How Many Albert Ayler Albums Does One Man Actually Need?

A quick flick through the pile tells me I need seventeen. Hang on, are we including the box set? Twenty-six it is, then! Sorry? Oh, “actually need?” That’s different from “has hoarded,” is it? Hmm, don’t like the sound of this…

You’d think either figure would offer a more than reasonable grasp of the achievements of a musician whose recording career was as brief as that of the Beatles. But who’s talking about reasonable graspers? We’re talking about the musical accumulators here, those who might struggle with the “actually need” element of the question. I’m sticking with seventeen for Albert for the time being, but that might change…



A super feller, apparently

Stranglers Pink EP

One of the real reasons for the advent of the CD


Accumulating music was a lot less complicated when I was a youngster. There was vinyl. That was it, more or less. Vinyl was finite, at least, although a friend’s purchase of three differently-sleeved copies of “I Don’t Need To Tell Her (I’m A Super Feller)” by The Lurkers may have suggested otherwise. There were cassettes too, which enabled the devout accumulator to stockpile a huge private armoury of John Peel sessions, but which lived in the constant peril of mechanical fatality. And be honest, they could never compete with  a dodgy pink vinyl EP by the Stranglers, or a French bootleg 7-inch by “Le Velours Souterrain,” which cost 20p in a junk shop. The advent of the CD meant that whatever obscure tune had necessitated a pink EP could take its rightful place among the bonus tracks, where it could be safely ignored by all but the frankly unwell. But nonetheless, anybody with a more esoteric preference might still have found it unevenly represented in provincial record shops, where the offering may or may not have prompted further enquiry. Not that further enquiry was necessarily the best seed to sow…

Purchased in a junk shop, apparently...

Who would believe this was bought in a junk shop?

It was sown in my own mind quite early on, as my affection for Punk Rock grew in proportion to public disapproval. The singles box filled up nicely (only two by the Lurkers, mind you), but LPs would have to wait until I was emancipated from the domestic chore economy. Full-time employment, then, set me on a path which often crossed that of the accumulator, and few things encountered en route illustrate the journey quite like my fondness for the chastening racket of an avant garde saxophonist from the 1960s…

Albert Ayler 1966-6

Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village

A torrential outpouring of baffling noise, earlier today.

The first Albert Ayler album I ever bought was a vinyl copy of “Live in Greenwich Village,” a torrential outpouring of baffling noise from 1966, with a matching cover. Needless to say, it was the greatest record I’d ever heard, and similar was required as a matter of urgency. Local stores carried a mere few of Ayler’s less essential albums: one made in Denmark with a band he’d never met before, another with a trumpeter who didn’t know what was going on, and a soundtrack LP to a forgotten art house film. True, all of these offered the required baffling noise in varying degrees of tumult, but his definitive recordings were still missing in action, especially “Spiritual Unity,” (June 1964), his defining work and the album that could get a space alien to understand free jazz. But once it was found and digested it all suddenly made sense, as surely as “God Save The Queen” defined punk’s chaos to an excitable teenager! The clueless trumpeters and baffled pick-up bands on early records became signposts on a road to Damascus, the cellists and harpsichord players on that came later now seemed like obvious developments of an art of which he was the true master. Every Ayler record in the racks suddenly had a place in a historical scheme, and suddenly I “actually needed” all of them. An album of tortured spirituals recorded in a loft in Manhattan? Yes please! A one-sided LP of assault-and-battery racket with his brother squawking at inhuman velocity on trumpet? What else! Mono recordings made on a portable cassette player in a Bowery hovel full of drug dealers? Accept no substitute!

Albert Ayler's defining half hour, and a definite free jazz album. For some, the road to Damascus started here. For others, it didn't.

Albert Ayler’s finest half hour, and a definitive free jazz album. For some, the road to Damascus started here. For others, it didn’t.

