‘African Sun’ is a composition by Abdullah Ibrahim which comes as close as anything in music to defining something spiritual, whether in a jazz context or in a wider one. It is a work which seems to have within it the very warmth of the sun, but also a wonderful mix of pride, defiance, celebration, protest. At just over six minutes in length it seems absurdly short, and leaves the listener wanting to hear it over and over again.
The track opens with a minute-or-so of rippling, rolling wave-like piano playing, with a suggestion of shimmering percussion in the background, then boom, the bass comes in, soon followed by Kippie Moeketsi on the saxophone, soaring like some exotic bird, and all the while Abdullah Ibrahim, or Dollar Brand as he was when he first recorded it, is playing a series of rhythmic piano patterns, often deep and bass heavy. The ripples return at the four-minute mark before a final flourish of rhythmic perfection for the final minute or so, with Kippie on saxophone singing sweetly, and the listener likely to be found dancing on air, dancing wherever they are.
The version in question was recorded for the Dollar Brand +3 LP and released in 1973 on Soultown, a small label active in Johannesburg. While it is extremely hard to fully grasp the socio-political context in which it was recorded, with apartheid in full force and the struggle against this inhuman doctrine bubbling away in the background, it is a track that people can absorb and gain strength from, whatever their circumstances.
‘African Sun’ has something unsettlingly familiar about it, almost as if when hearing it for the first time there is a sense it has always been a part of one’s life. In a way if it is reminiscent of anything, in terms of feel really, it could be Billy Taylor and his trio performing ‘I Wish I Knew’ with a similar suggestion of some ancient folk song or hymn being caught up in there somewhere.
Those two compositions have a lot to do with a passion here for piano-led instrumentals, ones with deep and rhythmic patterns, something like Deodato with Astrud Gilberto on ‘Não Bate Coração’, from her Beach Samba LP, which is a minute-and-a-half of perfection, with Astrud scatting away merrily, her voice an instrument, and she’s seemingly on the verge of breaking into the wordless part of ‘Those Were The Days’ which is absurd as that, Mary’s hit, came later.
Or there is Ramsey Lewis’ rendition of ‘Wade in the Water’ where maybe this obsession with the heavy bass piano thing came from, and if the memory is functioning properly it was first encountered here on a mid-1980s compilation, an inauspicious-looking best of Chess, Checker and Cadet soul but an LP with a fantastic line-up including Billy Stewart, Fontella Bass, The Radiants, Mitty Collier, Jackie Ross, The Dells, Gene Chandler, Sugar Pie DiSanto, and Tony Clarke whose ‘The Entertainer’ was, unforgettably, heard for the first time when Peter Young’s Soul Cellar was starting to open its doors midweek on Capital Radio, which was a big thing. Was it Wednesday evenings, with Gary Crowley’s show on the Tuesday, when he had The Bluebells doing The Clash’s ‘Capital Radio’ as a jingle? Did that really happen?
So, yes, there is maybe a direct line from ‘Wade in the Water’, ‘I Wish I Knew’ and ‘African Sun’ to the present day when solo piano works are a big part of what is played of an evening in, well, let’s call it the growlery, in tribute to the Todd family chronicles, as gifted to us by the incredible Kate Atkinson whose work has become belatedly something of an obsession, and it helps that her books seem to share titles with favourite songs like ‘Life After Life’ and ‘Big Sky’. There are few things better in life, right here, right now, than sitting down to read a Jackson Brodie tale with a CD of Messiaen, or Fauré, or Scriabin, or Liszt, and yes very definitely Liszt, piano music playing away for an hour or so as the day draws to a close, a brief respite, and the healing hopefully has begun. But not at other times of day, when it wouldn’t work, which is odd.
