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.
The trio, comprised of Wenzl McGowen (23, saxophone/contrabass clarinet), Mike Wilbur (23, saxophone) and James Muschler (24, drums), have earned a strong following from playing on the MTA’s platforms over the past 2 1/2 years. They’ve also begun to attract the attentions of the wider music world. Last year, the band was spotted by Mike Doughty (formerly of ’90s band Soul Coughing and now a solo artist) who liked them so much, he asked them to open for him on a national tour.
“They were obviously driven,” Doughty tells The Post. “I thought they’d decline [the tour] because there were insanely long drives between each show. But they blew every audience away.”
Since then, Moon Hooch landed a management deal, had a successful residency at Williamsburg’s Knitting Factory and, tomorrow night, the band will open for the electronic jam-band Lotus at Best Buy Theater for what will be their biggest NYC gig to date. It’s a far cry from their humble beginnings at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Greenwich Village, where the members met and started playing around the city.
“The first time we played together was in the summer of 2010 in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” McGowen explains with a unique accent that derives from growing up all over Europe. “That was pretty much just jazz, but I noticed we got more of a reaction and made much more money if we played dance music.”
After the museum, they realized they could play for a captive audience in the subways.
Quickly developing a knack for catchy melodic hooks and funky rhythms while leaving room for plenty of jazzy improvisation, the instrumental three-piece quickly hit their first milestone that very same summer by getting banned from the Bedford Avenue subway stop. “There was a Modest Mouse concert, which got rained out in Williamsburg,” recalls Muschler, who was raised in Cleveland. “So there were a ton of people who wanted to see music but couldn’t, and because of that, we ended up with a huge crowd. It was actually pretty dangerous. People were dancing on the yellow lines, and so the cops said we were a hazard. But we made $350 each that night.”
It’s easy to understand how they could create such a commotion.
Like any subway performer or act worth their salt, Moon Hooch knows that weekends are the best time to hit the platforms, and always draws quick responses.
Crece vertiginosamente la leyenda de Chet Baker. Yo, que llevaba años haciéndome con todo lo que encontraba de Chet, veo que ahora aparecen multitud de cosas sobre él, se ha convertido de repente en un mito. Y es asombroso, pero hasta los que fueron sus más enconados enemigos, hasta los que le mataron, hablan bien ahora de Chet. A su reputación le está sucediendo exactamente lo mismo que le pasara a la de Rimbaud y Verlaine, que Cernuda comentó en su poema Birds in the night: "Entonces hasta la negra prostituta tenía derecho de insultarles; / Hoy, como el tiempo ha pasado (...) Francia usa de ambos nombres y ambas obras / Para mayor gloria de Francia y de su arte lógico". A Chet le gustaban con delirio las mujeres, el jazz y el chute. Como a aquel pobre Pacífico Ricaport de un poema de Gil de Biedma, le habían echado a patadas de todos los cuartos de hotel. Pero hoy Chet es un mito, una leyenda, todos coinciden en que la esencia de su vida era un caos incesante atravesado por el genio en estado puro. Se habla de la esencia de su vida, pero se olvida que le hicieron la vida imposible en las salas de jazz cool de la Costa Oeste, y también en Nueva York, y ya no se recuerda que el genio de la trompeta tuvo que ir a tocar a tugurios de Europa donde, convertido en una arruga andante, seguía manejando la trompeta con un virtuosismo y originalidad insuperables. Se le recuerda, sí, pero con la visión deformada de Hollywood, que prepara una gran superproducción sobre su vida y ha pensado -¡Dios nos ampare!- en Leo DiCaprio para que interprete a Chet.
Ayer decidí dedicarle un modesto acto de desagravio. Me compré un panamá -hacía años que quería y no me atrevía a comprarme ese sombrero- y bajé a La Rambla. Al pasar por Canaletas pensé que, digan lo que digan, hay belleza en el paisaje urbano. Luego se lo dije en silencio a Chet, que fue un gran héroe urbano, uno de esos raros seres admirables que saben que hay que jugarse la vida a cada momento porque sino ésta carece de sentido. La vida es como un buen poema: corre siempre el riesgo de carecer de sentido, pero nada sería sin ese riesgo. Pensé en esto y seguí bajando por La Rambla, admirando la belleza urbana. Me dije que también la vida en el campo es estupenda, hay animales que no se ven en las ciudades, se hace fuego en las chimeneas, pero el campo tiene una belleza soporífera. La ciudad, en cambio, es la poesía misma. Un poeta de Nueva York, un amigo de Paul Auster, escribió estos versos sobre la belleza urbana: "Esta brumosa mañana de invierno/ no desprecies la joya verde entre las ramas/ sólo porque es la luz del semáforo".
“Here’s To Life” was never promoted as a concept album, but there is a constant theme that unites the songs into a unified whole. It is not just an album about life and all its resultant ups and downs, but an album about survival. Horn was in her late 50s when she recorded this CD, and the wisdom and experience of maturity comes through in every syllable she sings. Horn never tells us that life is easy; indeed, she acknowledges the difficulties, but insists that life must continue and we must be resilient despite our troubles. Horn, who was well-known for her love of great lyrics, selected all of the songs for the album, so it was no accident that the songs fused together into a coherent theme. Even with the presence of three Mandel songs on the track list, the real catalyst for tying this music together was the title track. Written by Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary specifically for Horn, “Here’s To Life” has a poetic lyric than encapsulates the themes developed later in the album. It has the same autumnal quality as the rest of the album’s lyrics, the implied memories of romances good and bad, and the desire to accept life as it is, while discovering new joys and adventures.
