Do Bagpipes Belong In Jazz?

The Jazzworthy Highland Bagpipe

The Jazzworthy Highland Bagpipe, earlier today.

Sonny Rollins and his band are being filmed playing Ronnie Scotts in 1974. As Sonny introduces Swing Low Sweet Chariot with a brief tenor solo, the camera moves to the man who until now has been playing soprano sax. He is wearing a small white headscarf, a voluminous yellow shirt, a black leather waistcoat, a black and yellow kilt, knee length argyle socks and a pair of brown Jesus sandals. But there is something strange about the picture: he has put down his saxophone, and is now playing…BAGPIPES!

The musician in question was one Rufus Harley, famously the first to make a primary jazz instrument of the Highland Bagpipe. He enjoyed great respect over what felt like a very long recording career, and was quite given to wearing Scottish garb, sometimes topped off with a Viking helmet. His work by no means offered the only recorded use of bagpipes in jazz, however. Dutch saxophonist Peter Bennink was a devil for the things, and Albert Ayler even paired them with an ocarina on one of his acclaim-dodging later albums. But are bagpipes really the most obscure instrument to be used in jazz? As the music has ceaselessly sought to reinvent itself, should we be at all surprised to see the instrumental pallet being broadened somewhat?


Travellin’ light?

Let us go back to 1924, and hearken to the new waxing by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, a rendering of the popular show tune “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind.”  It starts out nicely enough, with Louis Armstrong piping away cheerfully over Sidney Bechet’s soprano sax and Charlie Irvis’ cowshed trombone, and after Eva Taylor’s vocal interlude comes Bechet’s famous contrabass sarrusophone solo. I’m sorry? Beg pardon squire..? The sarrusophone was a double reed brass instrument invented in 1856 to replace the oboe and bassoon in outdoor bands, neither of which carried well in the open air. What Bechet was doing with one is anybody’s guess, but he despatches his solo with pleasing elegance, before allowing the beast to snore contentedly in the background for the ensemble finale.


The Mound City Blue Blowers celebrate getting lucky

The year before, in St. Louis, the Mound City Blue Blowers had formed with just a kazoo, a banjo and a comb and paper. This kind of spur-of-the-moment instrumentation was nothing new – New Orleans was a breeding ground for rough and ready spasm bands at this point – but the Blue Blowers got lucky, had novelty hits, augmented their line up with early luminaries such as Eddie Lang and Jack Teagarden, and their leader, Red Mackenzie, kept the name and some or other form of the band afloat until well into the 30s. The chosen record, Arkansaw Blues, was their first, and according to Mackenzie himself sold over a million copies following its release in 1924, perhaps because it was the first time the full sonic and emotional spectrum of the kazoo/comb-and-paper combination had been so wrenchingly displayed

The simple and untempered delights of swanee whistles, jugs and kazoos also had common currency in Vaudeville, minstrel revues and medicine shows, but if we poke around the darker corners of the homespun instrument department we’ll soon find the stovepipe.stovepipe-1 This was indeed a stovepipe, but bent and tweaked until it could offer some semblance of musical backing to whomever felt their performance might be thus enhanced. And what did it sound like? Well, it sounded like somebody making funny noises into a bendy metal tube, as demonstrated by this 1927 recording by Stovepipe No.1 and David Crockett. (The “No. 1” was presumably adopted to avoid confusion with Daddy Stovepipe, Stovepipe Johnson and Sweet Papa Stovepipe). The stovepipe itself is not to be confused with the gaspipe clarinet, of course, which wasn’t an instrument but a style of playing which was popular in various musical entertainments between around 1910 and 1930.

Wilton Crawley trying not to let on that his legs were tied in a reef knot.

Wilton Crawley trying not to let on that his legs were tied in a reef knot.

It embraced all manner of freak effects, animal noises, laughter, honks, howls and squawks. The players were usually multi-tasking entertainers, comedians, acrobats and what have you – the chap on the chosen record, Wilton Crawley, even doubled as a contortionist. Crawley was a passable singer and a decent musician, despite his occasional lapses into rasping degeneracy, and his bands were invariably studded with gleaming musicians – the pianist here is no less than Jelly Roll Morton!


Yes, Dorothy, you will have to pay two fares on the bus home.

As jazz developed, some surprising music was cajoled from apparently jazz-proof sources – step forward Ray Draper on tuba and Dorothy Ashby on harp. Ashby made the harp her primary instrument in 1952, initially playing free shows, weddings and dances to prove to her fellow musicians that it could be a going concern in a be-bop context. She made a number of successful albums in esteemed company, the best being with flautist Frank Wess, such as the record below (“It’s A Minor Thing”), although her output diminished after she settled in Los Angeles to run her own theatre group. 


Ray Draper and his pocket tuba.

Ray Draper was not the first jazz tubist, but in 1957, aged just 17, he led an album bravely sharing front line duties with John Coltrane, whose self-willed tenor was not to be tangled with at this point. The chosen track sees the two instruments getting along quite amicably on the theme, but their differences become apparent at 3.19, when Draper’s sea monster solo is coming to an end and Coltrane basically pushes him out of the way!


And they say men can’t multi-task

From around 1958 onwards, and especially as the avant garde kicked in, an ever-widening range of instruments was brought into the fold, while new vocabularies were written for familiar instruments. Roland Kirk was known for augmenting his tenor with stritch and manzello – elderly members of the saxophone family – and for playing them all at the same time, bringing novelty and emotional freight in varying measure. This track, from his 1965 album “Rip, Rig and Panic,” shows a fabulous improviser showing off his party trick to tasteful effect. A bit shaky at the end, perhaps, but a small price for such a sterling performance! Sun Ra, a bandleader since the 40s as well as a fierce intellectual and a masterful showman, had pretty much tired of all restraint by 1961, and shortly after moving his band from Chicago to New York his music and its instrumentation moved in ever more challenging directions. Self-released albums with titles like “Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow,” “Other Planes of There” and “Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy” featured things like Jupiterian Flute, Sun Harp, Space Dimension Mellophone and Neptunian Libflecto, to name but a few.

