Stephen Middleton’s review of 2003


CD of the Year / Reissue of the Year

Visitation by Joe McPhee with the Bill Smith Ensemble (Boxholder Records)
     Visitation was, still is, my record of the 80's. Put simply (in a sentence - where Bill Shoemaker's excellent booklet takes, er, a booklet) this compellingly sketches out the possibilities inherent in combining and extending Coltrane and Ayler's ferocity and spirituality with the severity of the AACM. It does it with wonderful instrumental meshes (violin / tenor, etc) and virtuosity, putting it an iota ahead of other such excellent McPhee recordings of this era as Oleo, Old Eyes, & Linear B.

and best CD of newly released music in 2003

Arcanum Moderne by Ellery Eskelin with Andrea Parkins & Jim Black (hatOLOGY)
     This is one of the best groups in improvised music, with Eskelin's beautiful tenor sound interwoven distinctively with Andrea Parkin's accordion. She also plays piano, and makes inventive but discreet use of samples, whilst percussionist Jim Black is wonderfully creative. I saw them at the Vortex, circa 98, and their CD One Great Day* - an epochal concert. This CD finds the cutting edge trio in brilliant form, building lyrical swells in fragmented opuses.

Chicago Tenor Duets by Evan Parker / Joe McPhee (Okka Disk)
     Closely argued duets by two great virtuosi, both underestimated in different ways on this instrument : Evan because his spectacular soprano playing is allowed to overshadow his deeply satisfying tenor work, Joe because of easy comparisons to Albert Ayler (easily exposed as inadequate). This CD shows both men to be absolute masters of the horn in a demanding format. Sometimes lyrical, often severe, occasionally jaunty, fantastically rewarding.

Zephyrs by Satoko Fujii Quartet (Not Two Records)
     Versatile pianist / composer / arranger Satoko Fujii, with trumpeter (
the trumpeter at present?) husband Natsuki Tamura, first heard here, live and on CD (the awesome How Long? (Leo Lab) in duo, here with The Ruins' drummer Tatsuya Yoshida and yawing electric bassist Takeharu Hagekawa in what has become a regular group. Monstrous live - the CD also has crisp themes, savage workouts, ferocious solos, everything from post Miles (reflective / electric) to tango, by musicians gleeful on the cutting edge.

Winter Oranges by Graham Collier & The Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra (Jazzprint)
     Spiky big band music by hugely influential (songs ‘For My Father’, ‘Symphony For Scorpions’, ‘The Third Colour’, etc), vastly under-rated composer, now resident in    Spain. Stretching the form and top European orchestra, characterised by ever-inventive use of guitar in this setting. Some 2004 UK concerts are promised and should not be missed. Ditto this CD.

Let Freedom Ring by Denys Baptiste (featuring Ben Okri) (Dune)
     Adventurous, timely, and the blending of Okri's voice with ensemble works well. Elements of Coltrane, the Caribbean, Mingusian trombones (NB - Estelle, I wrote to you about the war, and now you're trying to get young people to play trombones and tubas with reference to
classical music. What about jazz, the second line / brass bass, reggae, La banda...?). This work runs the gamut as it celebrates / commemorates the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.

Fugace by Gianluigi Trovesi Ottetto (ECM)
     One of the many key figures in Italian New Jazz (other include Giorgio Gaslini, Pino Minafra, & Mario Schiano) mixing traditional and cutting edge, acoustic and electric, Italian and American (and African, significantly - Italy is a Mediterranean county). La Banda and the second line swing into the 21st century in the hands of mighty alto saxophonist / clarinetist and his top notch group.

Sustain by Mat Maneri Quartet featuring Joe McPhee
(Thirsty Ear Recordings / The Blue Series)
     From the much heralded, but occasionally directionless Blue Series, this is one to keep. With Mat Maneri's devastating microtonal viola playing, Craig Taborn coming across as inspired by experiments Miles' keyboard players were essaying in the early 70's and Joe McPhee adding his distinctive soprano, this feels a happier event (not least for the musicians) than some of the others in the series. Hereby hangs a tale or two (one, about buying one of these CDs sorta sums it up. Too long for this round up. I may trouble
Stride with it in 2004).

