Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week. Tuesday, May 5th

Well, John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero, the commander-in-chief
Saying, “Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
The commander-in-chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”
— “Tombstone Blues”, Bob Dylan

{WELCOME}

I’m sitting here thinking. Has anyone done a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” yet? “Sitting here in limbo / Waiting for the dice to roll… / Sitting here in limbo / Got some time to search my soul…”
Or the great Willie Brown’s “Future Blues”? “The minutes seems like hours, and hours seems like days / The minutes seems like hours, hours seems like days…” [Recorded in 1931, it was once among the rarest blues 78s, and is worth around $25,000 if you can find a copy. Here it is on YouTube, with a photo his friend Son House’s signature on the label. Brown is famously mentioned in Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”.]

Anyhow, with a distinct New Orleans / Muscle Shoals flavour, here’s Five Things. We start with a few recommendations. First, if you feel like “getting lost in that hopeless little screen” as Len put it, some of our tv highlights.

{ONE} VISIONS 

SUNNY DAYS I spent some time last week sitting in the garden, lazily learning “Sunny”, Bobby Hebb’s perfect soul-pop classic. I’d been inspired by the wonderful Billie Eilish’s performance of it on the One World at Home concert, accompanied by her brother, Finneas, on an honest-to-god actual Wurlitzer electric piano*. Next to all the try-hard over-soulers, and especially after Elton John’s bizarre performance – in Tony Olmos’s words: “WTF! Why is Elton John murdering his own song?!” – Billie was a relaxed breath of fresh air.

My favourite version is still Bobby’s original, one take at the end of a session, but I also love this live performance on US TV in 1972, with Ron Carter on electric bass. Every verse pitches it up a half step and increases the tempo, until all hell breaks loose. Dig the Bond Theme intro (in the original, a vibraphone hints at that melody, but it’s made explicit in the guitar part here). As Richard Williams’ fine obit for The Guardian tells it: “In 1961 he moved to New York, where he found a more congenial artistic climate. “Sunny” would be written there, partly as a reaction to the death of his brother, who was murdered outside a Nashville nightclub in November 1963, the day after John F Kennedy’s assassination. “I needed to pick myself up,” Hebb said. The song came to him one morning when he had just returned to his home in Harlem from an all-night music session and a bout of heavy drinking, the sight of a purple dawn being its immediate inspiration.”

NOVELISATION The first episode of Novels that Shaped our World on BBC4 was an object lesson in making a literary documentary — informed people interviewed well, a clarity in the narration, and modern dramatisations of key works done with a light touch and a sense of fun. So introduce yourself to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and other early masterworks. Take a bow, director Sarah Barclay.

UN-NETFLIX Unorthodox, about a woman who goes to Berlin to free herself from a from a strict Hassidic sect in Brooklyn. Better in Brooklyn than Berlin dramatically, but fascinating, with some fantastic performances. Loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, it’s the first Netflix series to be primarily in Yiddish. Music is an important part of the plot, and the reveal at the end is very moving. Also Uncorked, a Memphis-set story of a father who wants to hand over his Barbeque restaurant to his son, who is more interested in becoming a Sommelier. It’s a post-Moonlight film, funny and thoughtful, with a smart script and an interesting soundtrack of Memphis hip-hop (except for the scenes in France which, of course, have French rap).

{TWO} SOUNDS

CELLO WEEP FOR ME Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s stunning cello piece – “Melody” – ended the Today Programme one day last week. Muscular and emotional, it sounds like the past and the future at once, which was why it seemed so perfect for the present. From powerful bass tones to almost-imperceptible flute-like grace notes, it’s compelling and concise. It’s the first piece of music on this page of his website.

UNDER THE WALL Tunnel 29, a fantastic serial by Helena Merriman which “tells the extraordinary true story of a man who dug a tunnel right under the feet of Berlin Wall border guards to help friends, family and strangers escape…” Interviews with the tunnelers who survived and the presence of some real-life coverage of the attempts (extraordinarily, an NBC film crew were making a documentary of these student diggers) make it an edge-of-the-seat thriller, beautifully rendered in sound. You can also read a web version alongside, which has photos of the locale, the wall and its guards and all the participants.

CORONA IN THE CRESCENT CITY Harry Shearer on New Orleans, From Katrina to Corona on the always-interesting From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4. “Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is facing another lethal storm. The city on Louisiana’s coast has become one of the worst-hit areas in the US. Some have blamed the high death toll on the decision to allow the annual Mardi Gras parade to go ahead. But musician and actor Harry Shearer, famous, among other things for voicing characters in The Simpsons, says don’t victim blame and don’t reproach the revellers.” Beautifully done. Oh, and Sue McGregor’s excellent The Reunion, also on Radio 4, the episode on four Girl Singers of the 60s – Helen Shapiro, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw and Jackie Trent.