Sun Ra gives it some on Astro Space Organ. Probably.

Sun Ra gives it some on Astro Space Organ. Probably.

Some of these were curios found in thrift shops, while others were modified versions of more conventional instruments, given peculiar names to propagate the current mythology of the band, who always got plenty of good noise out of them whatever they were. This excerpt from Moon Dance (“Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy,” 1963) would appear to feature Sky Tone Drums and Astro Space Organ, but who knows, it could just as easily be a heavily reverb-ed Bontempi!

Albert Ayler

“Axis of melody, rhythm and pure sound?” Are you sure about that? Man, you guys kill me!

Elsewhere in the avant garde, Ornette Coleman had famously formed a pianoless quartet in the late 1950s, with the idea that the absence of a traditional harmonic mooring would allow space for his alto sax improvisations to roam around more freely. Albert Ayler had written a whole new language for the tenor saxophone, based largely on all the sounds conventional playing had sought to avoid, and driven along by sheer energy, as evidenced by the chosen tune (“Ghosts, First Variation,” from Spiritual Unity, 1964) Musicians were now free to stand at any point they wished on an axis of melody, rhythm, harmonic invention and pure sound. Or to make as much noise as they felt like, if you’d rather. In Chicago, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians became wholly consumed by such ideas, not only leaving stuff out, but making funny noises with what was left, and a bunch of their top bananas, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet (soon to morph into the Art Ensemble of Chicago), summed it all up when they made an album called “Sound” in 1966. The album, which sought to explore the notion that the silence in which musical sound was suspended was as important as the sound itself, was actually a record of great historical importance; using conventional instruments to make sounds for which they were not apparently designed, and deploying a battalion of “little instruments,” whistles, bells, ocarinas, melodicas and what not, it paved the way for a far less aggressive expression of the ideas of the free jazz avant garde. But was it still jazz as we knew it? You’d need to listen to the whole album to make your mind up, but here’s an excerpt from “The Little Suite” to whet your whistle…

And on it went. After this it was open season, as any number of artists felt their perfectly decent music was incomplete without a couple of rhythm logs or a handful of finger cymbals. In 1971, saxophonist Marion Brown corralled a top flight band to join him in making an album of improvisations intended to evoke a day in a forest in Georgia, wherein a gaggle of non-musicians added texture and colour by rattling away at some saucepan lids stuck to a board. A while later in Germany, guitarist Hans Reichel invented his own instrument, the daxophone, cheerfully developing an entire mythology around its supposed creator. And for a 1994 tour of Britain with his Creative Music Orchestra, Anthony Braxton had written a piece with a short break for sheet-of-tin-foil-blown-with-hair-dryer! Well, maybe it’s not too far from the comb-and-paper, but have we not come some way from the original question? Having established that virtually anything can have a place in the jazz scheme of things, are we still wary of bagpipes? Only two people can answer this – Rufus Harley and Sonny Rollins, take it away!

Mike Stoddart.

Sonny and Rufus

Charleston Champions vs. Chiswick Chartbusters (Part One).

Two compilation CDs, inadvertently played back to back, struck me as more than vaguely similar. One was of music from the 1920s, the other the 1970s, and each reflected a time when popular music was in a state of flux, courtesy of jazz and punk rock. Both of these genres, of course, were frantically energetic by the measure of their day, and both were composites of other music of similar spirit – blues, ragtime and Vaudeville were just three of the many ingredients of early jazz, while rock ‘n’ roll, pub rock, glam rock and even Music Hall had their place in punk’s gumbo. The CDs in question – “Jazz the World Forgot” and “The Story of Chiswick Records” – offer a fabulous selection of old waxings, and give a wholly unvarnished account of their times. But they also share a striking similarity in the stories behind many of the songs, the background details that delight the musical stamp collectors out there. A lot of these acts were obscure, many of them were frankly peculiar and there was hardly one of them that you’d take home to meet your family, but you’d be hard pushed to view any of them without affection. Here, then, for your delight, delectation and perhaps even sepia-tinged recollection, ten records of different stripe, all cut from the same cloth. And in the time-honoured tradition of the compilation album, there’ll be a Part Two any time now!

(Note to younger readers/anybody under 50: Chiswick Records was an independent record label set up by Roger Armstrong and Ted Carroll in London in 1975. It grew out of Rock On, a Soho market stall that specialised in vital and vibrant music, be it rock’n’roll, soul, rhythm and blues, whatever. It inevitably embraced punk in due course, although it stuck to its original template of releasing hard-edged records for music lovers – colourful, energetic, good-humoured, characterful and occasionally preposterous. What more could a young man ask for? It morphed into the fantastic reissue label, Ace Records, in 1983).

Television Screen – Radiators From Space (1977)

To-Wa-Bac-A-Wa – Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight (1927)

The Radiators From Space embodying the glamour of the 1970s.

The Radiators From Space embodying the glamour of the 1970s.

Radiators from Space were one of the first punk rock bands, and Roger Armstrong from Chiswick records was encouraged by a member of Horslips, surprisingly enough, to go and check them out in Dublin. While he was there he recorded this, the band’s debut single, in a local studio clearly too funky for such fripperies as a metronome. He followed its success by recording their first album in the same manner, thus capturing an important slice of the music’s regional history. In Louis Dumaine’s day (March 7th,Jazzola 8 1927 on this occasion), it was not unknown for music companies to set out with mobile equipment to record the further-flung musicians, preserving great swathes of jazz, blues and country and a whole kaleidoscope of their regional hybrids: this obscure but quite joyful gathering of marching band veterans was captured in New Orleans by engineers from the Victor Recording Company, in the back store room of a music shop on Canal Street!