Double Mirror by Stefano Maltese with Evan Parker, Keith Tippett, Antonio Moncado (Splasc[h])
     Recorded, as a deal of fine music is, at an Italian jazz festival (in 95), this surfaced in 2003. I'm pleased to include it because Evan Parker it was, along with Leo Feigin, who introduced me to Italian New Jazz, which he, like Tippett, and, more recently, Tim Berne, seems to find so stimulating. This, to generalise. is a good example of the less madcap / formal / operatic / humorous strain, being more completely improvised, with two long pieces of great beauty and passion with potent lyricism and rhythmic impulses.

part reissue / part repackage / part new discovery

Monk at Newport 1963 & 1965 (Columbia)
     Monk is generally thought to have been past his best by this stage - and whilst these recordings (about two thirds of which have been available before, but incoherently packaged) don't offer the glories of the 40s Blue Notes or the 50s sessions with Coltrane, or his solo thoughts, they do afford the chance to savour his playing at length in a setting that he loved, and to hear the wonderful experiment that paired him with maverick Dixieland clarinetist Pee Wee Russell in the context of the concert from which it came. If, as Pee Wee concluded, it was not ultimately a successful meeting, it is a truly fascinating failure, worth many a contrived, over rehearsed (they had no rehearsal) ‘successful’ All Star meeting.

BLUES  (1 DVD / 4 CDs)

The American Folk Blues Festival 1962 -1966 (Reelin' In The Years Productions)
     Amazing footage (from Germany). Awkwardly posed on occasion, traditional porches, one million and more miles from either juke joints / country frolics, or Chicago, but redeemed by performances of wonder from Muddy Waters, Sippie Wallace, that great vulture Sonny Boy Williamson 2, Walter ‘Shakey’ Horton, Lonnie Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell,
and with a bonus to cherish; Earl Hooker, legendary pupil of Robert Nighthawk, and often thought to be the greatest blues guitarist of them all - a reluctant singer - heard here singing country in the dressing room and mesmerizing the audience, and his band, on stage, not long before his untimely death.

Fool Me Good by Precious Bryant (Terminus Records)
     There are so many versions of the blues Ur text and so many strains of the blues. Precious, born in 1942, embodies the tradition of part of Georgia. Less raw and insistent than Delta blues (which itself is a diverse beast) she has a fine voice and an easy picking guitar style, though her songs can be wary (of the Devil and other ogres). "I used to play that a long time ago for some older people", she says at one point. Thankfully these songs / this tradition is now preserved.

‘The Roots’: The Soul of Chris Thomas King (21st Century Blues Records)
     As part of what appears to have been the year of the blues, one of the stars of
Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (the song itself is heard here a cappella) plays some of the songs that inspired him. More usually heard fusing blues with hip hop, he performs evocative versions of Skip James's 'Hard Time Killing Floor Blues' and'Cypress Grove', as potent as they are unusual, and guest harmonica star James Cotton takes an awesome turn on Robert Johnson's 'Come On In My Kitchen'. King's originals are fine and he captures Son House's ‘about to explode’ tension - that one body / one studio could barely contain. Excellent.

When Lightnin' Struck The Pine by CeDell Davis and Friends (Fast Horse Records)
     Fine CD by legendary polio afflicted / wheelchair bound guitarist, who has crafted a distinctive sound - fretting a right handed guitar left hand style with a butter knife as bottleneck - here joined by members of REM, The Screaming Trees & The Wayward Shamans. They are in good company - Ornette Coleman was once in his backing group. Earlier CDs on Fat Possum and Wolf, where you can get more information about him, are also worth chasing up. Here the great man talks, tells a joke, name checks Lowell Fulsom and T-Bone Walker, and plays up a wild storm. He also met Sonny Boy Williamson 1, Big Joe Williams, was a friend of Dr Ross, worked with the legendary (see above) Robert Nighthawk, and he and Ornette should play together now. Record of 2004. Any genre. Shoe in.

Skip James Rare & Unreleased Studio Sessions (Vanguard Records)
     Not the greatest Skip James ever, these recordings from 1967, but any is manna from...somewhere. This man had the greatest falsetto ever, was one of the most extraordinary guitarists of the 20th century, and was the quirkiest pianist produced by the blues (an eerie harbinger of Monk - who was also nicknamed Skippy in his youth). Here he concentrates mostly on spirituals and, occasionally, sounds almost happy. At his finest he could be spinechilling. An interesting slant on a man whose 1931 recordings were a major influence on Robert Johnson.


