Two young boys stare out from the cover of Double Youth, and only one of them is Roberto Carlos Lange. The New York-based, Florida-born producer/singer who goes by Helado Negro doesn't remember who the other one is. Face-painted and serious, they both seem to be taking a moment out of one of those perfect childhood days to oblige a parent's request for a keepsake. The cover of Lange's fourth LP is a photo of a photograph that he found unexpectedly in his parent's house; its tears, curls, and age spots are captured in full as part of the composition. Fittingly, Double Youth, the boldest and most intricate Helado Negro work to date, grapples with memory and its uncanny tendency to wear away despite our best intentions to preserve it.
Double Youth follows a trio of ambient, mood-based EPs, shifting emphasis to structure, motion, and beats. It's the first time that Lange's lyrics, which as always shift effortlessly between English and Spanish, aren't the most concrete feature in his music. Synth figures grind together like clockwork on "It's Our Game", which owes some of its playfulness to Jimmy Tamborello's work with the Postal Service and as Dntel. The bass line that tumbles through the song acts more as a counterpoint to Lange's phrasing than a part of the rhythm section, although the line between the beats and everything outside the beats here is a porous one. The 8/8 time signature becomes something for Lange to challenge, not submit to.
Later, "Myself On 2 U" entertains a Boards of Canada-esque flutter while gulps of analog synths and backing soprano map out the chords. The menacing "Triangulate" rides a bristling industrial bass whose ascending phrases seem to leer at Lange's layered chants. "We'll take our time/ And we'll crawl to you," he sings, as if extracting threats from the dissolving context of a dream. Throughout Double Youth, Lange's words follow dream logic rather than concrete narrative. He uses language not as a key to the album's core but as another texturizing element, rolling out commands that sound more natural in Spanish than they ever could in English: "llamame" ("call me"), "dejame" ("let me go"). On "Queriendo", he pronounces the Spanish equivalent to the album's title, "doble juventud", a phrase whose syllabic density gives it an inherent rhythm of its own.
The album's gentle hallucination crystallizes on lead single "I Krill You", a slowly unfolding suite with a patient melody at odds with its rapid techno pulse. Lange builds the song only to break away at its midpoint to a synthetic choral moment, leaping lucidly from the club to the cathedral. "It's a dream, a dream, a dream about you again," he repeats, calling to an unseen other with the sort of longing that usually only survives inside Arthur Russell albums. Spritzes of synth brass stand in for slashes of cello; the beats pile, but never overwhelm.
Gemma: You spent the summer touring Europe and last month touring Oz – how was that?
Tehimana: Fantastic, we sold out 19 shows in Australia for the first time ever which was bloody awesome for us.
Gemma: Out of the 800 odd shows you’ve played around the world, which one has been the most memorable?
Tehimana: It’s hard, but I always have to say Glastonbury in 2007, it was the muddiest festival I’ve ever been to and it always stood out for me as an awesome, awesome crowd. It was like a battle scene from ‘Lord of the Rings’ with all those flags out there too, it was really cool.
Gemma: Around half of your appearances have been in Europe and the rest in the Antipodes. Why don’t you play the States?
Tehimana: We’ve given it a push, but it gets a bit political.
Gemma: In what way?
Tehimana: Well, when we started going there, they’d just had the elections and Obama had come in which changed the immigration laws. We’d just bought our working visas for the year and when a new government comes in, you have to apply for new ones and it cost us so much just to get in there for work reasons, so we’ve held off a bit, but Coachella could be on the market for next year so we haven’t forgotten about it and we have a lot of fans in America.
Gemma: Is there a reason you choose to stay away from a Major label?
Tehimana: We just don’t like the riff raff that comes with big labels and record companies and stuff, we don’t want to be owned for the rest of our lives, we want to have control over what we’re doing and we don’t like to be told what to do in our music. We’ll always be proud of creating music the way we think it should be.
Gemma: Jamming and improvisation play a big part in your performances – is this also part of the song writing process?
Tehimana: Yep, all of our songs we play live on the learning curve so they get better and better, honing it down, adding and subtracting to it all the time to make it the best it can possibly be.
Gemma: There are seven core band members that write and produce the music. How does collaboration work with so many members?