{THREE} *THE MIGHTY [FINE] WURLITZER

When we recorded in Muscle Shoals we asked why the studio was full of Wurlies. Apparently, schools bought them in bulk for music classes as they had a built-in speaker. Unfortunately, they were a devil to keep in tune, so they offloaded them, and they ended up in recording studios, accidentally becoming a valued component of the “Southern Soul” sound. Here’s Mark P. at the Wurlitzer and Robbie Taylor (our great keyboard player) at the Fender Rhodes. 70s music heaven!


{FOUR} A SLOW BLUES FOR A LOCKDOWN MIDNIGHT

Sometimes there’s nothing like a slow blues, and here’s a cracker, featuring the wonderful Arnett Cobb on tenor sax and Ellis Marsalis on piano, with Chris Severin on bass and Johnny Vidacovich on drums, taped on the evening of January 30, 1982, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Ellis Marsalis sadly died last month.

Drummer Vidacovich was interviewed by my friend Sam Charters for his book A Trumpet around the CornerThe story of New Orleans Jazz, and I love this quote from it… “Musically, what’s going to happen around here – it’s about maintaining the past. But that isn’t a good word, because if I say maintain the “past”, what I really think about is that it’s something that’s growing. It’s a kind of machine. That’s the way music was around here, constantly growing, and it has the past in it. So if we can maintain that, then we’ll do what we’ve always been doing maintaining a music that has a past, [but] that’s very much alive today. That’s what we have to work for.

To me, that’s the way I see the living body of music in New Orleans. It’s very old, but it’s still growing. It’s like a tree that has a big, big trunk and old roots, but if you look up at the top, you can see it’s still sprouting little leaves. It’s still coming out, waving in the breeze. That’s what we have to do, make sure the tree don’t get sick.”

{FIVE} THANK YOU, CHRIS

A lovely 90th birthday tribute to the extraordinary career of Chris Barber on thebluemoment reminds me of the last time I saw Chris play, at the Camberley Cricket Club, alongside the always brilliant clarinet of Sammy Rimington. Sammy’s in the glass to the left, Chris on trombone to the right. Chris was a wide listener, always adding musicians and instruments that weren’t part of his starting point of New Orleans Jazz. For a period he had a great electic guitarist called John Slaughter, a fine horn section and a bevy of excellent guest vocalists. I always loved the fact that Chris also continued to be interested in later music from the Crescent City – his long association with Mac Rebennack was proof of his open ears. When he turned 81, he released a double CD called “Memories of My Trip”, an overview of his career, with fine performances by Chris with Van Morrison, Keith Emerson, Mark Knopfler, Rory Gallagher and Muddy Waters among others.

{ENDNOTES} 

¶ On one of BBC4s interminable So-and-So at the BBC, – you know, Singer-Songwriters, Country Songs, Cilla Black – I catch Carl Douglas doing “Kung Fu Fighting” on the One Hit Wonders show. I’d never realised what a nice-sounding voice he had, and such lovely phrasing. If he could be this good singing nonsense with conviction, I want to know what’s in Carl’s back catalogue, so I’m off to explore…

¶ You shouldn’t miss this, a short performance by “flatfoot” dancer D.Ray White. I aspire to this brilliant style of dance, and will attempt a demonstration at the first post-lockdown party. Be there or be square.

This is one of the best things I’ve read about music, improvised jazz in particular, recently. And these sentences felt relevant to “lockdown time”… “The process described in that paragraph may have taken five minutes, or it may have taken fifteen. No one was keeping score, and one of the special properties of improvisation – and not just jazz improvisation – is that it can take hold of chronological time and distort it: speeding it up, slowing it down, bending it, stopping it altogether. Now Konitz briefly ruled time, making it obey his commands as he lingered over the revealed contours of his design, sprinting forwards and pulling back until he judged the moment right to unveil the unmistakable shape of a standard.


Front Cover

The book of Five Things is available from Amazon here.

“He writes with the insight of someone who has inhabited the world of the professional musician but also with the infectious enthusiasm of someone who is a fan like anyone of us. He also comes at the subject from an entirely personal, slightly sideways perspective, with no agenda and no product to sell. It’s entertaining and inspiring in equal measure.”
from an Amazon review by Zuma

“A terrific book, stuffed to the gills with snippets of news items and observations all with a musical theme, pulled together by the watchful eye of Martin Colyer… lovingly compiled, rammed with colour photos and interesting stories. He has a good ear for a tune, an eye for the out-of-ordinary and can write a bit too.”
Steve Carr, everyrecordtellsastory.com

If you’re receiving the email out, please click on the Date Headline of the page for the full Five Things experience. It will bring you to the site (which allows you to see the Music Player) and all the links will open in another tab or window in your browser.

Tuesday, 20th October

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Five Things is a little all over the shop this week – some pieces are in the wrong place, and others, about things I actually saw this week, will be in next week’s column. I hope that’s clear… for instance, Friday bought Paolo Conte to the Barbican, and I’ll try to write about that next week. He’s 78, and was the first of The Big Beasts of the A/W 2015 Season™ – and was utterly fantastic. The others are Bob [74] this week, and Charles Aznavour [91!] in November.