She’s My Gal – Hammersmith Gorillas (1976)

The Mess – Thomas Morris and His Seven Hot Babies (1926)

Jess Hector (right) had a very clear idea of what he wanted from his music, but a much less clear idea of what he wanted from a hairdresser.

Jesse Hector (right) had a very clear idea of what he wanted from his music, but a much less clear idea of what he wanted from a hairdresser.

Thomas Morris, sans red coat.

Thomas Morris, sans red coat.

The Hammersmith Gorillas were fronted by the self-assured Jesse Hector, a man with a very clear idea of what he wanted from rock ‘n’ roll. Jesse already had over a decade’s experience in music, and had led a number of his own high-octane bands, among them the unforgettable Crushed Butler. His music was direct and exciting enough to earn his band great affection in the vibrant musical environment of 1976/77, dated as it may have seemed as post-punk music took its various paths. Jesse remains active on the more self-contained fringes of rock and roll, and at the time of writing was working as a cleaner at the Royal Horticultural Society.  Thomas Morris, a cornet player similarly known for reliability over innovation, was extensively recorded during the mid-20s, but became less fashionable following the rise of Louis Armstrong. Morris carried on undaunted until the early 30s, after which he spent a couple of years as a Redcoat in Grand Central Station before joining a Christian fundamentalist group and changing his name to Brother Pierre. You couldn’t make it up!

Dirty Pictures – Radio Stars (1977)

Pickett-Parham Apollo Syncopators – Mojo Strut (1926)

The hilariously misnamed Tiny Parham

The hilariously misnamed Tiny Parham

Radio Stars. Well, John Peel and Kid Jensen liked them.

Radio Stars. Well, John Peel and Kid Jensen liked them.

The Apollo Syncopators were the house band in Chicago’s Apollo Theatre in 1926, and as such had a repertoire to suit all occasions, from Vaudeville accompaniments to full-on jazz stompers. The leaders, violinist Leroy Pickett and pianist Tiny Parham, had extensive experience backing blues singers on records, (Parham even cutting a few with the legendary Johnny Dodds), and this recording of the theatre band blends the energetic exuberance of jazz with such stagey details as a wood block solo and a clownish trombone break, all following a cheesily dramatic introduction. Radio Stars had a singer, Andy Ellison, who had been in John’s Children with Marc Bolan in the 60s, and a bass player/songwriter, Martin Gordon, who had been a member of Sparks (don’t say you can’t imagine Russell Mael singing this!) They formed the Stars in 1977, and while they were associated with the punk movement, they bore their wit, pedigree, tunefulness and offbeat humour with a swagger that set them well apart. “Dirty Pictures” begins and ends with corny guitar histrionics, and in between relates the misadventures of an amateur pornographer, by way of amusingly toe-curling rhymes and a breezily timeless power-pop structure. Perfect!

Darling, Let’s Have Another Baby – Johnny Moped (1977)

While You’re Sneaking Out – George McClennon’s Jazz Devils (1926)

Lock up your daughters, it's Johnny Moped!

Lock up your daughters, it’s Johnny Moped!

The jazz devil that was George McClennon.

The jazz devil that was George McClennon.

Lennon/McCartney. Bacharach/David. Ellington/Strayhorn. Berk/Berk/Moped/Toad…Sometimes you don’t need to actually play a record, you can just gaze dreamily at the evocative songwriting credits and let them take you to a magical world. Johnny Moped was an early punk band whose initial line-up featured Chrissie Hynde and the odd member of the Damned, before settling into the classic, DHSS-dodging, non-baptismal roll call of Fred Berk, Dave Berk, Slimy Toad and Johnny Moped himself. Never a band to take themselves too seriously, their shows often bordered on the Vaudevillian – guitarist Toad was given to playing from the top of the PA, dressed only in shorts and wearing a sieve on his head, front man Moped was wont to precede songs with lengthy musings on mediaeval weaponry and on one famous occasion, the group ganged up on their singer and painted him green. George McClennon didn’t just border, he was a fully-fledged Vaudevillian, who, like his adoptive father before him, was a passable comedian who played on the “black-in-blackface” schtick. He was also a clarinettist in the novelty “gas pipe” tradition of the day, (any number of animal sounds and assorted funny noises, all present and correct here) and he would often play while performing acrobatics. Nonetheless, the records still sound quite thrilling, especially the uncredited cornet work on the tune featured here.

Common Truth – Amazorblades (1977)

Florida Rhythm – Ross’ de Luxe Syncopators (1927)

The fate of the teenage Spinners fan.

The fate of the teenage Spinners fan.

Actual Syncopators not pictured.

Actual Syncopators not pictured.

Amazorblades, based in Brighton, released this one appealing pop-punk single – tuneful, but with none of the fury of the day -though their individual musical roots lay elsewhere. One of their number, the late Steve Harris, had played with prog-rock band Woody Kern in the late 60s, while another, Ben Mandelson, had been active on the Liverpool folk scene in his teens and was a fan of the Spinners. Perhaps realising that none of this was very Punk Rock, the ‘Blades split up and the members moved in more interesting directions: Ray “Chopper” Cooper joined the Oyster Band, Mandelson joined world-music pioneers 3 Mustaphas 3 before becoming a well-renowned producer, and Harris formed an improvising jazz ensemble called Zaum, enjoying great artistic success (i.e. he still wasn’t going to give up the day job). The Deluxe Syncopators also hailed from beside the seaside, Miami in their case, and cut eight sides in one afternoon as part of a field recording in August 1927. All of these plumped for old-fashioned melody over the rhythmic drive more common to their time, and twelve months after recording them, the band split up and its members took themselves to more fertile pastures: Edmund Hall became a clarinet giant in his own right, Cootie Williams became a pillar of the Ellington band and Robert Cloud, who wrote most of the tunes, went on to record with “King” Benny Nawahi, the Hawaiian steel guitar maestro.

Part two next week…

Mike Stoddart.

