoyed in the lives of non-Jamaican rock fans around the world.