‘It’s a funny old world’, I thought when, earlier today, I happened across a copy of a book I’d wanted to read for some time in my local library.
Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’ was published in 1977 with revisions in 1992. It had been on my reading list for a while and I’d seen a reference to it in the last week. Little did I think it would appear so quickly. But appear it did, in the Black History Month section.
In her 1999 preface, Wilmer wrote: ‘And although the details have never emerged, it is generally believed that Henry Grimes died in California in the 1970’s’.
As my regular readers will recall, the truth is that Henry Grimes merely went away, only to reappear in the early years of the Millenium. Indeed, he is appearing in New York with Marc Ribot on New Year’s Eve. I’ve just enjoyed revisiting The Marc Ribot Trio’s Live At The Village Vanguard. You can read the extraordinary tale of his re-emergence at Henry Grimes’ website. There are also plenty of performance links there too.
I’m sure the excellent Wilmer is aware that Henry Grimes remains hale and hearty following his sojourn but in her 1999 edition she explained that she would not be making any further revisions and would allow her book to stand, minor blemishes and all, as a social document.
My apologies for being a little tardy in writing about my latest contemporary recording.
This live performance, recorded in August 2013, is the latest release by Pharoah Sanders. It involves him playing as part of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago / São Paulo Underground ensemble. Spiral Mercury captures half of a live set and I’ve yet to listen to the other tranche which is release as Primative Jupiter– which I’ll be ordering before the weekend is out. The compositions on both sets are all by Rob Mazurek, so these albums don’t feature Pharoah’s own repertoire. However, this may have its own unexpected bounty because it allows us to listen to how Pharoah works in a live setting with material that is, presumably, relatively new to him.
I’ve been living with it for over a month now and it is proving a bit of a challenge to write about. Initially I thought of it as a set led by Pharoah and that hasn’t been helpful to my efforts to capture a flavour of it, as it is more of a collective effort featuring the great saxophonist both as a soloist but mainly as part of a larger whole.
The set also features Chad Taylor who we last met as a part of The Marc Ribot Trio on his Live At The Village Vanguard release which I took a look at here in early June this year.
The recording took place in one of my favourite settings. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is located in Lisbon, a city I love to visit. It combines superb indoor and outdoor performance spaces with a unique, world-class collection of paintings and other objects de art put together by a very interesting man (read about him here), who was known as ‘Mr Five Percent’, because that was the perpetual retainer he insisted on for using his expertise to broker the formation of several of the great oil companies including Royal Dutch / Shell. His extreme wealth (a Bill Gates of his time) allowed his team of experts the freedom to scour the world for the very best available examples of anything that he wanted. He insisted on ‘nothing but the best!’ I’ve steered clear of my love of football here at downwithit but suffice to say, his motto is written on my heart. I’d nominate the late Mr Calouste Gulbenkian (d.1955) as a dinner guest, as his take on the first half of the last century and any candid asides would be priceless.
Back to Pharoah and the boys though. It’s time to publish, so here goes!
Cna Toom opens the set. Spaceage synthesiser meanderings beg the question that a Sun Ra session is on the system. A repeated bass loop provides a reference point for free improvisation. A contemplative second phase changes the soundscape after ten minutes. A drum and bass led title track,Spiral Mercury, follows and is reminiscent of Mingus on The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady.
Blue Sparks From Her opens with an incisive trumpet which leads us into a soundscape shaped by synthesised keyboards and then a repeated melodic pattern which Pharoah growls at with his tenor for a while. The track takes on a brief trance-like quality before the horns solo freestyle over a percussion base.
Asasumamehn is a dreamy soundscape embroidered around what I assume to be an mbira (African Thumb Piano). It works well in context providing a peaceful phase amidst more complex and demanding tracks.
Pigeon commences as a somewhat abstract piece before the percussionists and bass impose a strong rhythmic discipline, with Pharoah hidden in the background of the mix.
Jagoda’s Dream would not sound at all out of place on the Dylan Howe Subterraneans set that you can read about here
Finally, The Ghost Zoo is another abstract piece of free improvisation over electronica that does not work wonderfully well, and is somewhat void of a purpose, to my ears, until Pharoah finally gets space for a lyrical solo as the piece draws towards its conclusion.
Although the following lengthy YouTube film was not recorded in Lisbon, it features the same lineup and starts off with some wonderful playing from Pharoah.
To pay either click on or touch the arrow.
It’s great to know that our esteemed elder, Pharoah Sanders is still playing in an extremely adventurous way that challenges the way we we listen. If you are a newcomer to this hero you may want to start somewhere else (perhaps with Africa, which I look at here. However, make sure you catch this great saxophonist live soon!)