The three Mandel songs (each written with different lyricists) contribute their own angles to the album’s theme. “A Time For Love”, probably the best-known of the three, features the pastoral lyrics of Paul Francis Webster, and celebrates love itself and all of the idyllic memories of young romance. Morgan Ames’ lyric to “Quietly There” is about a love affair on the brink of collapse, and “Where Do You Start”, perhaps the finest lyric creation by Marilyn & Alan Bergman, speaks of the absolute end of an affair, with the incidental properties of a couple being split up as they prepare to go their separate ways. Horn’s measured and thoughtful performances of these songs make us think about the lyrics and what they mean. There’s a little chuckle she inserts after the words a time for holding hands together that implies an entire back story of a long-past romantic memory. On “Quietly There” Horn brings out the subtle changes of context that Ames used in setting the title line, and the matter-of-fact way that she sings “Where Do You Start” masks the deep emotional heartbreak that marks the lyric’s subtext. On “A Time For Love” and “Quietly There”, Wynton Marsalis offers superb, understated solos that perfectly compliment Horn’s vocals. The parts were originally slated for Miles Davis, but the trumpeter died before the recording sessions occurred. One can only imagine how different these tracks would have sounded with Davis in a featured role.
One of the most telling examples of how Horn could transform her material is the album’s penultimate track, “If You Love Me”. The credits and notes fail to acknowledge that the song is an English adaptation of “Hymne á l’Amour”, a song co-composed and performed by Edith Piaf. The song was written to Piaf’s great love, boxer Marcel Cerdan. Piaf premiered the song in a live performance about 6 weeks before Cerdan was killed in a plane crash. She recorded it about 6 months after the tragedy with an overblown arrangement featuring full orchestra and chorus. There is a world of difference between the throbbing, emotional Piaf recording and Horn’s understated, conversational version. Horn’s arrangement starts on the bridge, and she simply asks Shall I catch a shooting star? Shall I bring it where you are? If you want me to, I will as if it was the smallest task imaginable. There is an inevitable buildup to the climax, and while it could be thunderous in Horn’s live trio versions, on the recording, the strings and horns build it up to just the right level and then back off to let Horn take the last lines on her own.
On all but two of the songs, Horn recorded her own trio versions first and then sent the tapes to Mandel for him to arrange orchestral backdrops. Mandel, always the most sensitive of arrangers, made his contributions seamless with the trio. In fact, it’s quite surprising to realize that this album was made on two coasts over the period of several months. While Horn was rather slow in adding the songs to her live repertoire (in a Carnegie Hall concert I attended about a month after the album’s release, Horn’s only performance from the new CD was “Return To Paradise”), most of them became highlights of her later concerts. I remember a thrilling trio version of “Here’s To Life” from a concert at the Kennedy Center (ironically, the title tune was one of the songs from the album where Horn didn’t play piano) and several stunning versions of “How Am I To Know” where the indefinite style of the trio arrangement led to long, exploratory tag endings by the group.
During a 2002 radio interview, Horn heard (apparently for the first time) a remixed version of “Return To Paradise” from the compilation album “Verve Remixed”. The DJ, Mark DeClive-Lowe, isolated Horn’s vocal and set it against an up-tempo electronica beat. Horn complained that he had broken up the melody and gave the remix a resounding thumbs-down. To my ears, the worst parts of the remix are the de-humanized sound of Horn’s voice, and the speeding up of the tempo. Horn was such a personal, conversational singer that the re-equalization of her voice removes all of her essence as a performer. But more disturbing is the tempo. Was DeClive-Lowe saying that young audiences were too frenetic and too impatient to listen to a thoughtful, measured performer like Shirley Horn? If so, they need to learn what Horn can still teach, even from the netherworld. For the art of Shirley Horn was in her infinite patience, and her unique way of making every word count. She was, and is, a master storyteller.
The cheers rang loud and long for Joey Alexander after he had played his last delicate piano chord in a recent sold-out set at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan.
Beaming at his standing ovation, he stood between his bassist and his drummer, intent on taking a group bow. The scene was sweetly comical: The top of his head barely grazed their chests.
Which only made sense, given that Joey, jazz’s latest media star, is 11 years old.
This was far from his first turn in the spotlight. He became an overnight sensation — not too strong a term — with his guest performance a year ago at a Jazz at Lincoln Center gala, which won him rave reviews. His debut album, “My Favorite Things” (Motéma), is out this week, and he is booked for a series of notable appearances in the coming months, including one at the Newport Jazz Festival in August.
Discovered in Jakarta, Indonesia, about three years ago, Joey moved with his parents to New York last year, with the help of jazz luminaries like the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who called him “my hero” on Facebook and with whom he now shares a manager.
It’s all part of the improbable life of a child prodigy. Joey may be the most talked-about one that jazz has seen in a while, though he is hardly alone. There’s José André Montaño, a 10-year-old blind pianist from Bolivia; Kojo Roney, a 10-year-old drummer who had a concert residency last month in Brooklyn; and Grace Kelly, 22, an alto saxophonist who made her first album at 12. The list goes on, with some prodigies developing major careers and others falling short of their early promise.
It is natural to harbor mixed feelings about this phenomenon, and for a critic it’s all but imperative. The acclamation given to musical prodigies usually involves some mix of circus-act astonishment and commodity futures trading. All the attention lavished on them can distort the ecology of an art form, even while bringing encouraging news about its survival. And, as with any celebrated young talent, there is a question of intention: Who benefits most from the renown these performers receive? Is there a way to marvel at mind-blowing precocity without stunting an artist’s development?
Joey looked like a cherub several years ago when his reputation began to build in jazz circles: small in stature, with a thick mop of black hair over a face that still showed traces of baby fat. He is taller now, though the sight of him at a grand piano can still be disconcerting, especially when you hear what he plays.