It seems likely that ‘African Sun’ was first heard here indirectly because of the Rough Trade CD reissue of The Raincoats’ Moving. In the accompanying booklet Vicky Aspinall mentions that Abdullah Ibrahim was part of what they were listening to when making the LP. And it may be mere conjecture but there does seem to be a definite something of Abdullah in the mix on what is now the most played Raincoats record here, particularly via Vicky’s piano playing on tracks like ‘Overheard’, ‘Rainstorm’, and ‘The Body’, and the presence of South African jazz performer Mogotsi Mothle playing double bass underlines this. It is such a great record, with some of the best lines ever, like the ones about “music that brings love, music that hits you, music that feeds melancholy, it flows”. Oh yes.
‘African Sun’ is the title track of a CD put out by Camden, which is itself a reissue of a compilation put out on the Kaz label in the late 1980s as part a series of South African Jazz collections. So, God bless the day the African Sun CD turned up in the racks of the local MVC store, and that mention by Vicky from The Raincoats probably prompted the purchase. It’s long gone now, that MVC, and there’s been a branch of the Halifax on the site for ages, but it was a very handy shop, and because of the reasonable prices many titles were bought out of curiosity or to fill gaps. For some ridiculous reason it sticks in the mind buying a copy of Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star in there one weekend, which would put it around late 1998, and in one of their frequent sales there were multiple copies of the Michael Head and the Strands CD for something absurd like a pound each, and they didn’t disappear in an hour either.
The local MVC stocked plenty of the budget or discount labels, like Music Club, and indeed Camden, the imprint which put out the African Sun CD, was one of these. Their CDs were usually around five or six pounds a time, so worth taking a chance on, especially taking into account the full-price of new titles back then. Camden put out many useful compilations and reissues, sometimes two LPs on one CD, and the sort of thing that were essential purchases included Michael Nesmith, Guy Clark, and John Hartford discs. Camden Deluxe was the more upmarket imprint, and they put out some great things too, often in pointless cardboard slip sleeves, like a 2CD collection of Françoise Hardy’s Vogue recordings, and a set containing Nina Simone & Piano! paired with her Silk & Soul.
That Nina Simone CD managed to sequence the magnificent ‘It Be’s That Way Sometimes’, the opener on Silk & Soul, after ‘The Desperate Ones’, the startling closing track of Piano!, which is just about perfect. Presumably Nina’s version is based on the adaptation of ‘The Desperate Ones’ as featured on the soundtrack of the stage show Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and while that one is haunting, Nina’s is simply terrifying. And Piano! is such a remarkable record, and one would never want to downplay Nina’s singing but it would be wonderful to listen to that LP without vocals, hearing just the piano, for her playing seems exceptional, and maybe that was another entry point into the classical world.
One other thing about the local MVC store was that its classical section had a special part dedicated to Naxos and their budget CDs, and the editions of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres and Górecki’s Third Symphony proved irresistible, despite not knowing much about the music, and feeling a fraud, afraid, feeling for a way through. And possibly because of that starting point, the enduring convenience, cheapness, consistency in terms of packaging and price, the accessibility and availability, all of this, Naxos has continued to be looked on here with great affection.
And loyalty does play a large part in how we consume music. For example, quite probably the first CD of solo piano works that really made an impression was an instinctive charity shop purchase of Idil Biret’s The Ravel & Stravinsky Album, released in 1976 and reissued on CD as part of an archive project of Idil Biret recordings, appropriately distributed by Naxos. The performance by Idil of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit gradually became a firm favourite here, and established a bond with Idil’s playing which remains very strong, and also led to a great love for Ravel’s piano compositions, and the strange patterns and emotions they revealed over time.
Ravel’s haunting Pavane pour une infant défunte is a particular favourite, and somehow always prompts memories of a Shelagh Delaney short story read many, many years ago. There is a Naxos CD of Ravel’s piano music, performed by Klára Körmendi, which has often provided great inspiration in recent times, and another Naxos CD where Klára plays a selection of piano pieces by Erik Satie has been played frequently in the growlery.
That Satie selection features the perennially popular Gnossienes and Gymnopédies, and the disc itself also forms part of a 5-CD box set of Klára playing piano works by Satie. The other four discs in the collection are incredible really, and perfect for playing right through, one individual CD a night say. There is not one note included unnecessarily, and his exquisite miniatures are really fascinating as concise melodic creations, in a bizarre way like the early recordings of The Ramones, often copied but never bettered.