Tehimana: It depends on the song, I think. We all have an input into each track and we put more in depending on how we feel about it and how much we want to dedicate to that particular track. The song, ‘Blackbird’ pretty much came off everything I put down, there wasn’t much of a change from how I wrote it on the day. We have a lot of cooks, so it’s nice to have space for each cook to move around.
Gemma: Do you ever fight?
Tehimana: No, we used to years ago as all bands do, but we make our own space individually, even if we’re on the road for a long time, it’s an important part of keeping our sanity in check.
Gemma: You mentioned previously that the studio set up for ‘Blackbird’ was better than for your last album, ‘Dr Boondigga’. In what way?
Tehimana: We had a new desk, new compressors, new mics and a better studio, pretty much a whole new studio which was a better dynamic for the sound. ‘Boondigga’ and ‘Based on a True Story’ were all recorded down on the beachfront, it was only 20 feet from the beach and you can actually hear some of the waves on the tracks, but on ‘Blackbird’ you can hear buses driving past so it was a whole different inspiration, in a new studio with new gear which upped the game a little bit. We do miss the sound of the waves coming through, but buses are just as good.
Gemma: How easy is it stay creatively inspired after 14 years?
Tehimana: Always, it’s very easy when you loving what you’re doing and you’re learning off each other, creating a new buzz and we’re quite wise now in our writing and the way we play. We also know each other like the back of our palms and what we feel when we play so it’s very easy to keep creative.
Gemma: Part of your uniqueness lies in the diversity of styles you incorporate. How would you describe your sound to those who haven’t heard it?
Tehimana: A very eclectic, hybrid reggae-blues-jazz-house festival with a bit of rock and roll and metal thrown in and if you’re out there listening, we’ll guarantee to make you dance.
Gemma: What do people get wrong about the band?
Tehimana: Thinking we’re heavy metal? I mean, if they don’t get it, they don’t get it. There was one reviewer whose name I won’t mention when we were starting out who totally got the wrong idea about what we were doing and reviewed us without even seeing us and his mind has never changed since as it was already made up, but apparently he’s a shit drummer so…
Gemma: You’ve said in the past that despite the diversity of your influences, your music ‘belongs in New Zealand, you can tell it came from this country’. How is your sound defined by your homeland?
Tehimana: It’s a Pacific flavor we have, a Pacific reggae flavor which is quite lazy, it’s not so full like a lot of reggae around the world. You have Jamaican reggae, Jamaican dub, English reggae based around the Jamaican roots style and we have Pacific reggae which is similar, but just lazier with more space and the way we sing is obviously Kiwi too. We don’t push on the reggae Rasta buzz, but it’s there, we just have our own way of doing it.
Gemma: Staying on home turf, there was a popular type of LSD doing the rounds in Wellington around the time you started out with an image of Fat Freddy’s Cat from Gilbert Shelton’s comic strip, ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ printed on it. Is it safe to assume this is where the inspiration for your name comes from?
Tehimana: You know about those cats? Those cats on the blotter were naughty boys and we took one of them by accident one day and it totally changed our lives. We were young dudes and musicians and it was a time for expanding the mind so yep, that’s where the name comes from.
Ten years on the road, and Phronesis are established as one of the great trios. Three players, moving as one – head, heart and hands.
They are great to watch, too. Long-limbed Jasper Høiby, centre stage, looks back and forth between Anton Eger at the drum kit and Ivo Neame at the piano, his glances alternatively quizzical, approving, amused, while his fingers conjure apparently impossible figures from the bass.
Tonight is not for watching them enjoy their work, though, but for listening. For the last few years, the three have played occasional unlighted, unsighted gigs – a set-up that invites contemplation of the sensory world of Høiby’s sister, who has lost the use of her eyes, and offers a different experience of the music.
And it is very dark in the well-appointed Parabola Theatre at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. It is an ideal venue for this set-up: they’ve even agreed to turn off the exit signs. As the trio dig into the first tune, Eight Hours, the lights gradually fade to extinction. For the next three quarters of an hour we, and they, really can’t see a thing.
