Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Encounters and Recommendations

I've just returned from a great day recording a demo with a new trio featuring Tim Hill on saxophones - whose idea the group was and who also wrote the music - and Steve Harris on drums. We recorded in a beautiful little studio in Somerset, with Glastonbury Tor visible from the window, about 8 miles away. It was only spoilt by the discovery of a crack on the back of my double bass, which I will have to get seen to tomorrow. I only hope it doesn't need too major a repair.

On the train coming back, I met a most remarkable character. The station manager at Castle Cary asked me to make sure he got on the train, because he was profoundly deaf and might not realise it was his train. He was possibly in his mid fifties, wearing a thick red anorak over a camouflage jacket. Mostly bald, he sported an incredible set of whiskers that must once have been a fiery red and that would have been the pride of any seadog out of a nineteenth century novel. His facial redness showed him no stranger to the bottle either, but he didn't smell of alcohol at all, and his teeth were healthy looking and even; he walked very unsteadily with a stick. His hands were tattooed with various devices, including the word 'LOVE' across his right hand fingers. There was a word on his left hand as well, but I couldn't read it - though it clearly wasn't 'HATE'. He wore hearing aids in both ears, but claimed to be able to lip read - though he seemed to have trouble understanding me. He spoke with a strong Northern Irish accent, sometimes clear and easily understood, at other times descending into a incomprehensible mumble. He continually held my gaze with resolute firmness, particularly when punctuating a comment with lusty yet bitter laughter. I wrote down my recollections of what I could make out of his monologue as soon as he got off the train. I don't know if I can capture the impression he made, but neither Dickens nor Beckett could have written a better speech, it seemed to me at the time.

"I'm deaf, but I can lip read . . . they think I'm stupid . . . hearing gone in the Falklands, both of 'em, and my legs too, they give me gip . . . used to sing, but lost my tone as I can't hear myself . . . kicked out my stick once . . . can't stand up . . . can't get down and can't get up . . . they just give way under me . . . went down twice in a day once . . . lost my wife through drink . . . bottle and a half of whiskey a day . . . half a bottle for breakfast . . . I know where she lives, 'cause I bought the place . . . better off how I am . . . dreadful bedsit . . . two grandsons and three granddaughters . . . my youngest son punched me out once . . . I was pissed up . . . black guy . . . didn't punch me out but gave me a black eye and a bloody nose . . . "

When I got to Bath Spa my journey took on a very different mood as I sat waiting for my next train listening to Prince's new album, 3121. I got used a while ago to buying records without personal recommendations - I didn't find many who shared my musical tastes! But in the last week I've bought three CDs largely based on my friends' advice. And I'm very glad I did.

I've thought about getting most of the recent Prince albums but haven't done so, but the glowing acount the pianist Pat Thomas gave me of the latest convinced me. And it is a remarkable piece of work. The usual analogues are all present and correct (George Clinton, James Brown, Michael Jackson) and lyrically it's not exactly his most pentrating record - he seems to have had some trouble with the ladies, but towards the end of the album it takes an odd turn into Jehovah's Witness sex ballads. But the songs are all incredibly infectious and funky, and there's some great virtuosity from both Prince and his allies.

Also featuring great virtuosity, but not much funk, is horn_bill: reed solos on Matchless Recordings. I had steered away from this one because it documents a concert organised by ongaku: enjoy sound in Hackney in early 2005, which I attended. Sometimes I find it is nice to allow the memory of a great concert (which this was) to remain so. But saxophonist Tony Bevan and trombonist Scott Thomson raved to me about this one, and they were right. There is remarkable playing from all six musicians on the CD, but two stand out for me. Seymour Wright's subversion of the saxophone, deconstructing it and using various devices to elicit sounds from it, transfers very well to CD - highly abstract and yet somehow clearly saxophonic. A very 'embodied' music. John Butcher's piece is absolutely stunning. It displays consummate virtuosity, but more than that an almost tangible sense of exploration, and a wonderful musical logic, utterly inexorable and yet unpredictable.

Pick of the bunch, though, is Scott Walker's new album The Drift. Clarinetist Alex Ward and guitarist David Stent both spoke very highly to me about the album, David emphasising how it manages to be very funny while also often utterly terrifying. Much has been made in the press of features such as the sound of a side of pork being punched. These are certainly deeply powerful, but more amazing is the structural logic of the music, the way the musical textures are unleashed in abrupt, abrasive blocks, coinciding with the divisions of the lyrics - almost like scenes in a film. Indeed, rather than the cliched 'soundtrack for an imaginary film', this record is almost a work of cinema in itself - I certainly don't see how you could do anything else while listening to it!

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