Probably Satie’s Gnossienes and Gymnopédies have proved to be the way-in for many old soul to piano works, and certainly Satie was among the names cited as inspirations on the Piano Paintings side or half of the Style Council’s 1988 Confessions of a Pop Group, which has been a rewarding companion over the past 30 years or so. And it still fills the heart with joy that the Swingle Singers are on there, with Frank Ricotti taking the Milt Jackson part.
Because of the bizarre way minds work it often seems striking that Frank contributed to Confessions somewhere around the time he played on the soundtrack of (and appeared in) The Beiderbecke Connection, the final part of the Alan Plater trilogy (or three-piece suite) for Yorkshire TV, and the question arises whether Weller and co. discussed this with Frank and perhaps traded lines from the series, or indeed from the books which are perhaps even better.
There is a case to be made for Plater’s Beiderbecke trilogy and the Style Council being part of an active resistance to the prevailing 1980s way of thinking, or as Big Al put it: “There’s not many of us left Mrs Swinburne. We have to stand together against the forces of darkness.” Perhaps there were these two sets of individuals searching for their own Jerusalem. Trevor, Jill, Big Al and Little Norm on the one hand, and Paul, D.C. Lee, Merton Mick and Steve White on the other. There’s something in that.
In one episode, Frank Riccoti and his group perform live at the Limping Whippet, a local pub transformed into the Village Vanguard for one night a week, a venue run by Mr Pitt, squandering his redundancy from the council planning department, the same Mr Pitt who said: “I’ve always lived my life sideways. It’s the best way of avoiding what lies ahead.”
On the soundtrack, issued as The Beiderbecke Collection, there are two tracks described as being from the nightclub scenes, one is ‘Jennie’s Tune’ and the other is simply called ‘Live at the Limping Whippet’ and both very much have something of the Confessions spirit, with another overlap perhaps in the bass playing of Paul Morgan. In the book Alan Plater describes the music as sounding “like water cascading down a rocky hillside, with occasional sideways spurts,” which might also be a better way to describe the opening of ‘African Sun’.
The mentions of Debussy in connection with Confessions and earlier mentions in Subway Sect interviews perhaps made it inevitable that the composer’s work would appeal, at some point. Paul has mentioned that there is a direct reference to ‘Clair de lune’ on Confessions, and in a way flowing from that Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque gets played regularly now for therapeutic purposes, along with his Arabesques, Masques, Images, Estampes, Préludes, and Études. Another favourite is Idil Biret playing Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite on a Naxos CD of piano music for children.
Idil’s big project for Naxos was to record Chopin’s entire piano works, and the dedicated CDs of nocturnes, preludes, and études in this series form a massive part of the growlery’s nocturnal soundtrack, always played right through, to get the full flavour. Oddly enough it was the Novi Singers, the Polish vocal jazz ensemble, who aroused interest in Chopin’s music with their gorgeously inventive reinterpretations, an interest strangely stimulated by the great songwriter Fangette Enzel.
Fangette may not have written much, but what songs she composed tended to be exceptional, like ‘It’s An Uphill Climb to the Bottom’ as sung by Walter Jackson, and ‘Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways’ which was immortalised by Tammy St John, while honourable mentions must go to ‘Forget You Ever Met Me Baby’ by Barbara McNair, and Judy Henske’s ‘Baby’, a Bobby Scott production. Anyway, in a great interview with Phil Milstein for the Spectropop site she said “I happened to love Chopin, and I wondered what it would sound like if I took Chopin's chords and inverted them and turned them into R&B”. Now Nocturnes and Northern Soul are a massive part of what’s played here in the growlery, and they sound just right, spiritually side by side.
With all this, from Abdullah Ibrahim to Chopin, from Ramsey Lewis to Debussy, and much more, there is a recurring pattern of overcoming an intimidating sense of not-knowing, and then finding what feels right, and what works, and becoming enchanted by chance discoveries, and clinging to them tenaciously, like Chopin’s Berceuse, with its deep repetition and ghostly traces of exquisite melody. As with Abdullah’s ‘African Sun’, listening to Chopin there can be a delicious sense of the familiar, snatches of this and hints of that, and all sorts of things that cannot quite be pinned down, which is a lovely feeling.
