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Elektra Records - A Glaring Omission from the Story

In 2006, Elektra Records released a sumptuous 5 x CD box set retrospective, called (in honour of its greatest release) Forever Changing: the Golden Age of Elektra Records, 1963-1973. Now, I spent many of my teenage years listening to, or intensely chasing, many of the LPs that the label made over these years, so the release was of great interest to me. Unfortunately, the considerable pricing of the set, alongside its limited availability, made its purchase a no-brainer for me at the time, so I was pleased when a friend gave it to me a few days back, on extended loan.

It is without doubt an impressive monster of a package, reminding me somewhat of the obsessive detail and over-inclusiveness that characterised some of the late John Fahey’s Revanant Label reissues (the Charley Patten and Albert Ayler boxes, for example). It also got me re-thinking about the whole ‘Golden Age’ idea, one that continues to be contested, but has nevertheless informed my two books on British free improvisation. The sheer scale of the tracks included and their accompanying artists is initially overwhelming, even though I have heard probably half of the songs previously. Obviously, artists such as The Doors, Love, Judy Collins and Tim Buckley are fairly well-known, and now occupy secure seats in the Immortal Rock/Pop/Folk Songs List (or whatever canonical title one wishes to adapt). There are also plenty of artists involved who I either have never heard or barely know - for example, in no particular order, Judy Henske, Dick Rosmini, John Koener, Dave Ray, Oliver Smith and many, many, many, many more.

It’s easy to see why many of these failed to make much of an impression either at the time or on future history, to be frank. Some nuggets (the epochal Nuggets album itself came out on Elektra in 1972, and acted in many ways as the midwife to the whole ‘forgotten classics’ shtick) are best left unearthed.

Elektra began as a ‘folk’ label in essence, and provided a home for a whole array of singer/songwriters, given their impetus by the success of Bob Dylan in particular, but also Judy Collins and Joan Baez in the 1962/3 period. However, one of the criticism of the ‘Golden Age’ trope is the tyranny of choice, in terms of who gets to choose the occupants of the various lists that the nostalgia industry has given birth to, and what exactly they get to choose, Many lists are uncritically over-inclusive, to be sure, but some are notable by what they leave out. In the case of Forever Changing, there is a 1967 release on Elektra that is not only not featured in the box set, but one that doesn’t even warrant a mention in any of the ‘bumf’ that comes along with the compact discs (and there is a lot of it, just as there was with the Revenant sets!).

This glaring omission, not only in terms of historical completeness, but also because of its importance as a radical piece of then-contemporary music, is AMMUSIC (EUK-256), recorded in ‘66, but not delivered into the stock of baffled record shops until the following year, where it soon sank without trace. It doesn’t even get a mention in ‘White Bicycles’, the autobiography of Elektra UK’s head honcho Joe Boyd (coincidently published around the same time as the box set), which is odd given that it gave him a bum rap with his bosses back in New York HQ. Obviously, the record has been excised from popular accounts because of its perceived un-listenability, and its deviance from the label’s desired norms of sound and presentation, but it still really surprised me how the avant garde continues to be excluded (or, at the very least, marginalised) from even the most apparently conclusive/inclusive historicising processes. It’s a shame, as monuments like Forever Changing would benefit from ‘comfort zone’ extension, with a small, but important, part of the narrative restored to its proper place. AMMUSIC has certainly outlives a record like Diane Hildebrand’s Early Morning Blues & Greens, with no offence meant to Ms, Hildbrand. Or Crabby Appleton’s eponymous offering, or…

The London Experimental Ensemble and Iain Sinclair

I returned to Lambeth’s I’Klectik venue last night, rapidly becoming my favourite live music space (despite the terrible name, which I’m always either  mis-spelling or getting wrong), to see the London Experimental Ensemble (LEE), rapidly becoming one of my favourite improv groups, who were playing with Iain Sinclair, long established as one of my favourite non-fiction writers (I’m less keen on his fiction, unfortunately). So, all in all, a very promising evening seemed to be in store! 

All for a tenner, as well - some friends of ours had forked out £150 to see Fleetwood Mac at Wembley a few days ago, so I’m always humbled by what a great evening free improvisation usually provides, and for next to nothing. The Mac, minus Lindsay Buckingham, were so-so, apparently, and Wembley is a terrible place to hear (and to barely see) live music.

The gig certainly matched my expectations. I have praised the LEE in other blogs, and will merely reiterate my recommendation now - it was nice to see Eddie Prevost in the audience, as AMM form the most obvious reference point for the sound of this improvising group, who, despite their name, mostly seem to hail from Nashville, Tennessee, not a town that I generally associate with the avant garde. Their ‘leader’, although I’m sure he won’t like the word, Ed Patterson, was his usual genial self, and was most chuffed that the band has been offered a deal with Gearbox Records, whose equally genial owner, Justin James, I was introduced to, and who I hope will give the ensemble the publicity and promotion that it so fully deserves.