Joe McPhee/Paul Hession, Termite Club, Leeds and Cornerhouse, Newcastle (January)
     By the last two concerts of their tour (see Events) this duo was devastating, and audience reaction was commensurate. Joe McPhee is not only one of the great improvisors, he is also one of the great listeners - this was some of the most involving music that I've ever heard. As Paul Hession, who should be much better known for his all round percussion abilities, from discreet to ferocious and every way station between, put it, ‘I've been playing drums for 30 years and this is a highlight for me’. He's from Leeds. He doesn't often say stuff like that, and when he does... The national press mostly missed the finest tour and best individual concerts of the year. The venues were packed, though, and the audiences were enthralled.

Satoko Fujii Quartet
The Vortex (November, London Jazz Festival)
Zephyros, but more dynamic live. An annual event now, November time - originally as a duo  (see above), now this fabulous quartet two years running. In 2001 the duo was part of a double header with the great Mats Gustafsson Trio. They always seem to be involved in breathtaking concerts. Wonderful musicians both (as are Tatsuya Yoshida and Takeharu Hagekawa) and delightful people. Satoko Fujii is vastly talented, also composing and arranging for big band (South Wind [Leo] and Double Take [Ewe]), and playing in a trio with Jim Black and bassist Mark Dresser (Towards ‘TO WEST’ [Enja]). Natsuki Tamura seems more content just to play, and what a trumpeter he is. Check out How Long? and his solo Song for Jyaki (Leo Lab) and White & Blue (Buzz), with drummers Black and Aaron Alexander.

Wadada Leo Smith with Mark Sanders/John Edwards/Evan Parker/J Spaceman/Spring Heel Jack, Conway Hall, London (March)
     Wasn't sure whether to go to this - slight reservations about the match up of Leo Smith, who I'd never seen live and was very keen to catch, and Spring Heel Jack etc / severe ill health / middle of war sapping morale. All swept aside by the glorious tone and blues inflections (as befits a man born in Leland, Mississippi) of Smith's trumpet and Evan Parker's lines counterpointed against bubbling, rising samples - or descending multiphonics against rising cacophony. An antidote to nightly lies and little green men. Leland smokin' / Baghdad burning down. Smith, a recent convert to Islam, had just returned from Haj in Mecca - beautiful and frightening, he said. That, and the concert, seemed very apposite.

Union Chapel Blues  Robert Belfour/Bettye Lavette (with Pinetop Perkins/Carey Bell), Union Chapel, London (November)
     Robert Belfour is from the same Mississippi hill country that nurtured Jessie Mae Hemphill, Othar Turner, R. L. Burnside, and more. Though now based in Memphis, he retains the raw, hyphotic, trance like idiom of his roots. I first heard him on a Cello / Music Maker sampler (where I also encountered Precious Bryant for the first time) performing a devastating version of of late cohort Junior Kimbrough's ‘Black Mattie’, and I just had to catch him here. Sinewy, beguiling blues, that - lyrics and antecedants - I had to explain to a pewful of white Mississippians next to me (though they, and all around us, loved the groove). I bought the excellent
What's Wrong With You (Fat Possum). Then we were entertained by Bettye Lavette - more soul than blues, but a phenomenal showstopper and, as her finale, she brought on two of the previous evening's stars, the venerable Pinetop Perkins (who pianistically, and politically - he calls George W., ‘The Tree’ ...from the neck still in fine fettle at 85, going on 90) and Carey Bell, the greatest living harmonica player. Bettye herself is of the ‘never knowingly under emotes’ school, but, here, that seemed fitting. The blues men were all magical.

 Ken Vandermark School Days/Oren Marshall & Cor Fuhler, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre (November / London Jazz Festival)
     Ken Vandermark's core achievement has been to hit the ground running, and, in a relatively short career, revitalise the Chicago improvised scene, put it in touch with hot beds of activity in Europe, while simultaneously celebrating some of America's less celebrated wonders such as Joe McPhee, Chicago hero Fred Anderson, as well as the late Frank wright, and, remarkably, the UK's Joe Harriott
(only now getting belated, sadly late, attention here). Ken was heard here with hugely impressive / expressive trombonist Jeb Bishop, a regular cohort,and a brace of brilliant Scandinavians. The use of vibes and a generally more studied feel made this less full throttle but no less fascinating than some of his Free Jazz Classics programmes. Oren Marshall, a marvellous UK tuba player (Estelle), played a quiet and demandingly intense first set with Dutch pianist Cor Fuhler.