In an excellent interview with David Nice for The Arts Desk, to mark her 75th birthday, Idil Biret talked about how her early teacher Nadia Boulanger once challenged her and said: "It’s terrible, you don’t play anything contemporary, you have to play it otherwise you are not a complete musician.” Heeding her advice, Idil has recorded new music for Naxos, including a mesmerising CD of Ligeti’s Études, a wonderful rhythmic, percussive, dramatic recording, quite harsh and dissonant at times but always compellingly beautiful.
Ligeti is one of those names that serious young men love to drop, and it is easy to imagine a very earnest teenage Mark Stewart and the rest of The Pop Group citing Ligeti as part of a dazzling litany of favourite things way back when. So, aptly, in Alex Ross’ great The Rest is Noise the author mentions how “Ligeti opened himself to all music past and present, absorbing everything from the Renaissance masses of Johannes Ockeghem to the saxophone solos of Eric Dolphy, from the virtuoso piano writing of Liszt to the rhythmic polyphony of African Pygmy tribes. At the same time, he succeeded in imprinting his prickly, melancholy, ever-restless personality on whatever he caught in the web.”
Idil’s Naxos CD of Ligeti’s Études features the initial two books. The first of these was completed by the composer in 1985. So, one of the earliest recordings of the first book must have been by Rolf Hind for Factory Classical in 1989, put out as part of the first wave of releases on the label, and this handful of titles, overseen by John Metcalfe, now seems like a very wonderful thing, ironically as many old Joy Division and ACR fans will have studiously ignored them at the time.
Those five releases, by the Kreisler String Orchestra, Robin Williams, the Duke String Quartet, Rolf Hind, and Steve Martland, now seem exceptionally cool, not least in an aesthetic sense in terms of the presentation, which is nicely consistent (in a kind of ECM New Series way) and also incredibly more pop than what would have been roughly contemporaneous releases on Factory by the likes of Adventure Babies, Wendys, Northside, and all the New Order vanity projects.
Rolf Hind’s first post-Factory release was a 1994 CD on United of piano music by Olivier Messiaen, which is a big favourite of the night owl in this growlery. The title of the collection is Meditations which seems apt, though this music, very stark and exceptionally beautiful, is quite unsettling at times. The title is interesting in this context, as meditative music does get typecast as ambient washes of sound, drifts and drones, which tend not to be emotionally involving in the way Messiaen’s music is.
The dictionary definition of meditation as serious contemplation is a useful one, but then one of the joys of intricate and haunting music is that it is transformative, taking the listener to other places, away from the challenges of the day-to-day. In that sense one of the most incredible pieces of meditative music must be ‘The Pilgrim’ by Abdullah Ibrahim. It is very much treasured here as the closing track on Voice of Africa, another compilation CD in that delightfully discounted Camden series, but it appeared when first recorded in the early 1970s as one side of an LP, with ‘Mannenberg – is Where it’s Happening’ on the other, which is just perfect as anything else would shatter the spiritual mood these two compositions conjur up.
This version of ‘The Pilgrim’ begins with five-and-a-half minutes-or-so of piano playing from Abdullah, which while bluesy would fit perfectly with any of the études by Ligeti or Messiaen, seasoned with a subtle suggestion of bass, and then the flute comes in, with hushed, brushed percussion, and the discreet bass still there, barely, and the complete thirteen-odd minutes pass by all too quickly. It really is extraordinarily beautiful and moving.