As for Sinclair, who cheerfully signed my much-thumbed copy of ‘London Orbital’: he was equal to the task of ‘merging’ with the LEE (rather than being ‘submerged’ by it, which was always a possibility). I’ve seen him on, I think, four occasions now, with musical backdrops, and this one was by far the most successful, imho. Somehow he managed to negotiate the ‘waves’ of the LEE, to produce a semi-coherent narrative withing the spumes and crests of the band’s immersive drone. All of the band’s members were in full effect, a genuine group effort to back this most individual of writers. As to the content of Sinclair’s verses? 

Well - I pass.

He seemed to be describing a journey, with Andrew Kotting and Anonymous Bosch (regular characters appearing in his prose), to find a burial place for ‘Dilworth’s Box’, whatever that might be, which eventually is situated on the Scottish island of Taransay. The theme seemed to be of a Pandora-nature, i.e. “don’t open the box”, “the determination of its owners that it should only be opened once” and “the sound of the world tearing itself apart”, which gives an idea of the general thrust. It might sound rather pompous, but it worked, mainly because of the generous group setting within which he read out his verse, 

Sinclair himself even seemed to be enjoying himself, which is notable, given that he has previously described free improvisation as a thing “about which I have no specialist knowledge, and for which I have no innate sympathy”. It’s hard to think of a group of such a size (fourteen, I think?) that has the ‘innate empathy’ to make a success of such an arcane venture.

Dr. John: A Brief Tribute

The affectionate tributes have been pouring in, after the news of the death of Mac Rebbenack a few days ago. He occupies a fairly unique position in rock music, having transitioned from what many saw as a ‘psychedelic novelty act’ in his ‘Doctor John’ avatar, then through to a trio of timeless albums with the likes of the Crescent City’s Allen Toussaint and The Meters. Just the mention of the last two ‘acts’ will bring a frisson of muscle memory for those of us around in the early/mid seventies, and the sheer amount of great, danceable funk coming out at the time (including, and especially, for me, Toussaint’s Southern Nights, and Cabbage Alley and Rejuvenation from Leo Neocentelli, Joseph Modeliste, Arthur Neville, George Porter Jr, and associated crew).

I will leave the properly informed tributes to those like Richard Williams, who can give an appropriately comprehensive overview, including the latter part of his life, where he became essentially a ‘national treasure’ and embodiment of the New Orleans musical tradition. My involvement’s with Rebbenack’s recordings remain fairly superficial, concentrated on his two early periods, i.e. the first four ‘space gumbo’ albums, starting with the immortal Gris-Gris from 1968, and then, probably in order of diminishing quality, the ‘don’t fuck with the formula’ Babylon, Remedies and Sun, Moon & Herbs. But he clearly got fed up with these particular potions, and moved to the ‘straighter’ (to use the terminology of the time), more traditionally-faithful music of the classic trilogy of 1972-4, Dr, John’s Gumbo, In the Right Place, and Desitively Bonnaroo (sic), the middle one of which gave him the Top-10 hit, ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’.

These critics can better describe his life and his 32 studio and 6 live recordings. It would be a great shame, however, if Mac is best remembered for his very first album, Gris-Gris, where he introduced (having been a studio musician for many years previously, and from an early age) the Dr, John persona; but there is, in the end, something profoundly sui generis about this album, something that many people around my age will attest to, The death of a musician who was, ultimately, so completely and utterly dedicated to his art (see his biography, Under A Hoodoo Moon for confirmation of this), and coming shortly after that of his contemporary, Scott Walker (a very different musician, to be sure!), leaves many of us regretting the loss of an important part of our own musical story.

New music in old bottles -Bailey and Rowe together

Ben Watson’s Derek Bailey discography at the end of his biography of the Sheffield giant seemed fairly exhaustive, when it first came out in 2004 (although it is now considerably expanded by subsequent releases). Brain Olewnick did a similar ambitious job with Keith Rowe’s recorded work(him being British free improv’s other landmark guitarist. As far as I knew, these very different stylists never played together, although Fred Frith has done a good job of melding their styles in his playing at various times. Bailey passed at Xmas time 2005, and Rowe rarely plays on these shores nowadays, having been based in France (Nantes) since 1992. Frith is, however, due to undertake a 3-day residency at Cafe Oto at the end of this month.

I was thus truly both surprised and pleased to find, on pages 184-5, of Olewnick’s biog (now on a second reading), a description of a significant recording. from as early as 1969. featuring both Bailey and Rowe. At this point in time, Incus Records had yet to be born (1970 saw to this), and Rowe was still playing in AMM 1,0, which had recently made the epochal The Crypt live sessions, to which this recording, called Gracility , can best be compared (yes, it’s that good). The track ‘Gracility’ itself features Bailey and Rowe, with Gavin Bryers  on electric bass and its composer, Laurie Scott Baker, on double bass. It extends to the AMM -like length of 71 minutes, and forms part of a 2-CD set, along with an early (1975) Evan Parker solo soprano sax feature, a 1970 piece by the Scratch Orchestra, and a 1972 trio of Baker, John Tilbury and Jamie Muir (a very unusual grouping again, especially given the contrast of Tilbury and Muir). All in all, a most unusual and fascinating combination of very early British free improv/composition, which only saw the light of day in 2009, on Music Now (MNCD012). It’s an essential addition to the collections of folk who love this period.

To quote Olewnick: “Though improvised, there is one restraint - “The amps are set on the edge of feedback, but the playing is very gentle. The text calls for feedback to be avoided, a bit like trying to contain a genie in a bottle!” (from the liner notes by Baker)” This sounds a bit like a John Stevens instruction from ‘Search and Reflect’still , but it needs saying that the result is not as quiescent as might be expected -”When they do let loose, and they do several times, the resulting sound storm is quite as violent as anything on The Crypt” (Olwenick again), Rowe’s sound appears to be the most dominant, although it is very hard to distinguish who is playing what (another very AMM-like feature). Although Olewnick opines that “his (Rowe’s) playing sounds rather different than it did with AMM, more transparent and lucent”, the meta-music group remains the most obvious point of reference.

It’s an only-fairly-recently opened bottle, but the contents still sound fresh, and made even more enjoyable by previously not knowing of its existence, Slainte!

Our Friends in the North

I visited my friend Adam Woolf in Sheffield last week, a wonderful pianist and multi-instramentalist, who has found a place in the heart of  that city’s long-established improvising community. We were visited during my stay by the great guitarist John Jasnoch, who was kind enough to provide me with his micro-CD That Other Worldly Feeling and his collaborative tape with Adam, the curiously-entitled Bring Me My List of Eleven People, I Need To Speak About the Past, which I was emphatically told had a sensible source.

This is so far, so cosy, but I became irritated when I subsequently looked up Jasnoch in Ben Watson’s controversial hagiography of Derek Bailey, still on of the few texts (apart from mine, natch!!) that discusses ‘provincial’ improvisers. I dedicated a separate chapter in my own Convergences, Divergences & Affinities to the magnificent work, throughout the seventies, by improvisers from other  UK cities, who contributed to the creation of a much broader musical palette than most commentators of that period generally allow. There is definitely a book out there waiting to be written about the contributions of cities like Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Glasgow to the free improvisation scene of that time. However;

Ben Watson, who should know better, to be frank, mentions Jasnoch in the following terms in his Derek Bailey hagiography of 2004 (which has, admittedly, caused a shitstorm of opprobrium in his direction among the musicians he rather disingenuously discusses/disses):

“There have been several spirited attempts…but to these ears they fall short, producing a bad imitation (of Derek Bailey, that is), exploiting the free brief without emptying the notes of associative content, failing to achieve the negation that makes room for genuine dialogue” (page 261).

This doesn’t make any clear sense to the average reader, obviously, and is insulting to Jasnoch, whose playing, as far as I can hear, is nothing like Bailey’s. However, there have been so many lazy journalistic cliches that compare ANY guitarist who doesn’t sound like Joe Pass to Sheffield’s finest. Watson goes on to add a gratuitous, damning-with-faint-praise, insult to uncalled-for injury by opining, on page 376, that “though Jasnoch’s notes always sounded lovely, they were too coarse to negotiate what the ensemble was playing”…”Jasnoch’s style reveals deficiencies” (as opposed to Bailey’s “thinner, more gorgeous notes”).

I know, it’s all bollocks, but I do feel that Watson’s rather patronising polemic has disadvantaged avant guitarists ever since his book emerged in 2004.

Guitarists like John Jasnoch, Henry Kaiser, Ian Brighton, Fred Frith, John Russell,Roger Smith, etc, etc. deserve to be heard on their own terms, not in relation to the late, great DB, which seems to have been their fate, such is the stature of the Sheffiedian. ‘Listen Without Prejudice’, as I believe another London-centric musician once said, and hear what each man has to say. They form a succession of hugely talented string players.

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