What chance does the zealous convert have at a time like this, how can he end up with anything but a big pile of music? In due course more reissues were snapped up as they appeared, CDs were bought to replace LPs, new versions of CDs were bought to replace the old CDs that had been bought to replace the LPs, and all of these digital formats were eventually stored on the hard drive – well, you remember what happened to the cassettes! And still more music reappears, his debut recordings with a mystified Scandinavian band, live concerts from just days before his death in 1970, his very last official album, which had bagpipes on it. But I’ll save those for later – what do you think I am, crazy? And anyway, show me the Velvet Underground fan who, surrounded by nearly every note they ever played, actually owns a copy of their very last, Lou Reed-less album…

The Original Memphis Five

The Original Memphis Five enjoy taking due precedence over Pink Floyd.

But should we scoff? After all, accumulators amass all this stuff because they’re curious, because they love it enough to take a chance on something they’ve never heard before, because they might not hear it on the radio, because until recently they couldn’t just listen online. None of this stuff is sold to them, as such – indeed it’s their constant nagging that governs the outer limits of the reissue market. Not for them the six-disc box set of Dark Side of the Moon while they’ve never heard a record by The Original Memphis Five, nor the Amazon review when they could just talk to somebody in a shop. And they want to share it with you, whether you ask them or not – you want a mixtape, the accumulator is on the case immediately!

You do not own this album. Nobody does.

You do not own this album. Nobody does.

If we follow their manias, they’ll take us down little back alleys to specialist shops full of jazz records, or reggae, or whatever, and they’ll talk at length to the chap behind the counter who will have found them a shellac 78 by the Original Memphis Five , or a white label pre-release 12-inch by Doctor Alimantado, or even a Dutch Lurkers single, because, well, that’s what they’ve always done. And somewhere in their ranks lie the future historians, the writers, the archivists, the people who will quietly keep all this stuff alive while buying music becomes as thrilling as buying a pint of milk.

So, how many Albert Ayler albums does one man need, again? Twenty-six, just for starters…

Unavailable For Download In Your Area.

“Whaddya mean, you’ve never heard of Prag VEC? What’s the matter with you?”

Everybody who works with people younger than themselves has had this very conversation, perhaps more than once. This time it prompted me to ferret about for my own ancient Prag VEC single, in breathless anticipation of its rosily-recalled excitements. But I’d lost it. Damn! An internet trawl for a download drew a blank, not just on this but on a variety of other tunes  which once seemed as natural to me as the weather. It became apparent that a lot of music which may once have been considered a little obscure now appears, in the sunshine the digital age, to be hopelessly obscure. Legally, at least. Whither late-70s DIY pioneers the Desperate Bicycles, The Dogma Cats, Doberman Pullover? Footnotes to a forgotten John Peel show at best, and obscure enough to make Prag Vec appear bigger than The Beatles. Of course, the bands themselves may be responsible for this, and in some very terrible cases it’s possible that even the internet can’t be bothered with them, but for now let’s have a look at the forgotten stuff at the very back of the cupboard…

The Brinjal Fusiliers – Bantam Pagoda (1983)

An Indian punk band, writhing with all the venom of their western forebears. The B-side is, to all intents and purposes, the same song, but even faster. They appear mainly to be shouting about gay rights, or the lack thereof, in their home country, although a lot of the lyrics are indecipherable, if only to keep them out of trouble.

Crust – The Madness of Mountains, Parts One and Two (1980)

Formed by students in Aberystwyth, Crust became the embodiment of the hard-working, hard-touring heavy rock band, playing admired but seldom trendy venues like Liverpool’s Moonstone. On this evidence, their music was something else, the single fading in to a series of slow, earths-core guitar riffs that don’t develop as much as just, well, exist. The lyrics are an occasional but indistinguishable wail, and after four minutes or so the whole lot fades out, only to resume on side two. One suspects Crust were an “albums” band, so it was a shame that nobody asked them to make any. Legend has it that the band split up on the day their van died, their most useful member.

