An example of what a collective jazz ensemble can produce and accomplish. A stellar lineup of leaders and improvisors who employ Lightcap's designs to weave a hypnotic and encouraging album of a future where sound reigns.
Compact discs aren’t usually considered a delicate medium, but if it’s possible to wear a CD out, I made a valiant effort with Deluxe. The 2010 offering from bassist Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth was a rare and heady mix of complex rhythms and near-perfect horn harmonies, an album that maintained an avant-garde pedigree but also unabashedly embraced hooks—those infectious bits of musical pleasure that normally send hardcore free jazzers screaming for the hills.
It’s exciting and relieving then that “Nine South,” the first track on Epicenter, opens with a monstrous earworm, an ostinato Wurlitzer hook that leaves a searing imprint on the brain. As Craig Taborn races around the keys, Lightcap and the dual-tenor frontline—Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby—enter with the same big, emotional melodic lines we grew to love on Deluxe. It’s as arresting as anything from that earlier album, and sets Epicenter up as more of the same. In general, this is great news.
Lightcap is a master of counterpoint, and his compositions send beautiful, interwoven harmonies over knotted, West African rhythms. The group always sounds expansive, if a bit melancholic at times. Seven of the eight tracks on Epicenter comprise a suite entitled “Lost and Found: New York.” Lightcap wrote, developed, and recorded the tracks with the help of the Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works grant, awarded in 2011 on the heels of Deluxe’s success. Each piece is inspired by some facet of New York City, though the tunes are unmistakably Lightcap’s and would fit comfortably with any of the band’s previous work. The thematic comparisons are easy enough: Bigmouth’s mix of disparate influences as a stand in for the melting pot culture of NYC, Lightcap’s deft usage of variously paced, parallel lines of motion calling to mind the many speeds of a city that is nevertheless always moving forward.
Many of the songs reflect pop music through more than just catchy melodies, and this is where Epicenter may leave some adventurous listeners wanting. Tracks like the gently floating “Arthur Avenue” or the pounding, under-three-minute “Down East” leave little room for any kind of improvisation, instead highlighting Lightcap’s ear for sweet harmony (the former) or intricate rhythm (the latter). “White Horse” is an another oddity, a short, thematic piece with multiple overdubs, including acoustic guitar and organ contributions from Lightcap. It’s a lovely bit of music, but is entirely a creature of the studio, bereft of the living, breathing feeling of a tight jazz ensemble. In the end, however, Epicenter isn’t really about the excitement of the unknown or chasing an improvisational high—it’s about five talented musicians rallying behind Lightcap’s assured compositional voice.
Epicenter is brilliantly summed-up with a cover of Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting intersection of New York City, popular music, and the avant-garde. It builds to a satisfying crescendo that allows the band to finally cut loose, while losing none of the jangly, gangly swagger of the original. Five years is a long time to wait for a follow-up. Epicenter further sands down some of the band’s coarser, more venturesome edges, but it’s a welcome return that I’ll know I’ll be spinning often in the months to come.
In this book, heroin, as it takes over one musician after another, one scene, one city, one country (Gavin quotes the pianist René Urtreger estimating “that by the midfifties, 95 percent of the modern jazz players in France — himself included — were hooked”), is more than a plague, more than an endless horror movie, the reels running over and over, out of order, back to front (“It was like the Night of the Living Dead,” one fan tells Gavin of a Baker show in Paris in 1955. “Dark suits, gray faced, stoned out of their minds. Everything seemed strange to me, unhealthy. They were playing the music of the dead”). By the end — “Baker filled the syringe, then held it up. ‘Bob, you could kill a bunch of cows with this,’ he said. He plunged the needle into his scrotum” — “The man was a walking corpse,” the Rotterdam jazz hanger-on Bob Holland told Gavin. “He was living only for the stuff. Music was the last resort to get it” — it’s as if heroin itself has agency, and seeks out bodies to inhabit, colonize, and use up, not a substance but a parasitic form of life whose mission is to destroy its host, knowing that it can always leap to another. But the essential humanity of the host — his or her actual reality as someone who planted a foot on the planet before he or she left it, to be forgotten along with almost everyone else — is, in these pages, never reduced, whether it is that of Baker, or any of the musicians, friends, wives, or lovers trailing in his wake, those he knew and those he didn’t (from one dealer’s client list: “Bobby Darin, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Lenny Bruce, and the rock star Dion”), by 1981 “a growing trail of corpses.”