It narrows the attention in a good way. When the trio go full tilt, there is often almost too much going on to appreciate when you watch as well as listen – too much information to process. Vision free, the sound comes across with astonishing clarity. You are intensely aware of hammers on strings, plucked and bowed bass strings, beaters on drums and cymbals, all working together seamlessly in spite of the absence of visual cues. Few trios could bring this off, I’d guess, but they rise to the challenge magnificently.
And the sounds, after all, are the point of this exercise, the reason they have pondered, composed, practiced, rehearsed and performed for so long. Do they play better in the dark? No. But in this space, our auditory awareness does seem sharpened, and it does sound different. Neame’s piano tone has a crystalline clarity; the bass is elemental; Eger’s hyperkinetic drumming seems to separate into logically articulated parts, that at times I could swear are come from different parts of the room.
The overall effect is, as ever, thrilling. Their music demands immersion whenever they play, and this is a great way to help make that happen. The 45 minutes pass in what seem like moments. Then as light dawns slowly over the closing piece, preceding a fully-lit encore, we can see again that these are not actually magicians, but people like us, using muscles, limbs and fingers skillfully to shape sound. It rounds off a musical experience of rare quality which reminds you how marvellous a thing that is.
One of the most baffling things about America,’ Amiri Baraka wrote in 1963, ‘is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.’ Perhaps, he wondered, ‘it is because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist.’ Baraka made the observation in his liner notes to John Coltrane’s album Live at Birdland, which includes ‘Alabama’, an elegy for the four girls murdered in the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing.
I thought of Baraka’s words at New York’s Riverside Church last Saturday, at the funeral of the alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. No one mentioned the atrocity in Charleston explicitly; no one had to. We were in the church where Martin Luther King declared his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967. We were honouring the life of America’s leading free jazz musician in a dramatic week for freedom in America. The Supreme Court had ruled five to four in favour of gay marriage; at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Obama had drawn on the cadences of the Southern black church, in perhaps the most powerful speech of his presidency, and invited his audience to join him in singing ‘Amazing Grace’.
In speech after speech, Coleman, who died at 85, was remembered as a man who embodied a set of values – freedom, independence, improvisation, cultural survival – that transcend music, values shared by Coleman’s friend John Coltrane, who, just before he died in 1967, requested in his will that Coleman perform at his funeral. With Coleman’s death, an era closes. As the jazz DJ Phil Schaap said, ‘I have the feeling of the conclusion of the age of the prophets.’
The pianist Cecil Taylor performed an elegy of shimmering delicacy,1 punctuated by hints of an impending storm. Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane’s son, gave a stately reading on soprano saxophone of Coleman’s 1959 composition ‘Peace’, with Geri Allen on piano. The tenor saxophonists Joe Lovano and David Murray howled their way through Coleman’s most famous tune, ‘Lonely Woman’. There was a haunting duet between Henry Threadgill, on alto flute, and Jason Moran, on piano, and an electric dialogue between the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the tap dancer Savion Glover. The only alto saxophone heard on Saturday was Coleman’s, glimpsed in a documentary filmed at the 2009 Meltdown festival, which he curated.
‘I had a very interesting father,’ his son, the drummer Denardo Coleman, said, in the understatement of the day. ‘It’s not that he thought outside the box. He just didn’t think there were any boxes.’ In his indifference to convention he resembled his friend John Cage, who hated jazz but loved Coleman. Schoenberg is reported to have said that Cage didn’t have the makings of a traditional composer, ‘but he is an inventor – of genius.’ The same might be said of Coleman.
Coleman spoke little of himself, and dismissed the idea that he was exceptional. The ‘autobiography of my life is like everyone else’s’, he wrote in the liner notes to his 1960 album This Is Our Music. ‘Born, work, sad and happy and etc.’ But the journey that led Coleman from Fort Worth, Texas, where he was born to a ‘poorer than poor’ family in 1930, to international fame as a free jazz innovator was anything but ordinary, and required no small amount of courage. The world of saloons, honky tonk clubs and travelling minstrel bands in which he performed in his teens was dangerous. Coleman was jailed for having long hair. When a white woman raised her dress over his head in the back of a Texas club, he knew he could be lynched if a white man saw them. In Baton Rouge, a group of thugs smashed his saxophone case, and left him with a collarbone injury that took years to heal.