The Spenglers – Get A Grope On Yourself (Exi-Disque, 1977)

Three art students from Toulouse shrilling over an oddly familiar churning riff. Some people thought that this miniscule French-only release was the work of a University-educated British band having a laugh at the accusations of sexism that were regularly levelled at them. Even more people thought it was somebody having a laugh at the band, which was far more likely. And very easy.

Doctor Trumble’s Brain Emporium – the Lovable Onion (Callymazoo Records, 1986)

A reissue of a “Freakbeat” record from 1968. Bill Fleet of Callymazoo Records, a lifelong collector and archivist of 60s music, had for some time enjoyed unrivalled access to the vaults of many record labels, and his dust-downs and reissues have done much to enrich our understanding of the music of the day, whether we’ve asked for them or not. Doctor Trumble himself – Derek Treble, as he was baptised – worked by day as a pharmacist in Earl’s Court, and as such was popular with many of the scenesters of the time. This, their one flop single on Deram,  featured cameos from a host of session luminaries, all of whom had forgotten about it by the time they’d repaired to the pub. The Doctor now lives quietly in West London, his musical legacy limited to this forgotten 45 and a long-deleted compilation album shared with the likes of the Crocheted Doughnut Ring and Gertie Himmler’s Infinite Potato.

Gramsci’s Hourglass – County Road Fantasia b/w Birko Meffs (1985)

An early effort to rehabilitate drug offenders by the medium of popular song, recorded pseudonymously by a Liverpool band mired in narcotics abuse. Inexplicably, it was funded by the Government, and, perhaps more explicably, it was lousy. Although it failed hopelessly, there were some lessons learned, but not as many as there were instruments nicked and budgets fiddled. The band’s members largely faded from view, but their singer/accountant/removals man, operating under a variety of names, now administers, specialising in sartorial and home interior options for the chemically unpredictable.

Dobermann Pullover – Live At The Rat Club, 1979 (Cassette Only)

In the wake of punk, a lot of ideas were bandied about as to how to change the music industry. Most of these were terrible, but none so bad as the cassette-only release. Usually issued by bands incapable of self-editing, these would normally consist of a sloppy gig recorded on a portable cassette recorder from the back of the room. In mono. This mess was chucked up when the band played fourth on the bill to Throbbing Gristle and the Good Missionaries at London’s Rat Club’s Second Annual Festival of Revulsion. It consists of half a dozen lengthy, unmusical and hectoring improvised dirges, entirely in keeping with the rest of the evening’s menu, and was apparently a “limited release.” Whether it was the supply or the demand that was limited has, like the band, long been forgotten.

Barrington Camp and His Cyclones of Syncopation – Singing In The Bathtub (1957)

Barrington Camp – Piano/Vocals

Rusty “Clarinet” Lewis – Trumpet

Mick Toss – Clarinet

Alan Leathers – Bass

Hans “Dutchy” Rudd – Drums

Musically anomalous, perhaps, but this band’s journey into the collective amnesia was as swift as that of anybody else listed here. As jazz’s followers famously split into modernists and traditionalists, a lot of bands who thought the whole thing was daft faded somewhat into the background. The Cyclones were one such band, hitched to the fast disappearing dance band movement and rather distanced from both Trad and Be-Bop. When the work dried up, Camp himself became a handsomely paid studio musician in the film industry while the rest took an ill-advised foray into the avant garde under the name of Lewis, Leathers and Toss.

The T.Rex Pistols – Truck On Tyke/No Feelings (1981)

London’s T.Rex Pistols were a two-trick pony, neither trick requiring a great leap of imagination. This immensely entertaining live flexi-disc was sneaked out as a free gift with issue one of the singer’s fanzine. They split shortly afterwards, having exhausted both themselves and their trick bag on a short tour with their friends, The Sex Beatles. In short order they reconvened as “T.Rexcellence,” performing one trick very well and becoming one of the earliest progenitors of the Tribute Band movement, often supporting themselves as their sideline band, Bing Crimson.

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.