The band etc:- Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax, voice); Rob Mazurek (cornet, electronics, flute, voice); Guilherme Granado (synths, samples, percussion, voice); Mauricio Takara (cavaquinho, percussion, electronics); Matthew Lux (electric bass); Chad Taylor (drums, mbira). Produced: Rob Mazurek. Recorded 11 August 2013. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Design & Artwork: Pedro Costa /Trem Azul. Liner photo: Nuno Martins. Issued as Clean Feed CF301CD.
As this recording may be very difficult to find otherwise you are probably best advised to buy it directly from Clean Feed’s website, which you can access here. Please note, this is a not for profit site and I do not benefit financially from providing this link.
It’s time for another contemporary album. The one that caught my eye to write about for for you this month is by Mark Ribot who is an incredibly prolific session guitarist. Released in May 2014 it is a recording of Ribot playing with Henry Grimes and Chad Taylor in 2012 at New York’s Village Vanguard, a legendary New York Jazz Club that I have yet to visit (although many years ago I saw Issac Hayes play a set at The Blue Note). First things first, we’ll get the artist’s name right, as he encourages us to do at his website. Repeat after me, REE-Bow! Good, that’s out of the way- so no excuses when you go to the shop.
Marc Ribot has played in a hugely diverse range of styles, as a sideman with Tom Waits, Wilson Pickett, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Madelaine Peyroux, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn and many, many others. He counts free jazz luminary, Albert Ayler as a major influence and his earlier Spiritual Unity set from 2008 is a collection of five Ayler numbers, including Truth is Marching In, which is was one of the first free jazz tracks that I got beyond the shock of and really listened to (in breaks from studying in Goldsmith’s College library in the late 1980’s). Our bass man for The Ribot set, Henry Grimes actually played bass on this when it was first recorded live by Ayler, also at The Village Vanguard, in December 1966. Two Ayler tracks feature here, along with a couple of late career John Coltrane outings and two traditional ballads which offer respite from the free jazz flamers.
Opening with a bowed bass introduction, some beautiful guitar playing and some very Elvin Jones style drumming, John Coltrane’s Dearly Beloved is initially lofty and atmospheric before giving way to some pyrotechnic style soloing from Ribot. It is a robust, yet exciting and engaging performance.
Ayler’s The Wizard is next up. It is an electric guitar workout, played at pace with lots of Elvin Jones style cymbals from Taylor. Later, Grimes takes a bass solo before Ribot returns to add a series of guitar runs as the piece ends.
Old Man River is the famous Kern/Hammerstein number from ‘Showboat’. It is a very fine version, worth the price of the CD by itself, in my opinion. I would have included it here if there was a YouTube version currently available, but there isn’t, so no such treat is presented for you.
Bells, the second Albert Ayler composition, weighs in at 19:09 and is the longest piece on the set. After a gentle first half it moves through a passage that is reminiscent of and draws from American marching band music (of course Ayler served as a military bandsman in his early years). From there on, it is free Jimi Hendrix-like acid guitar virtuosity- which I can only appreciate in small segments.
I’m Confessin’ That I’m Lovin’ You. is played straightforwardly as a melodic ballad, vaguely reminiscent of the Hot Club style, without anything to frighten even the most skittish horse.
Touch or click on the arrow to play film.
John Coltrane’s Sun Ship closes the recording, with another powerful and angry sounding piece.
It has been exciting to listen to Live at The Village Vanguard. Whilst most of this is not exactly music to accompany a dinner party, it captures the excitement of what must have been a gripping concert. If I hadn’t begun to look at recent releases it is very likely that The Marc Ribot Trio would have remained a mystery to me. As it is, I will try to see them when they next play in London or Manchester.
Marc Ribot is clearly a very skilled guitarist, although he is critical of his own technical limitations as he explained that he is a natural left hander who learned to play guitar right handedly. Henry Grimes, the trio’s bass player (and violinist) has an amazing story to tell. In the 60’s he played with many of the greats, including Albert Ayler himself (as noted above) before a trip to California to play with Al Jarreau and Jon Hendricks went badly awry, leaving him with a broken bass that he could not afford to have repaired. He spent over 30 years in LA employed as a manual labourer and renting a small room where he wrote poetry in his free-time, before being prompted to take up the bass again, rapidly recover his former prowess and take New York by storm. You can read more here.
Chad Taylor, on drums, completes the lineup. He started out in his childhood as a guitarist before switching to drums. His website is here.
The band etc: Henry Grimes (bass, violin); Marc Ribot (guitar); Chad Taylor (drums). Recorded: 30 June 2012 at The Village Vanguard, New York City. Produced by Chad Taylor. Sleeve Design: Michael Cina and Norah Stone. Photography: David O’Shaughnessy. Issued on Pi Recordings, May 2014.