The recording has the same devotional feel as ‘Nirvana’, the title track of the 1962 set by Herbie Mann with the Bill Evans Trio, featuring Chuck Israels on bass, and with Paul Motian just about present on drums. That opening is followed exquisitely by an arrangement of one of Satie’s ‘Gymnopédie’ which is a perfect fit. And, Bill, well Bill has surely served as a piano portal, particularly for those of us from homes where there was no classical music, where such sounds were considered not for the likes of us, where awareness of solo piano meant knowing enough to avoid Liberace or Mrs Mills, and now, indeed, it seems that just about everybody digs Bill Evans’s explorations, especially his ‘Peace Piece’, an impromptu from which it is so easy to draw a line to Chopin, to Debussy’s piano works, and where does jazz begin and end anyway?
There is a solo piano performance ‘Moniebah’, which appears on Dollar Brand’s 1980 Elektra LP African Marketplace, that is every bit as beautiful as ‘Peace Piece’. It features an incredibly appealing sub-melody, if it can be called that, which is played deep down at the bass end and recurs as a motif, so perhaps it is an example of ostinato, and in a way a little like how Chopin’s Berceuse works with that rhythmic repetition at the base and the main melody dancing over the top.
When discovering works long after they were created it is easy to lose perspective, and so it can be something of a shock to realise that African Marketplace was released only a year-or-so before that spurt of activity involving tributaries of The Pop Group, and it is easy to imagine that this record would have been part of the mad mix of sounds the personnel of Pigbag, Rip Rig & Panic and Maximum Joy were listening to when starting out, and perhaps the big difference between then and now is that the uptempo dance numbers, with the horns working furiously and the African drums sounding out, would have appealed most back then, but now the more reflective performances sound better. And maybe all along it was Mark Springer’s playing that had a lot to do, eventually, with a fondness for solo piano works.
A CD reissue of African Marketplace was an unexpected find in a local charity shop a while back, and it has become another big favourite. It opens with ‘Whoza Mtwana’, which is spellbinding, and again because of the stupid way the mind works here the track becomes conflated with ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’ by Cannonball Adderley and his group, perhaps because they both have this incredible spiritual resonance which could make a believer out of anyone and imbues the listener with the strength to overcome adversity and, yes, to keep on keepin’ on. And maybe ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’, and Joe Zawinul’s playing on it, was another one of the factors which made the piano first appeal so, and thinking back, because it is important to identify sources, it would have been first heard here via an early 1980s compilation called Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: American Soul 1966-1972, on Capitol, featuring Little Anthony & the Imperials’ title track, the Cornelius Bros. and Sister Rose’s sublime ‘Too Late to Turn Back Now’, Lou Rawls’ immortal ‘Love is a Hurtin’ Thing’, and so on, part of a very useful series, titles from which could be picked up nice and cheaply.
African Marketplace closes with a solo piano piece ‘Ubu-Suku’, which to these cloth ears seems delightfully to be a reiteration of the opening ripples from ‘African Sun’ but instead of the rhythm section exploding into action and the sax singing out there is a beautiful melody played on the piano by Abdullah, there fleetingly, as lovely as a piece of Debussy or ‘Peace Piece’, before a reprise of those opening ripples to close the proceedings.
Like all the great jazz performers Abdullah has over his long and remarkable career revisited compositions and themes, turned them inside out, performed them with different permutations of players, and it would be nonsensical to even suggest anything like a working knowledge of what he has done and with whom. But one recent find, by chance, was a lovely set, recorded in Japan in 1978, of Dollar Brand and Archie Shepp playing as a duet, and on this CD they perform another variation on ‘Ubu-Suku’, and it is serene and gentle. In the wise words of Big Al, that great philosopher, the whole record could be described as being all about “simplicity, elegance and a touch of the unknown”. He was actually talking about bowls at the time, but the words still apply.
The Duet record closes with an extended rendition of ‘Moniebah’ where Abdullah and Archie dance around each other in such a fantastic and respectfully loving way that it almost hurts inside, especially where that deep melodic motif figures and is waltzed around gracefully. It is a lovely way to end the LP, one which it would have been wonderful to have known for longer, but maybe that wasn’t meant to be. Right at the end of The Beiderbecke Connection Trevor says: “There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who hear the music and those who don’t.” What he could have added was that it doesn’t matter when we hear the music, for with luck it will find us at the right time.