EXTRA! 5 THINGS INTERIOR DÉCOR TIPS
Years ago, Rolling Stone did a piece on Levon Helm’s studio, The Barn, and they were extremely taken with the full-size American flags that were hung from the tall double-height walls. They suggested that Levon could well turn his talents to interior design. Well, my current tip is inspired by Bernard Paturel’s Café Espresso in Woodstock. In a set of photos taken by Douglas Gilbert in 1964 for Look magazine – but rejected, as Dylan was deemed too scruffy – there are shots of Bob writing in the upstairs room. Behind him are tools hung on pegboard (perforated hardboard to the timber trade), and I became obsessed with finding some to put on the studio wall. Of course, it also has memories of record-listening booths in the early sixties, so seemed apposite. Thrilled to actually find some, this was the result. I am, obviously, available for all freelance interior design gigs…

Dylantypestudio[I also remember that we once saw Julia Childs’ kitchen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It had been taken from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to be displayed at The Smithsonian. She had used pegboards to hang her utensils.]

IT’S NOT HAPPY VALLEY…
but Unforgotten’s pretty good and the cast is cracking: Bernard Hill, Ruth Sheen, Brian Bovell, Tom Courtenay, Hannah Gordon, Cherie Lunghi and Trevor Eve among them. Loved the exchange between the lead detectives, Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar. His character is nicknamed Sunny, and when he gives his boss (Walker) a piece of information that she’s been obsessing over, she breaks out Bobby Hebb: “Sunny, yesterday my life was full of rain, Sunny, you smiled at me and really eased the pain…”

IF YOU LIKED THAT, YOU MAY LIKE THIS…
Also in detfic news, Aby Morgan’s weird police procedural, River, (think Sixth Sense crossed with Prime Suspect) has a first episode brilliantly bookended by “I Love to Love (But My Baby Loves to Dance)” by Tina Charles, first as a singalong in the car, by Nicola Walker (excellent again) and Stellan Skarsgård, and at the end, as karaoke. Produced by Biddu (remember the Biddu Orchestra?) it’s a creditable lift of the TK house band sound – way better than I remember it.

RADIATING SUNSHINE
Not being able to find Sunny at home and wanting to hear it again I went to YouTube, and discovered this excellent tv performance with Bobby Hebb accompanied by the great Ron Carter on (electric!) bass. After the intro, Bobby goes into the setup for the first verse but unaccountably, teasingly, slips in a bit of the James Bond theme. And the way the key just gets higher and higher towards the end is just great. Don Cheadle could play him in a heartbeat.

Richard Williams wrote a terrific obituary when Bobby died in 2010: “Two minutes and 44 seconds of unrepeatable pop-soul alchemy, recorded almost as an afterthought at the end of a session in which greater attention had been paid to other songs. A two-second snare-drum roll, an irresistibly cool bass figure, the mentholated chimes of a vibraphone, and a guitar and a hi-hat italicising the backbeat introduced Hebb’s light-toned but unmistakably ardent voice, soon buttressed by a purring horn section, kicking drums and cooing backup vocals. It was a gift to discotheques everywhere.”

Bobby had a proper backstory, too… “He was born [Robert Von Hebb] in Nashville, Tennessee, the son of blind musicians, and he and his brother Harold, who was six years older, performed on the street as part of the family’s washboard band, Hebb’s Kitchen Cabinet Orchestra, while they were still children. In his teens, Hebb became the only black member of Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys, playing the spoons and other instruments, at a time when commercial country music was an exclusively white preserve.” See what I mean?

You can also watch James Brown kicking it out of the park here. This performance was uploaded by rare soul films, which does what it says on the tin – a real treasure chest of great tv performances.

SPEAKING OF DON CHEADLE
An interesting review of Don’s Miles Davis biopic from Matt Patches of US Esquire:
“In his prismatic, percussive biopic Miles Ahead, which just premiered at the New York Film Festival, actor-director Don Cheadle picks up with Davis at his lowest point, a late-’70s stretch of musician’s block provoked by depression and fluffed with cocaine. Through flashbacks and haunting memories, we see the full pendulum swing – from success stories, down to derailment, and all that jazz in between. Cheadle evokes Davis’ recordings with mercurial style and his own rambunctious performance as the late legend. The past ebbs and flows out of the present. Deeper cuts (think Agharta) rub against the classics in an anachronistic splatter painting. The main thrust of the film, the hunt for stolen studio tapes, imagines Davis and amalgamated Rolling Stone writer Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) in a swinging version of T.J. Hooker. Cheadle pulls out all the stops to capture Davis’ essence. He never quite gets there. Miles Ahead is the rare biopic in need of Hollywood’s “cradle to grave” blueprints. By scrapping Davis’ origin story – picking up his first trumpet, finding his sound, abandoning the culture around him – the film simply insists upon importance. The music never speaks for itself.”

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