Why The World Needs The Liverpool International Jazz Festival

What musical advantage do Kirkcudbright, Tenby and Nantwich have over Liverpool? What is the seventh string which these and other towns have, which Liverpool doesn’t? A Fab Five, a Crucial Four, Three Tribes or Seventeen Tambourines? No. What they have is an annual jazz festival.

It has long been a source of discomfort for Liverpudlian jazz fans that their city, for all of its compendiously-documented musical history, just ain’t that great for jazz. It’s not totally jazzless – a few hardy souls of robust humour are still honking away in back rooms of pubs – but there’s not much focus to it all and it’s less than extravagantly promoted. This year, however, change is afoot. Neil Campbell at the Capstone Theatre has had a root through the very top drawer of modern jazz to bring us Liverpool’s first International Jazz Festival, with nightly events at that venue from February 28th to March 3rd. From the joyful avant-garderie of Led Bib, to the iron-smelting tenor tone of Denys Baptiste, from the prog-tinged three-man onslaught of the Roller Trio to the formidably imaginative young pianist Kit Downes and the incessantly questing soprano sax of Courtney Pine, the line-up reads like a class register of the A-stream of modern British jazz. Newcomers to the music will find something to turn their heads, no matter what other musical direction they’re approaching it from, old timers will be rubbing their hands with glee, and if there isn’t enough going on already, the brightest local lights will be playing real good for free at various points around the headliners’ sets. All you need to know – for now, at least – is here:

But isn’t jazz dead, you ask, flattened beneath the ample rump of its own history? Well, what do you think? Bear in mind that jazz has always been music of change and surprise, and its every evolutionary shift, from New Orleans to Swing to Bop and beyond, has prompted even its most staunch supporters to pop a couple of pennies over its eyes. Surely if you’ve got to give anything the last rites more than twice you need to ask some serious questions about its mortality, but instead of getting mired in existential debate, let’s just compare two records: “Tiger Rag” (1917) by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band ( and “Deep Heat” (2012) by Roller Trio ( Think on it – both of these records were made by young men in their twenties in the grip of a collective muse, working totally in the moment and worrying unduly about neither the past nor the future; they echo slightly earlier musical idioms (ragtime and progressive rock respectively); they make occasional use of the “freak” sounds of their instruments, and they are both driven along by an infectiously unruly energy. Does that sound dead, or might we agree that, despite the great historical and stylistic gulfs between the two, they are basically the same record? How can modern jazz not be healthy if it sounds so fresh and so alien to new ears while still following the “rules?”

But meanwhile, back at the jazzfest… We’ve seen how events like this, properly supported, can grow and grow. So what is to stop it developing into a celebration of all music that pushes at its own boundaries? Who is to say that in a very few years time we won’t be spending a week in early spring wandering around venues big and small soaking up venturesome sounds, from the outer limits of improvised music and rock to the trouser-seat spontaneity of tight little combos weaving together any number of different musical strands. And Liverpool has never been short of music fans who cock a snook at talent shows and horsemeat homogeneity, who want more, who’d love to see a forum for some of their favourite mind-boggling oddballs, who delight in saying that they’ve never heard such sounds in their life! But above all, they want the city which sparked their inextinguishable curiosity, the city which spawned the Rutles, Sonia, Our Kid and so many others finally to step out from the shadow of Kirkcudbright! Liverpool, your time is now!

Mike Stoddart.

How Art Pepper’s “Smack Up” LP Will Turn You Into A Lifelong Jazz Lover. Probably.


A regular reader, one Dave Gillespie, presented me with a common complaint. He said that much as he enjoyed listening to jazz, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trying to crack a code, that there was a language being spoken in some of the music to which he was not privy. And let’s be honest, he’s right. Any band playing music with an element of improvisation will need its own system of cues and signals, and the musicians can be expected to develop a certain telepathy. It should come as no surprise, then, to hear them seasoning their performance with the odd personal touch. I suspect Dave’s curiosity has been aroused by the blurred line between communication and indulgence, especially if he’s been listening to jazz rock. Really, the only way to figure out if they’re talking to you or to themselves is to keep listening – the line will move back and forth while you’re at it, and it will occasionally seem a lot less blurred, but there are no fast rules and life is short. So if a critic may eulogise, say, a particular Miles Davis solo, don’t doubt yourself if it makes you think of icicles on a window frame. What the hell, he’ll play another solo soon enough and in the meantime the saxophone player might change your life with half a dozen notes!

Still, Dave’s misgivings took me back to my late teens, to wondering why I was becoming so excited by music that sounded like a couple of Spanish waiters having a fight in a busy kitchen. Charlie Parker’s records had obvious charms, their high-speed anxiety recalling the headlong excitement of my beloved punk rock records, but Art Pepper’s “Smack Up” had me entirely beguiled, as if it was taking the back off jazz’s watch to show me how all the parts worked. And his life story couldn’t help but entrance somebody reared on the squalid iconography of rock ‘n’ roll: Pepper spent his entire professional life in the thrall of narcotics, and his career was devastated by the attendant lifestyle. Crimes of every description supported his habit, from armed robbery and burglary down to the theft of a cement mixer, and the 1950s and 60s, which should have been his glory days, were marked by frequent prison sentences and a lengthy (if unconvincing) spell in rehab. He affords himself little mercy in his autobiography, Straight Life, which remains one of the most harrowing tales of the much-mythologised “jazz life”. He re-surfaced in the 1970s, his demons tamed if not entirely beaten, and he became quite the star, with a steady recording schedule and a hectic touring diary that lasted until his death in 1982. The series of albums he made for the L.A.-based Contemporary Records between 1956 and 1960, however, are the enduring documents of a truly great musician, an alto player worthy of Charlie Parker’s crown. Whatever his state of health, Art remained on the money every time he entered a studio, blessing even the most ill-starred session with his fleet-footed improvisation and russet lyricism. What better description of his playing than that offered by a fellow musician: “it sounds like a man crying – it just tears you up.”