In this book, like Baker’s fans, listening to a radio broadcast from Hannover, Germany, on April 29, 1988, where Baker was to recreate his 1954 album Chet Baker with Strings, only days before playing in the street in Rome for drug money, they are somehow all present in the audience as Baker played. “With every defense shattered,” Gavin writes, “he lived the songs with a painful intensity. The concert peaked with an epic nine-minute performance of ‘Valentine.’ Baker opened it with a trumpet chorus backed by guitar only, a chillingly stark musical skeleton; from there, his hollow, otherworldly singing drifted on a cloud of strings.” And then, less than two weeks later, in Amsterdam, he propped open the window of his third-story hotel room, and crawled out.
Sometimes listening to Julia Holter is like watching a film of a dream: gauzy, beautiful, the set immaculately dressed and the light in the golden hour haloing the characters’ emotional highs and lows. At other times, her music is like dreaming of a film, something half-remembered or only eerily discernible, as if you’re falling asleep in front of the TV as snatches of a classic romance flit around amid your own concerns and passions. Her style is rooted in her classical training, composition degree, and highbrow references, but has always been generous with its visceral delights.
While still dreamlike, Have You in My Wilderness, Holter’s fourth album, is something clearly felt — the ocean spray on the warm breeze, the sun baking exposed limbs, a hand glancing across your skin before drifting away. Her first three albums each felt thematically tied together in smart, artful packages based on preexisting literature and film: Tragedy ran on Euripedes, Ekstasis worked with modern poetry, and Loud City Songrotated around 1958 romantic musical Gigi. The choice of personal pronoun in this album’s title feels designed, as the songs no longer hinge on an external source. Her previous work didn’t necessarily require any outside reading to unlock its pleasures, but Have You in My Wilderness cuts extraordinarily quickly to the core.
That immediacy doesn’t mean that Holter sings in absolutes or has left behind her poetic ambitions. Rather, the dreams, passions, and uncertainties are drawn in sensory experience and backed by breathing, vibrant warmth. Opener “Feel You” examines the seeming oxymoron of that sumptuous gray area beautifully. She grounds the song in the rainy days of Mexico City, but then fills that physical space with questions (“Can I feel you? Are you mythological?”) and charming confusion (“When the cab pulled up, I laughed/ I forgot where I was going”). The harpsichord, swooning strings, and staccato percussion shift and swell like the tide as Holter walks along the beach and takes in the dizzying sights.
Though not always concretely named, there’s something coastal and aquatic about Holter’s Wilderness throughout. Her vocals are frequently poured through a layer of thin reverb and the instrumentation pulses like waves. The songs’ fusion of classical instrumentation and jazz flourishes, of smoke and romance, of sophistication and warmth makes them feel like a set of postcards from the Mediterranean with stories of love and loss scribbled across the back.
Not long after bassist John Greaves parted company from seminal politoco-avant-prog superstars Henry Cow, he hooked up with guitarist, lyricist and Renaissance man Peter Blegvad (also a Cow alumnus) and singer Lisa Herman to produce one of the great lost albums of the seventies. Surreal, infuriating, complex and silly in just about equal parts, Kew Rhone was probably never going to set the world alight, but the fact it was released on the same day as Never Mind The Bollocks didn't do it any favours.
Kew.Rhone is a singular record, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are faint whiffs of the Cow and their forebears (Soft Machine, Zappa etc); there's a hint of Carla Bley's Escalator Over The Hill too. In fact Bley and then husband Mike Mantler are on the record (as well as providing the studio facilities); this association marked the continuation of the pair's interest in British art rock and probably accounts for the presence of free jazz giant Andrew Cyrille on the drums.
