‘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.
Time for another look at a Pharoah Sanders set. In late November 1966, Pharoah was ready to lead the first Impulse session to go out under his own name and Tauhid was the result. Having already come to notice alongside John Coltrane, where his tenor saxophone added heat and fire he was in the driving seat. What were listeners to experience on hearing his first album for what I’m tempted to refer to as the label that enabled?
Upper and Lower Egypt represents Pharoah’s attempts to create an image of how his extensive reading about that part of the world made him feel and the resonances that it created in him. The slower portentous Upper Egypt introduction gives way to a repetition of the theme that is very close to the later You’ve Got To Have Freedom. We are some 12 minutes into the piece before Pharoah’s tenor takes pride of place, sounding as though he wants to blow it apart. A brief scat vocal follows
Henry Grimes, who we met playing alongside Marc Ribot here, adds double bass throughout and a very impressive contribution he makes too!
Japan is a delightful short tune that Pharoah wrote While reflecting on a trip that he took there with John Coltrane in the summer of 1966. There’s a bit of improvised vocalise and it is enjoyable.
The final suite was written as three individual pieces which flowed together when recorded. Sanders plays alto saxophone on Aum, which features a series of scales and phrases played extremely fast in a manner reminiscent of Coltrane’s sheets of sound. The sleeve notes record how for Pharoah, the word holds a kind of magical quality and:- ‘It means God. It means peace. It means the beginning of things.’ Sanders was certainly aiming for something miles away from easy melody when he started to blow on this and Grimes adds to the challenging cacophony with sharp notes he finds and plucks from his four strings.
I assume the transformation into the Venus section is the point where we return to conventional tune and melody. Venus was written with Sanders star sign in mind, as was Capricorn Rising which, he informs us, is also part of his horoscope. It is both sweet and sour, seemingly without form but improvised around a beautiful tune. If a tune can frighten the horses while soothing the savage breast it is this one.
A bass passage (coda?) leads us into Capricorn Rising. This piece is an angry sounding, instrument testing taster for the lyricism which came to the fore in Phroah’s playing on his much later A Prayer Before Dawn set (which we will visit at some stage).
Tauhid is an album where Pharoah doesn’t seek to hog the limelight and where he sought to convey feelings and impressions. He speaks about what he is trying to do: ‘…it’s not that I’m trying to scream on my horn. I’m just trying to put all my feelings into the horn. And when you do that the notes go away’. So Tauhid is not an album of dinner jazz or one for a first date. Those chained to a classical sense of what is musical and what isn’t will run away making dismissive comments, but the open-minded will reap rich rewards here. Why not give it a try courtesy of YouTube:-
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Pharoah Sanders (Tenor and Alto saxophones, Piccolo, Voice); Sonny Sharrock (Guitar); Dave Burrell (Piano); Henry Grimes (Bass); Roger Blank (Drums); Nat Bettis (Percussion). Recorded: 15 November 1966. Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Produced: Bob Thiele. Recording engineer: Rudy Van Gelder. Cover notes: Nat Hentoff. Cover photography: Charles Stewart. Originally issued in 1967 as Impulse AS9138.
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.
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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.