And so to Smack Up. Recorded on the 24th and 25th October, 1960, the album sees a further advance on the already high emotional charge of Pepper’s playing style: the repetition and distending of particular phrases,  the finely-judged tensions released by flurries of notes, like he’s finally found the words to say what was bothering him. All five members of the band swing along almost telepathically, Jack Sheldon’s poised trumpet an ideal foil for Pepper’s wounded bluster on an album consisting entirely of compositions written by saxophonists.

Art Pepper – alto sax

Jack Sheldon – trumpet

Pete Jolly – piano

Jimmy Bond – bass

Frank Butler – drums

Smack Up (Harold Land) – a brisk hard bop number, bounced along by Jimmy Bond’s springy bass playing, which moves swiftly into a Pepper solo that can’t wait to get out of the traps. All of the qualities of his style are evident, as the worrying away at a phrase at the beginning gives way, on cue from a couple of piano chords, to more flowing invention. Following brief trumpet and piano solos (note how, playing behind the piano, Butler drops the cymbal fizz and off-beat accents that stoked up the horn solos), Pepper and Sheldon trade fours, displaying their distinctly different approaches.

Las Cuevas de Mario (Art Pepper) – dedicated to and named after one of Pepper’s friends. OK, one of his dealers. The band handles the piece’s intriguing time signature with such ease that it doesn’t immediately sink in that it’s in a then-obscure 5/4. Its crab-like gait is propelled pretty much by Bond’s bass, with Butler’s drums adding percussive colour while Pepper floats effortlessly around the rhythm. Sheldon’s solo starts at a point where understated becomes merely undercooked, however, and despite waking up a few bars later, he still sounds a little bemused.

A Bit of Basie (Buddy Collette) – a breathlessly propulsive piece driven by Butler’s implacable drums and by Pepper’s urgent soloing, rich with his trademark note repetitions and bending, stretching phrases. Jolly’s riffing solo echoes Basie’s own economic piano style, building great tension by means often as simple as nagging away at one single high note, and the piece bows out with Pepper and Butler swapping fours to thrillingly exciting effect.

How Can You Lose (Benny Carter) – an amiable, swinging stroll which originally appeared on Carter’s “Jazz Giant” album.  The blues-drenched chord changes elicit a fairly straightforward but friendly solo from Sheldon, who is clearly enjoying his most comfortable moment.

Maybe Next Year (Duane Tatro) – even at this slow tempo, Pepper’s wistful playing is keenly communicative – note how the piano player stands aside after just eight solo bars – and every note he plays seems to have been carefully picked from the stave at some perfect moment of emotional ripeness. The rest of the band keep a low profile on this one, leaving us free to admire in stark relief Art’s yearning and vibrato-rich performance. Not one for the cynics!

Tears Inside (Ornette Coleman) – by the time this album was recorded, Ornette Coleman had a fearsome reputation as a doyen of the avant garde, thanks to his piano-less quartet and harmonically free melodic conception.  There’s not much to be scared of here, however. Pepper handles the tricksy theme as though it was a nursery rhyme, and it comes as some surprise to hear Sheldon shadowing him with such ease. It doesn’t last; the performance resolves itself into a fairly straightforward twelve-bar pattern following the theme, and Sheldon, who enjoyed a parallel career as a stand-up comedian, takes a solo that initially suggests he’d forgotten which job he was on. Following solos from the rest of the band, Pepper and Sheldon lock horns most effectively, meshing wonderfully over a return to the theme to end the album on a high.

A follow-up album, the appropriately-titled “Intensity,” was recorded just a month later – shortly after recording “Smack Up,” Pepper was arrested for drug possession, and his benign producer at Contemporary, Lester Koenig, gave him the date to help towards the cost of his bail. He was imprisoned for three years, Koenig patiently shelving the album until his release, and that was pretty much it for Art Pepper in the 60s. Let us be thankful for the many fine albums he made while his reckless lifestyle wasn’t getting the better of him!

Mike Stoddart.

“The Bollocks” To Be Minded At All Costs

How daft do we think people are..?

There’s been much discussion lately about “de-mystifying” wine: does the traditional wine vocabulary still have any great relevance, or does it merely obfuscate; does it deter people from the specialist shops; did it ever make a ha’porth of sense, anyway? You know the sort of thing. But has nobody given any thought to the intelligence of the wine drinker, or to where “de-mystification” – especially by specialists – will leave them? The issue could raise lengthy debate, but for now I’ll address it by way of a tasting event I hosted recently…

A large group of good-natured people are quietly weighing up the first of eight or so wines on display, and I ask them what they think. There is a wide range of knowledge and experience in the room, but one or two people seem to think I’m expecting a “wine buff’s” response, and a few more simply look worried. Diffidently, one of them breaks the ice: “it’s quite nice, yes. Fruity.”

“Certainly is! Any advance on fruity?”

But of course. There always is. Not immediately, but the snowball is rolling. Throughout the evening, conventional wine terms garner differing responses, even from the shy ones, and it is clear that people are aware not only of what I’m talking about, but of what I might be talking about. Neither the meanings nor the ambiguities are getting past anybody!

“How would you describe the nose on this, Mike?”

“Well, I’d be inclined to agree with the producer’s note, and say it was quite elegant.”

Another voice: “Is that ‘elegant’ in the sense of ‘not smelling of much?'”

“Er, yes, elegant can imply pleasing restraint, but I take your point that in this case it might be used in its, ah, ‘unassuming’ sense…”

“Well it must have an elegant palate as well, because it doesn’t taste of much either!”