With such a line-up, the music probably couldn't have helped but be a bit odd. But when you add Blegvad's luminous (or should that be numinous) poetry to the mix, things get a whole lot weirder. Kew.Rhone's texts are stuffed full of anagrams and assorted wordplay; some songs refer to themselves or other songs on the record. And I can't think of any other songs anywhere that invite you to examine the illustrations on the sleeve for clarification ("Pipeline"). Peel's foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep.
Those who feel that obvious displays of intellectual prowess involving references to archaeology, pataphysics and other arcana have no place on a rock record may have trouble with this sort of thing. But there's plenty more to hold the attention; Blegvad's laconic drawl and Herman's pure, unaffected tone make a nice double act, plus there's the complexities of Greaves' musical settings to consider. These are every inch the equal of the texts in their complexity; tidily anarchic, stuffed with blunt, vaguely jazzy harmonies and melodies that wander unpredictably. "Twenty Two Proverbs" could almost be from a Bernstein musical. Sort of. There's something that's simultaneously catchy and ungraspable about the whole thing, which just might explain its appeal. Ludicrous, serious and (if the truth be known) much more seditious than the Pistols ever were.
Jazz rock? Rock jazz? Art rock with jazz overtones? The 1977 album Kew. Rhone., by John Greaves, Peter Blegvad and Lisa Herman, doesn’t sound or feel like any record of any genre released that year. It doesn’t sound or feel like any record of 2015, either. Its singularity is such that one of its admirers, the legendary musician Robert Wyatt, insists that its existence justifies the ordinarily oxymoronic term “very unique.” A book assembled by Blegvad, also entitled Kew. Rhone., which was released in November, celebrates the record’s uniqueness almost 40 years after the fact.
As for the record itself: Composer Greaves, who played bass and piano in the still-revered progressive rock combo Henry Cow has a talent for melodies that are as complex and sinuous as they are hooky. Blegvad’s lyrics are dazzling slabs of wordplay — anagrams, acrostics, one particularly long palindrome, as well as “interactive” lyrics that operate in conjunction with the dryly whimsical illustrations on the album’s jacket. Herman sings with a bell-clear alto that infuses soul and sensuality into the challenging material. Their backing band includes jazz luminaries Carla Bley and Mike Mantler (the album was recorded at the upstate New York studio of the then-married musicians) and legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille.
After the record’s rather spectacular commercial failure, Blegvad went on to a distinguished solo career that included collaborations with XTC’s Andy Partridge, Michael Penn, Anton Fier and the Golden Palominos and others. His musical activities in recent years have taken a back seat to writing, illustrating, teaching and serving as president of the London branch of the College of ‘Pataphysics; but his songwriting was unexpectedly honored when Loudon Wainwright covered his song “Daughter” for the end credits of the hit movie Knocked Up (that cover is currently being used in a Walmart ad; the actual subject of the song, Kaye Blegvad, is now an accomplished graphic artist and jewelry maker).
This is Andy Gill, the music critic rather than the Gang of Four guitarist, writing in the NME on 23 April 1977: "It is completely utterly unlike any other album you're likely to come across. Ever."
He's talking about Kew. Rhone. And he's right. The album didn't exactly establish a year zero; it didn't try to. But in terms of wiping clean the musical slate, it knocks spots off Never Mind The Bollocks. And yet Kew. Rhone. is not punk at all. It's closer to an avant-garde musical. "The music is intricate, unpredictable, like show music from a parallel world," says Peter Blegvad, the man responsible for the lyrics and the cover art. Yes, cover art: integral to the album in a way that is only half-possible to grasp. But more on that later. First, the words: densely allusive, playful, puzzling. "The lyrics concern unlikely subjects and unlikelier objects," explains Blegvad. "They refer to diagrams or function as footnotes, or are based on anagrams and palindromes." American poet Andrew Joron calls Kew. Rhone. one of the few rock albums that is genuinely surrealist in spirit and composition. Robert Wyatt liked it so much, upon its release, that he bought two copies.