In 1949 Coleman moved to Los Angeles, where he flirted with the Communist Party and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in a kind of LA version of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and became known as a freak. It wasn’t just his strange ideas about music. Coleman looked weird. He had a long beard and wore overcoats in the California sun. The trumpeter Don Cherry, who became his closest musical associate, thought he looked like a ‘black Jesus Christ’ when he first laid eyes on him. In 1958 he made his first two records, Something Else2 and Tomorrow Is the Question, on the Contemporary label, owned by Lester Koenig, a blacklisted Hollywood producer and friend of Schoenberg’s. The albums were more tentative than their titles suggest, yet even then – as the trumpeter Bobby Bradford told Coleman’s biographer John Litweiler – there was ‘an urgency and dead seriousness in Ornette’s music that said things weren’t going to be about Jim Crow or a resigned black man or West Coast cool any longer.’ When the pianist John Lewis, the leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet, heard Coleman perform with Cherry in Los Angeles, he compared them to ‘twins’: ‘they play together like I’ve never heard anybody play together.’
In November 1959, Coleman took his new quartet – Cherry, who played on a small Pakistani pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, a white bassist from a family of country singers in Shenandoah, Iowa; and Billy Higgins, a drummer from Los Angeles with a flawless sense of swing – to New York to perform at the Five Spot. These were ten weeks that shook the jazz world. The Five Spot engagement is usually remembered as marking the birth of free jazz, but the ‘free’ in free jazz was more of a verb than an adjective. As the critic Howard Mandel observed, what Coleman did at the Five Spot was to free jazz of the bop conventions it had settled into. Coleman loved Charlie Parker’s music – he wrote a tune called ‘Bird Food’3 and could mimic Parker brilliantly – but, as he put it in the liner notes to Change of the Century, he felt that ‘the idolisation of Bird … has finally come to be an impediment to progress in jazz.’
The distinguishing feature of Coleman’s music was its rejection of bop-style chord-based improvisation, in favour of a more melodic approach that he later called ‘harmolodics’ (a contraction of harmony, motion and melody) and promised to unpack in a work of musical theory (it never materialised). Yet Coleman’s jazz wasn’t so much a thing as a process, a musical happening that grew out of intensive practice. He wrote in 1960 that ‘when our group plays, before we start to play, we do not have any idea what the end result will be.’ In the hands of less talented musicians this would have been a recipe for chaos, but Coleman thought it worth the risk, because what he valued most was spontaneity of expression. He insisted, against a mountain of evidence, that he had no style, because style, as he explained to Whitney Balliett, ‘happens when your phrasing hardens’.
The distortion and noise in Kinshasa have been mentioned as important in making the album. Would you be able to talk about that a bit?
The sound environment in the city has got that touch, everything’s saturated. In Europe, because of our equipment everything sounds clean. Here, for whatever reason, everything [sounds] a bit fucked up. But that’s the charm of it all, you know – everything’s broken but it’s been mended.
People had good instruments, over from Europe, up until the 80s when everything broke down. The whole city became a mess so there were no more new instruments. But people still had TV and a connection with the rest of the world, so they started to imitate [what they heard]. They imitated hip hop and things like that. I remember hearing this guy scratching with tapes and making things that reminded you of all kinds of other music you’d heard.
So you’ve got that element of survival, which I’m sure exists in other countries. It probably exists in Brazil. It’s in poor countries where they don’t have the instruments so they go to dustbins and improvise with things like that.
So where they’re re-creating that music they’ve heard from elsewhere, in some ways you’re taking it back to Europe. In bringing the recordings back to your studio in Paris you’re giving it the kind of production it might not have otherwise had.
But for me that’s not all I’m interested in. I’d say [my role is] more like a moviemaker – you meet artists and you work with them. I knew what I’d first recorded was too local and wouldn’t have touched Europe. To me, music means bridges. I produced it in the direction of the people that I met, so it’s been created from my point of view but for them.
And I’ve gotta say, the album’s cool but we’ve done so many incredible shows. I think the live show is even more exciting than the album, which is nice as that’s often not the case with a lot of these studio projects. It’s turning into a real rock-y band like they used to have in the 70s. To get to the position we’re in, we’d usually have needed to have lots more rehearsals and lots more money. We’ve started from scratch but everything has picked up really quickly.