And we’re off. As the evening wears on, the language of wine is deconstructed. “Flinty” becomes “pungently smoky,” “steely” becomes “painful,” “velvety” comes to describe a merciful antidote to the steely and flinty wines. Terms like “volatile acidity” invite as piquant a variety of responses as can be imagined! “Cat’s pee,” however, remains cat’s pee, and we find much to agree on – acidity can make a fruity wine a little more interesting, if a little less fruity, and tannin, while reassuringly indicative of longevity, can make it even less fruity. It can also turn a “soft finish” (a pleasant lingering aftertaste) into a “dry finish” (a vicious, lingering afterburn).

As we approach the end of the evening, we spotlight a couple of mightily impressive showstoppers from an esteemed Australian winery. As luck would have it, I have the winery’s own rather florid blurbs to hand, which I suspect will elicit a colourful response…

“You realise, don’t you, that you are sampling the ‘serious side’ of Grenache?” The desired effect is instantaneous. “Is that the side that sits in the house all day listening to Pink Floyd albums and thinking all the other wines are a shower of big soft kids?”

“It is also, it says here, ‘a thought-provoking wine.'” Again, I didn’t have to wait. “They’re spot on there, Mike – it’s provoked me into thinking I’d be crackers if I paid thirty-five quid for it!”

And for a final shot, squinting theatrically at the small print: “you will already have noticed its – let’s see – ‘loud fruit,’ and I’m sure its ‘huge length’ will have you struck dumb for a moment…” No. Not even for a moment. “There’s a job going for a proofreader?”

Of course, the effort to describe wine will occasionally result in some misguidedly picturesque language, and anybody who claims he can taste caramelised lemon zest in a wine is no less deranged now than ever he was. But where will “de-mystification” take us? Away from the odd bizarre, if well-intentioned, attempt to describe and share some massive personal impact? To a place where rows of wine are graded from “fairly decent” to “doubleplusgood,” by way of “gerrit down yer neck?” The wine vocabulary is a part of the wine experience, and it will grow as the wine lover’s journey progresses. Without encouragement he will simply walk in circles. Did Charlie Parker muscle his way around chord progressions before leaping off the top note into a whirlwind of improvisation, or did he play dead fast and that, like? Over the years, I’ve considered him to have done both, and much more besides, and while in that time I’ve responded differently to various approaches to jazz criticism, they’ve all added to my understanding of the music. Have we really abdicated our equal responsibility to the wine lover?

Those of us in the wine trade owe it to ourselves to grace something we love with some effort to convey its delightful indefinables. But we surely owe the same to others. To the wine growers, who spend the whole year fussing over crops in the quest for perfection. To the winemaking teams, working indescribable hours throughout the harvest and beyond to bring a thoroughly enriching experience to our table. And to the customers, their intelligence, curiosity and humour abiding all of the trends of the trade. They really are quite nice!

(An edited version of this article was published in Harper’s Wine and Spirit Magazine’s online edition:

Post Punk Liverpool: Ten Tales of Tea Shop Delirium.

1976. An eccentrically creative theatre director, Ken Campbell, has chanced upon Robert Anton Wilson’s “Illuminatus!,” a brain-tangling trilogy of novels examining colossal conspiracy theory in minute detail. It strikes Campbell as ideal for theatrical adaptation, and it becomes the source text for an imminent production. He puts the idea to a local set designer, Bill Drummond, who asks, incredulously, which part of the massive book he intends to focus on. “All of it,” comes the reply. “What else?”

Inspired by an arcane number theory, work begins on dividing the unwieldy opus into five plays, each play consisting of five acts, each act lasting 23 minutes. It is scheduled to open on November 23rd. Five cast members were forced to pull out due to injury at the eleventh hour. Or would that be the 23rd hour? Bill Drummond has to set the stage for many hours of intricately bizarre drama. But of course, it wouldn’t be happening in a conventional theatre. It’s happening in the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, part of the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun. This was a creative nexus on Mathew Street, the brainchild of local poet Peter O’Halligan, who believed it to be at the spot Carl Gustav Jung was dreaming about when he declared Liverpool to be The Pool Of Life. Earlier that summer, the school had hosted the first of its festivals dedicated to Jung, and Mathew Street rang to the music of a theatrical local rock group, Deaf School, and a newly-formed Art College band called Albert Dock and the Codfish Warriors. The Alberts’ bass player took to the stage by abseiling down the front of the building, dressed in full skiing outfit, while audience and participants alike enjoyed jumping in and out of a skip full of custard, laid on specially for the purpose of jumping in and out of. Welcome, dear friends, to Liverpool, where even Punk Rock might have wondered what on earth was going on…

For all of its excitements, Punk Rock became even more fascinating when added to the exotic stews of home grown weirdness cooked up in the provinces and served to people who cared little, if at all, about what might have been going on in the capital: poets and potherbs, tosspots and troubadours, shamen and shitehawks, but always, always, impassioned music lovers of every stripe. Late 70s Liverpool, then, was a blessed and magical place to be a music-obsessed mid-teenager; it’s one thing to be discovering your own music at that age, but to see its movers and shakers in the middle of town felt like something else altogether. How lucky was the music fan who could buy the NME’s Single of the Week in a shop where it’s creator would be hanging around the end of the counter? Was this ever going to happen to kids from Loughborough? Similar things may have been going on in other cities, but as the man said, neither of their bands were any good! Liverpool’s musical history has been documented more thoroughly elsewhere, of course, but for now, some fondly-remembered snapshots of an age, and half an hour of unique and hopefully diverting music.

(Technical note – this piece uses Youtube clips instead of MP3 files. I hope you’ll excuse the minor inconvenience, and agree that it’s far better than bugging the artists).

Suffice to Say – Yachts

The Yachts look forward to a skiing holiday

Yachts evolved from Albert Dock and the Codfish Warriors, and it was their bass player, Martin Dempsey, who had abseiled on to the stage in skis during the Jung festival. They specialised in whacking out witty, catchy pop songs, chivvied along by a Farfisa organ, and the delightful “Suffice to Say” could have been given an equally good home by Sparks or the Kursaal Flyers. When they split in 1981, their members moved variously to It’s Immaterial, The Christians and Pink Military, Dempsey eventually becoming a music teacher while pursuing various other projects. He now plays with the raucously energetic Gentle Scars, wonderfully theatrical fun in glorious defiance of the band’s collective age of 427 years.