Most albums don't feature a track called 'Gegenstand', nor a list of deconstructed proverbs, nor a line like: "I am your quarry, you're mine", which – to me, at least – becomes more appealing with every listening. Kew. Rhone. even contains what is surely the longest grammatically correct palindrome in popular music: "Peel's foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep." Blegvad shrugs off the fact that some of the lyrical complexity will be lost on many listeners. Are there lyrical games no-one has spotted? "Probably. I've missed some of them too, I'm sure."
THE BELIEVER: Which came first for you: music, writing, or drawing?
PETER BLEGVAD: Hand in hand, since I was a teenager. For decades I’d flit from drawing table to typewriter to guitar with no sense of strain or contradiction. They all exercised the same psychic muscle (the Imagination), and working in one medium refreshed my appetite for the others. These days I’m less supple and more entrenched, so it’s a wrench to switch. But writing and drawing a Leviathan strip, say, isn’t all that different from composing a song. They both involve a text embedded in another medium. My father, Erik Blegvad, is an illustrator—he’s at work on his 107th title—and my mother, Lenore, was (she died last September) an author/illustrator/painter, so this symbiosis seems perfectly natural to me. My favorite artists, Marcel Duchamp being perhaps the paradigm, deliberately flouted the decree that art must not be “literary.” The musical heroes of my youth were John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Captain Beefheart, all of whom drew/wrote/painted when they weren’t composing/performing/recording. I recently learned the word liminal: “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” That’s where I feel most at home, for better or worse.
BLVR: I can’t think of many singer-songwriters who have combined an interest in songwriting, in a fairly traditional sense, with what most people would call “progressive” or “experimental” music to the extent you have. How did that balancing act come about?
PB: Songs came first. I started out in 1965 trying to copy the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Stones, like most kids I knew. I’m still trying. Songs are hard to beat. They’re spells, for one thing. Chant is the root of incantation. Even something as slickly manufactured as the Archies crooning “Sugar sugar, honey honey” is potent voodoo. Songs have a synesthetic appeal to me—objects of various shapes, colors, and weights constructed of words and music. Portable, flexible, adhesive; appealing to mind, heart, and body as required. They can unite a community or touch the solitary in each listener or both at once. No mean feat. A song can be reduced, too, to maybe just a loop and a word or two.
Surely my liminal tendency has its source in having been plucked from Connecticut at fourteen and sent to a progressive, co-ed, Quaker, vegetarian establishment in Letchworth Garden City called St. Christopher’s. It wasn’t as radical as Summerhill, but there was very little academic pressure. By about 1967, Anthony Moore and I were being “experimental” there. We were hippies, beads and kaftans, the whole bit. At a school dance we performed a number called “Your Hair is the Swimmer’s Nightmare,” which consisted of me playing “Walk Don’t Run” in C over Anthony slashing away on an F# minor chord. We kept at it until one of the teachers pulled out the plug of our Vox AC 30. I remember us using the name Jumpin’ Jonah & the Wails, which I stole from Mad magazine, but Neil Murray, who played drums with us, says we were called Slap Happy. (The “Slap” got an extra “p” later, when we were cutting our first album, Sort Of, in Hamburg. Neil wasn’t with us by then—he went on to be a bass ace for Whitesnake and Black Sabbath, among others.)
BLVR: How did you come to return to the States? Were there particular musical or nonmusical opportunities in New York?
PB: I thought I’d follow in my father’s shoes and try to make a living in New York City as an illustrator. I arrived in summer 1975 with a slim portfolio and began making the rounds in a rather desultory way. I did a few drawings for Steve Heller at the New York Times. (I was still drawing for him, thirty years later, for the same money, more or less). At the same time, I studied poetry with Gilbert Sorrentino at the New School and made friends with Ammiel Alcalay and other inspiring types.
I wanted to be a poet and/or an artist, but I was very lazy (frightened of failure, I guess) and drank too much. I spent years in the Forty-second Street library planning a book about how to freeze time, and began an encyclopedia of everything in the world depicted thrice. That’s a project I’m still working on.