The Monk Project, The Monk Liberation Front, Pizza Express FreeStage, Royal Festival Hall (November / London Jazz Festival)
     In which all of Monk’s compositions were played, over 6 hours by a changing cast of expert improvisors. At the heart of the project, pianist Jonathan Gee, saxophonist Tony Kofi ( who blew beyond the call of duty), and composer Philip Clark, who added an original, Monk inspired piece. Only the substitution of Evan Parker, from the original Festival brochure disappointed - how would he have circular breathed, or growled, his way around, say, ‘Misterioso’? - but since his replacement seemed to be the inventive Chris Biscoe all was forgiven. Good to report a sighting of rarebird (these days) brilliant vibesman Orphy Robinson too. A treat. And free.


Joe McPhee/Paul Hession Tour
     Joe McPhee's first visit to the UK for 24 years. Four thrilling concerts in London, Liverpool, Leeds & Newcastle (see above). Joe is a player who responds to his surroundings - in his positioning, movements, stance. Apart from finding these concerts as fascinating as an aural experience, as any I've attended, they were interesting in visual and interactive (non computer sense) ways. That is the joy of seeing improvisors as accomplished as this over a period of days - not just once.

Iron, The Royal Court, London  (Feb)
     A searing prison drame, with Sandy McDade as imprisoned murderess Fay, visited by her daughter, for the first time, after 15 years inside. After putting this list together I learnt that Sandy McDade had won Best Actress in the
Evening Standard Drama Awards. I'm not surprised. I was within touching distance of the cold metallic stage and could feel the anguished energy expended by all the astonishing cast, but especially McDade (there's a hunger strike scene of terrible power). Amazingly there were two performances a day.

Eva Hesse, Tate Modern, London (early 2003)
     I found this far more stimulating than I expected. Things of wonder in some of the smaller pieces as well as the later, tubular, decaying ones. An interesting comparison with Anya Gallaccio in the treatment of ephemerality/decay. It was a treat to see such a quantity of this beautiful (often humorous) work, while it can still be seen close to how it looked when it was created.

After Mrs Rochester, The Lyric, Hammersmith (May)
Evening Standard Award winner (Polly Teale). The company are Shared Experience and Jean Rhys, on whose writing of Wide Sargasso Sea the play is based, was, was wonderfully played by Diana Quick and (young Jean) Madelaine Pottere,but everyone is excellent. There is no room to do it justice here. Some of its themes are people and stories suppressed and liberated. As far as my own obsessions go (mind your own business but...) it always occurs to me, what with her Creole background, rediscovery, ‘kept’ periods, problems with alcohol, occasional jail experiences, belief in voodoo, and her birth date, how closely Jean Rhys’ life resembles those of some of the great blues men and women (even hints of ‘imposters/impersonators’). Appropriated/stolen lives. Discuss. Or not.

Anti War Marches, London  ( Sept 2002, Feb 2003, March 2003, Nov 2003, Central London + local London events)
     I went on four, and various smaller protests. The one big march I missed - I was in hospital having a major league blood transfusion. Not an option for a lot of Tony's victims. Camaraderie, music, costume, witty slogans, inventive transportation, the widest social, age, & racial range I've ever seen in my life, and just
more people than ever before anywhere... And I hate crowds normally. The only thing was - it didn't stop our blood stained, arms dealing leaders from their killing spree. Here's a plan. Next time - don't go past Downing Street. Man wants a Big Conversation. And we could all take a tuba or trombone for Estelle. You're all tainted. Resign. Their man at The UN helped train the 3-i6 Battalion. Half of them are Iran Contra War Criminals. That's who Tony's blood price was paid for - by everyone but Tony. These people go back to My Lai and beyond. I warned you Estelle, I wrote to you a year ago when you were on Question Time and didn't seem to know anything, so I told you about Negroponte, and Poindexter, and Cheney, and you wrote and said it was very confusing but there'd be a UN resolution that'd make it all OK, but there wasn't and now you're back in Government saying you don't know much about music but you'd like kids to play bass instruments - and I'm maybe being a silly person but one day maybe you'll get a job you know something about but, anyroad, thanks for writing back and, hey, let's talk trombones...

            © Stephen Middleton 2003