Iggy Pop’s Jacket – Those Naughty Lumps

Four fifths of Those Naughty Lumps heave a sigh of relief at not having to wear The Pullover.

And on the bass guitar, Martin “Armadillo” Cooper. Martin took over Aunt Twacky’s Tea Shop in the Pun School building, and re-named it The Armadillo Tea Rooms. It remained a creative nexus. Colossal pots of Good Old Rosie Lee would last for hours, fuelling the fervid imaginations of any number of local dreamers, musicians of real or imagined ability who would convene in varying number and construct bands which might never play a gig/write a song/actually meet each other. Of course, it was also a place where more realistic and successful ideas were nurtured, a petri dish for imaginative alchemy, a first step to global renown, in which case food was also available. The self-effacing Those Naughty Lumps formed in 1976, and enjoyed regular gigs around Liverpool and the Wirral, often by invitation. Iggy Pop’s Jacket, recorded in 1978 and one of the first releases on Zoo Records, offered two minutes of good clean fun, and a reassuring indication that the better Liverpool bands maintained a degree of humility and a sense of humour. Their follow-up record was even longer, and a 2012 Lumps reunion remains an ongoing threat. Martin Cooper was a far better chef than he was a bass player, and he has long enjoyed a position of great respect in Liverpool’s culinary arena. Maybe if we all eat enough he’ll be too busy for the band to get back together.

Big in Japan – Big in Japan

Ye Gods, this was inept even by the measure of its day (November 1977). What lyrics it seems to have are screechingly indecipherable and its infantile melody soon becomes almost hallucinatory. After a minute and a half it falls apart and starts all over again, finally ending with a bit of vaguely oriental piano noodling. Needless to say, it’s one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records ever made! Singer Jayne Casey ran a clothes stall in the aforementioned Aunt Twacky’s, so when Roger Eagle opened a new club across the street she was well placed to form a group with some of its regulars, which famously included Ian Broudie, Budgie, Holly Johnson and Bill Drummond. By 1978, having learned how to write words and music, they had no option other than to disband. Jayne took her new-found skills to Pink Military Stand Alone, before becoming an integral part of many of Liverpool’s cultural milestones. From her hefty catalogue of achievements we could choose the global success of Cream and the artistic directorship of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year in 2008. She is to be applauded for building upon the Eric’s legacy and not merely squandering it.

Sleeping Gas – the Teardrop Explodes

Ethereal it might be, but it’ll do you no good.

Perhaps the archetypal Liverpool record of the time, an NME Single of the Week and a John Peel favourite. Alongside Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes played their earliest gigs in Erics, with just two or three songs, three or four chords and a million ideas. Making a virtue of their limitations, this, their debut single, revolves around Julian Cope’s repeated five-note bass pattern, a single chord played on a tinny organ by Paul Simpson, Mick Finkler’s two-chord guitar loop and some opaque, even nonsensical lyrics. Really, it should have drifted into a bad Syd Barrett out-take, but Gary Dwyer’s drums turn it into a little miracle, keeping the simple mechanics turning over like an antique music box, and making the whole band sound like a bunch of kids making something brilliant out of spare parts. This was another release on Bill Drummond and David Balfe’s Zoo label, and weighing the quality of the record against the frugality of its resources, you have to wonder just how much Drummond learned from designing “Illuminatus!” with bits and pieces.

(Context note  – Sleeping Gas was released in the same month, March 1979, as Breakfast in America by Supertramp!)

Touch – Lori and the Chameleons

Balfe and Drummond were shameless lovers of great and glamorous 60’s pop records, especially girl groups, and took it upon themselves to make one of their own. Christening themselves The Chameleons and recording a backing track, the story goes that they drafted in an exotic-looking girl called Lori Larty who they’d seen hanging around the Armadillo and Eric’s, and wrote some lyrics around her memories of a holiday in Tokyo. It was brilliant! If the Liver Birds had made an album, this would have been Polly James’ feature song. It was snapped up by Sire Records, who reissued it with a picture on the cover of Lori holding a balloon, and it reached the lower end of the charts. Another single followed, The Lonely Spy, with a big production and a James Bond soundtrack feel to it, but Lori took herself off to art college and there were no more records. It was left to another Eric’s regular to build upon the tradition that had started with The Vernons Girls…

Electricity – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Paul Humphries wonders what Andy McCluskey is trying to tell him.

Paul Humphries wonders what Andy McCluskey is trying to tell him.

These were the days when marketing could wait until the ideas had been hatched, the music written and the teapot drained. Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries had met in primary school on the Wirral, and during the mid-70s played in various local groups, including Equinox and Pegasus. Yes, the mid-70s. In 1977, when the lure of their beloved electronic music finally became irresistible, they formed an eight-piece band called the Id, sidelining as a weirdo synthesiser duo called VCL XI (taking their name, of course, from a picture of a valve on the cover of a Kraftwerk LP). The Id had no shortage of gigs, but split due to musical differences in 1978. McCluskey briefly assumed vocal duties with Dalek I Love You, but, fearful that their daft name may take them nowhere, he rejoined Humphries to form Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Electricity, their debut single, was released in 1979 on Manchester’s Factory label, and remains one of the few great pop records to concern itself with hydro-electric power. A major label soon recognised the band’s commercial potential, and their 1980 debut LP was fresh and immediate and rightly successful.  Their second LP, therefore, had a duty to start with a jaunty hit single about a plane dropping an atom bomb, before offering eight more pieces in declining order of melancholy, culminating in “Stanlow,” a stately paean to an oil refinery in Cheshire.