That seems to be characteristic of the band. Like the drummer, for example, who’s only been playing the kit for a year right?
Yeah, he was a percussionist before that. But for me it’s not just about musicianship, it’s about an idea. It’s about opening our minds to the way we think about the music that comes from Africa. As a project it’s different to most of the things that we import from there – it’s not about showcasing the super singer or the super player. This is more like The Sex Pistols.
I can see echoes of that punk ethos in the band, but to me the production of the record still sounds a lot more polished than that.
It’s more about the energy than the style of the music itself. When I say it’s rock-y, I don’t mean that it’s rock ‘n’ roll, I just mean that these guys are more freaky. It’s about the character of the band. That’s what this project is about, I didn’t want it to be a lie like most projects from Africa are. This project is about reality – the whole thing’s been a big accident. I never knew what I was gonna do, they never knew what was gonna happen, there’s been no preconceptions.
When I took back the tapes, I probably took out 70% of what I’d recorded in each song to get it to the way I thought it should sound. I stripped it back a lot. In Kinshasa, one of the problems is that they sing a lot and you don’t have any space for an instrumental part. It’s very vocal. So that makes it a bit boring sometimes, it takes the groove away. I wanted to strip it back to hear the groove, as that’s the culture I’m from. We’re all kids of James Brown, or something like that!
Wonders seem to never cease where Charles Lloyd is concerned. In a career spanning more than half a century, Lloyd's well of creativity has never run dry. He remains peerless when it comes to producing transcendent music.
While plenty of musicians tend to slow down as they get older, the opposite seems to be happening with this septuagenarian. In the five years prior to the release of this album, Lloyd delivered Mirror (ECM, 2010), a superbly rendered quartet outing that touched on spirituals, standards, and originals; Athens Concert (ECM, 2011), a two-disc release which brought Greek contralto Maria Farantouri, lyra player Sokratis Sinopoulos, and pianist Takis Farazis into contact with Lloyd's quartet; and Hagar's Song (ECM, 2013), a duo encounter with pianist Jason Moran that features the five-part title suite and classics from Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and George Gershwin, among others. As if that wasn't enough Lloyd for jazz fans to digest, Resonance Records also saw fit to release two unearthed Lloyd live dates from the mid '60s on the historically-significant Manhattan Stories (Resonance, 2014), and Arrows Into Infinity (ECM, 2014)—a documentary on Lloyd's life and music—saw commercial release. But rest assured, Lloyd isn't using that impressive body of recent work as a reason to rest on his laurels.
Now, thirty years after delivering his lone date for Blue Note—A Night In Copenhagen (Blue Note, 1985), an album highlighting the saxophonist's rapport with pianist Michel Petrucciani—Lloyd returns to that storied label with Wild Man Dance. It's a momentous occasion that turned plenty of heads when it was announced; the music itself is sure to do the same. This album presents the world premiere of a powerful six-part suite that was commissioned by the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland. The music—recorded live there in November of 2013—is every bit as magical as the best of Lloyd's output. Vaporous sounds subtly segue into more intense and concrete passages, mournful and prayerful saxophone lines trace their way across nebulous foundations, and wave upon wave of rippling and tumbling sounds usher the music forward.
There are proper solos to be heard and strong rhythmic threads to be followed at times, but that's not the point. Much of the wonder behind this music—and much of Lloyd's latter day output—is in the way the different instrumental voices project and coalesce. Pianist Gerald Clayton balances lightness and darkness, weight and weightlessness, and brisk and patient mannerisms in his work; bassist Joe Sanders is just as comfortable tapping into the rhythmic heart of a piece as he is working the surrounding areas; drummer Gerald Cleaver proves to be adept at creating a steady stream of flowing ideas, though he can also drive the music with a steady groove when needed; and Sinopoulos' lyra and Miklos Lukacs' cymbalom add an extra dose of mysticism to the proceedings. Together, these six players commune with the musical spirits, careen across the landscape, and deliver entrancing sounds that speak to freedom, togetherness, and a search for greater meaning through music.