After enormous and lasting success, OMD called it a day in 1996. Andy McCluskey, by then having learned a thing or two about strings of irresistible hit records, took responsibility for the Liverpudlian girl group tradition and launched Atomic Kitten!

Have One Yourself…

A piece like this can’t begin to be exhaustive, and may be judged by its omissions. Liverpool, then as ever, had a huge number of bands, not all of them Eric’s regulars; some had cut their teeth at places like the Moonstone or Stairways, or by playing third on the bill to the Edgar Broughton Band at the Stadium, and they are a chapter in themselves. A lot of them went unrecorded, or were unjustly neglected, or wished to avoid the “hip Liverpool band” tag. Still more were just plain terrible. So now’s your chance to have one yourself, as it were, to take five minutes for your very own Youtube trawl. Maybe you didn’t like the Teardrop Explodes, perhaps you preferred the proto-metal of Marseille, or the electrifying, primal rock ‘n’ roll of Lies All Lies, or maybe you had to pretend to enjoy a lousy band because your cousin played the drums. Whatever, now’s your chance to go and wonder what happened to them all while you scour the Internet for Torchy and the Moonbeams, or 29th And Dearborn, or even Supercharge!

(Since you asked…the singer of Marseille arrived at a successful TV career as the host of Art Attacks. The late drummer from Lies All Lies became a world class musician, first joining Dogs d’Amour and then the Quireboys. The band’s singer, James John Turner, took his commanding stage presence to the Electric Morning before opening a studio/rehearsal centre in Liverpool, to nurture new talent. He now makes fine solo albums that come in to wild acclaim in Europe and the USA)

Yes To The Neutron Bomb – The Moderates

And down it comes to dumb luck… The Moderates started as something of an ad hoc outfit, (an “arts band”, according to Pete Burns), revolving around the Everyman Bistro and some of its staff. Inspired to some extent by Deaf School’s theatricality, gigs would involve poetry readings, the odd novelty song and the lengthy ramblings of one Dame Looney. Soon enough the line-up settled and the band became a tighter outfit, ditching the peripherals to focus on the songs and swiftly releasing a well-received EP. Then everything that they’d want to happen, did –but all at the wrong time. A planned John Peel session fell foul of a Musician’s Union dispute; a Melody Maker feature didn’t go to press thanks to a Fleet Street strike; an interested major label got cold feet about a song parodying sexism. Yes to the Neutron Bomb, eh… was any other band better qualified to sing about things blowing up in their face?

A suddenly-hectic recording schedule – demos, a Peel session, another single – brought tensions within the band to a head, and with cruel irony, they split up, on account of everything going right. But not before they played to a crowd of over 200 in the confines of the Armadillo Tea Rooms, on the same night as a young Dublin group, playing the UK for the first time, struggled to attract 60 people to the club across the road. Should the Moderates have been bigger than U2? Well, for one night they were, at the very least…

Seven Minutes to Midnight – Wah! Heat

Pete Wylie gets ready to nip out for a pint of milk.

It would be gratifying to think that all of the records in this piece, like good wines, are imbued with certain qualities of their birthplace, offering some or other vision of their genesis. By this token, Wah! Heat’s Liverpool would be a place where you’d do well to hurry up. It was a neglected and occasionally dangerous place by the end of the 70s, and it was already clear that the newly-elected Tory Government wasn’t about to stop the rot. Wah! Heat managed to capture much of the city’s anxious urgency and embattled pride, and their early records, sounding like they were running from one apocalyptic dread into another, came across like terrace chants for Camus fans. And they were loud! For all his cavilling about rock’s traditions, Pete Wylie led the noisiest and most rocking band of them all, plainly enthralled by the viscerality of the Big Beat. And yet he scarcely needed a band to fill a room – Wylie was an incessant barrage of ideas and opinions, and everywhere he went was his court. He was fast, he was ebullient, sometimes he was brash and he was unshakeably convinced of his own legend, but the early recordings – one album, a handful of singles and an epochal Peel session – pretty much bear him out. Maybe Liverpool didn’t need a Johnny Rotten, but it was certainly blessed with its own Jelly Roll Morton!

Subsequent records by Wylie’s various incarnations enjoyed more lavish production and chart success. The messages stuck fast, however, and many of them now sound like latter-day Liverpudlian folk songs, uplifting, defiant and deathless. He’s still performing regularly and keeping any number of fine compositions under his hat, and he’ll never be written off.  Would we want him to be?

Revolutionary Spirit – The Wild Swans

“You look like a star, but you’re still on the dole” – Ian Hunter, “All The Way From Memphis”

After a year or so of punk rock, leather and gob, Fancy Dans were more than welcome!

And who looked more like a star than Paul Simpson, the Baudelaire of Bold Street? Simpson formed the Wild Swans in 1980, with Jerry Kelly and Ged Quinn, a little while after his departure from the Teardrop Explodes. They weren’t really given to the sweaty dues-paying expected of a young band, and some of their early gigs carried a distinct sense that something unique was happening. Indeed, it was – a bunch of well turned-out young rakes playing in a venue that didn’t have drain problems, rodents or sticky carpets was not yet a regular occurrence. Revolutionary Spirit, with Pete de Freitas of Echo and the Bunnymen on drums, sounded just like they looked – distinguished, dissolute, esoteric and frankly posh, even though not a single one of them had a proper job. And here we find the essence of all the music featured here, a common thread to all of these Oxfam Rimbauds, thrift shop Keefs and quid-deal decadents. Punk may have got them out of the house, but it was the place it sent them to that mattered; somewhere altogether stranger and more wonderful, where Language, Music, Dream and Pun were all far more important than making a living, where they could do or be anything they wanted, where they could shoot at the moon while sleeping on the floor. And where they could drink plenty of tea.

Mike Stoddart.

Anybody seeking the flavour of Liverpudlian music fandom in the pre-punk 1970s is encouraged to have a rummage around Craig McIntosh’s warmly accommodating Liverpool Stadium website: