Saturday 29 August 2020

Bless The Day #12: Stephano's Dance


‘Stephano’s Dance’ is an absurdly sublime spiritual jazz recording. It is credited to Joe Harriott and Amancio D’Silva, but it is one of the most truly democratic performances in the best possible socialist sense: everybody involved has an opportunity to shine, and oh how they do. Opening with Dave Green’s buoyant bass, strolling in, incredibly supple, then Bryan Spring’s percussion breaks up the flow perfectly, and Norma Winstone comes in with her siren’s song, leading the melody until Joe Harriott’s sax speaks so eloquently in response, and Ian Carr’s horn eases in like a cooling breeze before Amancio D’Silva, who all the while has been playing his guitar like part of the rhythm section, engages in a dialogue with Norma, sharing with her an ecstatic solo that seems to contain all the wisdom of the ages, and yes, you really do have to dance.

Recorded in early 1969, ‘Stephano’s Dance’ exquisitely opens the LP Hum Dono which was released as part of producer Denis Preston’s Lansdowne Series on Columbia and is now available on CD through Vocalion. It was composed by Amancio in honour of his young son, which is an extraordinary gift to offer up. Imagine going through life knowing this was your song! As jazz recordings go it is as much of a personal favourite here as its near contemporary, ‘The Phantom’ by Duke Pearson, which similarly contains some exceptional performances, with the Duke on piano, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Mickey Roker the disruptive influence on drums. Somehow the two tracks seem indelibly linked, with Jerry Dodgion’s flute playing on ‘The Phantom’ sort of fulfilling the role Norma performs on ‘Stephano’s Dance’.

It was apparently an idea of Denis Preston’s to add Norma’s wordless vocals to a few of the tracks on Hum Dono. The script says that what she was doing was inspired by Indian traditions, but perhaps somewhere in the producer’s mind was Duke Ellington and his fondness for using wordless female sopranos in his work, like ‘Creole Love Call’ featuring Adelaide Hall, Kay Davis on ‘Transblucency’ or ‘On A Turquoise Cloud’, then enchantingly Alice Babs on ‘T.G.T.T.’ from the Duke’s second sacred concert in early 1968.

It’s a wild suggestion, perhaps, but Denis, a man of incredible importance in the story of jazz in Britain, was a huge fan of the Duke. Indeed, a personal favourite quote here is Denis’: “As further affirmation of my credentials as a bona fide Ellington lover I claim to be one of the survivors of the Great Transpontine Trek of ’33 ... to the Trocadero, Elephant & Castle, to witness Duke Ellington's premier concert appearance in London.” This comes from the liner notes for the Stan Tracey Big Brass’ We Love You Madly, an LP which features Joe Harriott and Ian Carr among the horn players taking solos on a tribute to Duke to mark his 70th birthday in 1969.

Perhaps even more oblique is a suggestion that Denis and the players’ vision for Hum Dono was inspired by the enchanting Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá collaboration in 1963, Jazz Samba Encore!, a personal favourite here among the great Getz Brazilian-themed LPs. It’s a similar format to Hum Dono, with the saxophonist and guitarist given top billing in a small group setting, with occasional wordless singing from the mesmerising and far too rarely recorded Maria Toledo. Pure coincidence, perhaps, but you never know.

Maybe it’s to do with thinking of wordless singing as a peculiarly Brazilian art. An early favourite of the  form, here, was Astrud Gilberto with Deodato on piano doing ‘Não Bate Coração’, from her Beach Samba LP, which (as has been said before here) is a minute-and-a-half of perfection, with Astrud scatting away delightfully, her voice used as an instrument, and absurdly she seems on the verge of breaking into the wordless part from ‘Those Were The Days’, a song which has a special place in this boy’s heart as it was heard endlessly around the home growing up and way beyond, mainly just that wordless passage which could be heard coming from the kitchen or the bathroom, and one now realises it was a simple sign that all was well with the world. Ah life!

Then, later, into the 1990s, there was the thrill of discovering Piri’s ‘Reza Brava’ and Joyce’s ‘Aldeia de Ogum’ and a little further on her ‘London Samba’, a song that seemed to belong to us which is presumably what she intended, and later still ‘Casa Forte’ by Edu Lobo, or his ‘Libera Nos’ from Missa Breve. Also, there’s Quarteto Em Cy’s ‘Até Londres’, an Oscar Castro-Neves composition, as is Sergio Mendes’ wordless wonder ‘Celebration of the Sunrise’. And, yeah, wordless parts are threaded through the great works by Marcos Valle and Milton Nascimento. Plus, a particular favourite here is Flora Purim singing ‘L’Amore Dice Ciao’ on Walter Wanderley’s CTI title Moondreams. There is, incidentally, a lovely clip of Flora from around that time singing on French TV in 1969 with Stan Getz playing his sax, from when they toured together. Did they play in London?

But Joe Harriott and bossa nova? Well, why not? After all Archie Shepp recorded a great version of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ on Fire Music for Impulse!, so  why not Joe? Then again in Doggin’ Around, the Alan Plater book which is a lovely ramble through his life, work and musical passions, the author mentions working with Joe and how they became friends, then tells a tale about Joe shortly before his death (“of neglect – his own and other people’s”) scratching around for gigs and asking the great playwright to help out, which he did, getting an acquaintance to arrange something in the Hull suburbs.

This is what Alan wrote about that night: “Joe played sweet music: a couple of bossa novas, as promised, plus a few standards. He played, as always, like a fallen angel. And he was totally ignored. The only people who applauded were the band and a small group of us standing at the bar. Musically speaking, it was one of the bleakest evenings of my life.” Oh boy, what can you say?  

As for Norma, it is probably the case that she was first heard here via a CD of The Heart is a Lotus, a reissue on Vocalion of the 1970 LP by the Michael Garrick Sextet. It was part of a salvage programme of British jazz by Michael Dutton’s Vocalion label early in the new millennium, and there is a vivid memory of getting that upstairs in the Virgin Megastore at Tottenham Court Road, in the jazz department, one lunchtime. Off Centre by the John Cameron Quartet was another in the series bought there, around the same time, possibly coinciding with one of the tracks, ‘Troublemaker’, appearing on a Jazzman compilation. The Off Centre LP, incidentally, was produced for Deram by Wayne Bickerton of The Flirtations and Rubettes fame, which is the sort of fact that always seems so perfectly fitting.

When it was issued as a Jazzman Seven ‘Troublemaker’ was paired with ‘Original Peter’. Now it’s the name of a company making bespoke ‘record hunting’ bags at a couple of hundred pounds a go, but ‘Original Peter’ was once one of Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs, part of the LP by the Mike Westbrook Concert Band, and released as a single on Deram in 1970 (oddly this is the only version in ready circulation, being part of a superb 3CD box set based around Mike’s Marching Songs).

‘Original Peter’ is another extraordinarily wonderful track, right up there with ‘Stephano’s Dance’, with an irresistible rhythmic flow over which Norma soars sensationally with her wordless singing, her delightful melodic passage duetting with the horns. Everything is gloriously funky, with a wild sax break serving as a reminder that these are serious jazz players: the whole thing is completely addictive and as aesthetically spot-on as one of those elegant record bags one could covet but never justify the price of.

Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs was one of those records discovered (here at least!) via the much-missed blogsites which shared so much wonderful music towards the end of this millennium’s first decade, as indeed was Hum Dono. A Record Collector feature by Ian Shirley from early 2008, which was a guide to collectable British jazz modernists, proved invaluable and became a sort of handy checklist to use when raiding the blogs for new sounds. The intoxicating feeling of diving into a new area of music is hard to beat: that simultaneous sense of disorientation and exhilaration is a fantastic thing.

While My Heart is a Lotus (one of the records featured in the guide) is relatively lyrics-borne, with wordless interludes among the sung-poetry, Derek Jewell’s sleevenotes pay special attention to Norma’s singing and the way she uses her voice as an instrument, and he quotes Michael Garrick as saying: “I regard Norma as part of the front line of the sextet now. She has the same technical facility as a virtuoso sax player and she is a genuinely inspired improvisor.”

Derek uses the verb vocalise, but it is brilliantly fitting that there is no adequate word for wordless singing, at least not one which captures the real magic of the form. There are echoes perhaps of The Pop Group singing about not needing words in ‘Words Disobey Me’, as heard first here on their Peel session in the summer of 1978 when the music papers were running photos of them lounging on Chesil Beach, in variations of evening wear, taken from the unforgettable session by Brian Griffin.

Where did this love of wordless singing come from? Maybe it’s to do with fond memories of Cleo Laine scatting away on TV variety shows, or inspired by reading Jack Kerouac on the history of bop and the part played by Lionel Hampton improvising on ‘Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop’, or perhaps On The Road where Ti Jean writes about Slim Gaillard and spontaneous bop prosody. Or maybe it comes from A Certain Ratio and their Sextet with Simon scatting through ‘Skipscada or Tilly riffing on ‘Rialto’.

And possibly it’s due to an early fondness for the Swingle Singers on TV shows, later vindicated by their appearance on the Style Council’s ‘Story of Someone’s Shoe’, and becoming obsessed by Place Vendôme, their record with the MJQ, and definitely it’s a lot to do with Marden Hill’s ‘Curtain’, very much él’s finest moment. And Julie Tippetts’ wonderful wordless background singing on Working Week’s ‘Stella Marina’, where she excels soaring and swooping in amid Jalal’s rap, or a young Shara Nelson scatting on the Missing Brazilians’ ‘Savanna Prance’: On-U Sound in excelsis.

There are so many great examples of wordless singing, individual performances or collective ones, in so many different areas of music, within so many different cultures. You will have your own, presumably but, for today, personal favourites or milestones include the Beach Boys’ ‘Passing By’ and some of Johnny Dankworth’s soundtrack work on that Eclipse compilation. And Russ Garcia’s Sounds in the Night, reissued by él, who also put out a great Edda Dell'Orso collection, which features the fantastic theme from Metti una sera a cena which was first heard on the Mondo Morricone collection.

And The Muppets’ ‘Mah Na Mah Na’, a highlight of the summer of 1977 as much as ‘Roadrunner’ and ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’, turned out to be a Pierro Umiliani composition, and there was a great Pierro Piccioni collection on él with wordless wonders on, and closely related are Gary McFarland’s The In Sound and Soft Samba with his unique style of humming and whistling along. And Alan Moorhouse’s gorgeous Beatles, Bach, Bacharach Go Bossa on MFP, and John Cameron’s ‘Half Forgotten Daydreams’, first heard on The Sound Gallery, and Barbara Moore’s majestic ‘Hot Heels’ discovered via the Jazzman collection Soul Freedom, and Kenny Graham’s Moondog And Suncat Suites with (a pre-Lambert & Hendricks) Yolanda Bavan which was heard here thanks to great work by Jonny Trunk, one of the Original Peter carrier bag men.  

And oh the delight in discovering Max Roach’s It’s Time with the Coleridge Perkinson choir on Impulse! and the same singers again on Donald Byrd’s matchless ‘Cristo Redentor’, the Duke Pearson composition which again leads back to Brazil, and Duke’s own version later on How Insensitive, a record with Flora Purim on there too. And then Andrew Hill’s ‘Hey Hey’ and Bobby Hutcherson’s ‘The Creators’: Blue Note spiritual jazz. Then there’s Karin Krog and ‘Karin’s Mode’ from Joy, with Jan Garbarek and co.

Also in the jazz tradition there’s Jackie and Roy and their inventive vocal patterns, whether way back in 1955 on Clifford Brown’s ‘Daahoud’ or much later on their CTI albums, the title track of A Wilder Alias and before that, on Time & Love, their enchanting version of ‘Bachianas Brasileiras №5’ with the Don Sebesky arrangement, the first time Villa-Lobos’ aria was heard here.

So, yeah, the classical tradition too, where personal wordless favourites include Puccini’s ‘Hummingbird Chorus’ from Madame Butterfly, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, and very definitely Kodály’s Mountain Nights, a recent discovery and a genuine example of wordless choral music, for most choral works are not wordless but are usually Latin texts sung in such a way that they transcend words. Choral music has, of late, become something of an unexpected obsession here from time to time, and it’s been a real joy discovering Gregorian chants, compositions by Hildegard of Bingham, Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina, and definitely Allegri’s Miserere sung by the Tallis Scholars, with still so much more to explore.

And where on earth did this love for ancient choral music come from? From early favourites like Steeleye Span’s ‘Gaudete’ or ‘Requiem’ by Slik? Or maybe Fun Boy Three’s ‘Sanctuary’ with Bananarama, for so much flows from that LP. Who knows? Maybe it’s the hours spent listening to ‘Bankrobber’ and possibly something subconsciously took root: “I’m hearing music from another time.”

It seems that motets and masses, like dub or lovers rock, or solo piano music, or string quartets, or beat ballads or torch songs, possess healing powers, and it’s been great fun, diving into unknown waters, picking up odd things here and there, like a Naxos CD of Portuguese polyphony and another Naxos set of Portuguese Requiem Masses by Lôbo and Cardoso which irresistibly links to Edu’s Missa Breve. You see how it works?

And it’s not just early music that appeals: it’s been fun randomly acquiring ECM New Series editions of Arvo Pärt works. These are beautiful things, in terms of content and presentation, and it has been a rewarding challenge coming to terms with his use of space and silence, becoming able to listen to what’s not there, the echo and resonance, rather like the idea but not necessarily the reality of dub (which often has its, ahem, roots in deeply devotional music too, let’s not forget), then the disconcerting sudden swells of sound and emotion and the celestial voices let loose: “Shhh now, here comes silence, from this comes strength I promise .. something pure and precious worth having.”

Ah. Time alone. In the daylight there’s a time for, say, dancing to old soul music in your own space, a time for contemplating jazz, a time for having hip-hop reactivate you, a time for listening to Van Morrison. But for the ‘Evening Meditation’, as Van called one of his most beautiful songs, one where he didn’t need to use words, then other things work best. Oh, this is not in the “I shall search my very soul” sense: heaven forbid. What’s needed now are distractions, diversions: getting lost in a good book, getting absorbed in the music, shutting the world and worries out, and hopefully finding some sense of peace, for a while, which is as good as it gets: a sense of wonder indeed. And it’s helped of late drawing strength from certain choral works, including (especially!) CDs of Arvo’s Kanon Pokajanen, Passio, and Litany.

The occasional combination of Arvo Pärt’s compositions and the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble in particular seems a wonderful thing. Their voices weave a beautiful web of sound, and on other works too, other ECM CDs, like Tallis’ The Lamentations of Jeremiah, a recording of works by Perotin, and Codex Speciálník, music from a Prague manuscript c.1500 but somehow the title makes connections to Fire Engines c.1980. And maybe most famously there’s Officium, the record the ensemble made with Jan Garbarek for ECM in 1994.

The copy of Officium here still has its 99p Oxfam sticker on the slip case, and was bought initially because of a passion for recordings made by Jan as a young man, with Karin Krog, with George Russell, with Terje Rypdal, and his own early ECM titles. But this was something else: truly spiritual music, with the saxophone meshing magically, mystically, with the Hilliard Ensemble’s voices on a series of ancient compositions, notably ‘Parce mihi domine’ by Christóbal de Morales to which they keep returning.

There is no shortage of works where jazz meets the liturgy, like Mary Lou Williams’ Black Christ of the Andes and, a current obsession, Paul Horn’s 1965 Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts, a recent Spotify chance find, where the music is composed and conducted by Lalo Schifrin. But the approach on Officium is different in that it is not a straight exercise in fusing forms, but instead Jan’s playing has an unearthly quality that seems often like a soprano secretly shadowing the ensemble’s singing.

It started as a bold experiment but, interestingly, Officium and its off-shoots have grown incrementally in popularity as tastes have evolved. Now you are likely to hear it played by Margherita Taylor in the wee small hours on Classic FM’s Smooth Classics show, alongside Einaudi, The Lark Ascending, Adagio For Strings and Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, which surely can only be a good thing: modern day easy listening.

Arvo Pärt has long been part of the hip canon, his name is often mentioned in many contexts, so it was never going to be that much of a gamble exploring his work. With James MacMillan it’s different somehow: is he considered a cool name to drop? Who cares? Anyway, there is one composition of his which is a real obsession here: ‘In splendoribus sanctorum’. It is 11-minutes of magic, one of his Strathclyde Motets, found on a CD, Miserere, and God bless the day that was bought for a pound in a charity shop, partly due to being intrigued and partly because of the appeal of the cover painting by Willie Rodger.

The Miserere CD is a selection of James’ choral works, sung exquisitely by Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen. But this particular track is so special as it also has Robert Farley on lone trumpet accompaniment, which suggests taps as played by Montgomery Clift in From Here To Eternity, tears pouring down his (so right) profile, with just an intimation of A Certain Ratio circa Sextet.

James has been an incredibly prolific composer, and beyond his sacred music there is a real liking here for the intimacy and daring of his small-scale works, particularly his Piano Sonata. The first performance of this was by Rolf Hind in 1989. A year later Rolf recorded it for his second Factory Classical CD, Country Music, where in an inspired sequence it is followed by Janáček’s In The Mists and Bartók’s Out of Doors.  

This CD is a particular favourite here, even if it was discovered 25-years after the fact. It comes with some great liner notes by Rolf, and about the Piano Sonata he writes: “Here both landscape and character are captured; the music was written during, and strongly evokes, a harsh Ayrshire winter, and is tinged with the plaintive sorrow of Scots folk music and the pibroch”. It is, as this suggests, an incredibly beautiful work.

There is very much a preference here for small-scale classical works rather than large symphonic recordings, and similarly there is a belief choral music sounds better as stark as possible, unadorned, but a great exception is James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross as recorded by Graham Ross with the Dmitri Ensemble for a Naxos CD, bought simply because that’s what one of the characters does in Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break while wandering around Amsterdam, and it serves as a reminder of a very moving book, one about a long-married couple drifting apart: one searching for something, one sinking, but is there hope?  

This Naxos CD closes with an acapella chorus rendition of James’ “… here in hiding …”, a dramatic composition written originally for the Hilliard Ensemble and included on their 1996 ECM double-CD songbook New Music For Voices.  That set also contains Michael Finnissy’s striking ‘Stabant autem iuxta crucem’, a composer first encountered when belatedly discovering Rolf Hind play selections from Finnissy’s English Country Tunes, a 1977 work that Rolf implicitly links to the Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ which no doubt pleased Tony Wilson. Also on New Music For Voices is Arvo Pärt’s Summa which serves as a reminder that the composer was first heard here via Naxos, not ECM, on the CD which features the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra performing Summa for strings, alongside Fratres and the compelling Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.

One ECM title that is being played a lot here in the twilight is Descansado: Songs for Films, a 2018 release by Norma Winstone. Descansado is a lovely word: even in translation. Rested or at ease seems to capture the mood of the record perfectly. You could possibly pitch it as Norma’s equivalent to The Moviegoer, a real favourite still among the Scott canon, especially the way he sings on this record.  That is not entirely flippant a connection: there is overlap in terms of composers and directors, such as Michel Legrand, the Bergmans, Nino Rota, Vittorio De Sica, and Ennio Morricone.

On Descansado Norma is joined by trusted companions Glauco Venier on piano and Klaus Gesing on saxophone or clarinet. Occasionally they are augmented very delicately by percussion and cello, but really nothing at all obtrusive or intrusive. Norma is also closely involved in the creativity, adding her words to several of the compositions, and always seeming to add something special to the intimate magic. And, for those among us who love to hear Norma singing without words, there are a few real treats, particularly on the adaptation of Michel Legrand’s theme from Vivre Sa Vie, which we also get a solo piano version of, and on Madredeus’ theme for Wenders’ Lisbon Story.

There is something very moving about the way Norma sings on this record, and she has this incredible ability to suggest emotional depths without having to show off and start ululating and shouting in a forced way. Perhaps the sense of sadness that the CD suggests has something to do with the dedication to those recently lost: “In memory of John and Kenny.”

John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler recorded over the course of several special LPs with Norma as Azimuth for ECM. On one title they were joined by Ralph Towner too. The first Azimuth record, from 1977, opens with the very aptly titled ‘Siren’s Song’ which is essentially a duet between Norma and John. The gently insistent piano introduces a gorgeous theme which Norma takes up and they weave and dart around one another with John gradually introducing another melody over the top while all the while the original refrain is kept up by Norma who flows along exquisitely, communicating beyond words.

It’s the sort of introductory track to an LP where it is incredibly hard to move on to the rest of what is a remarkably beautiful record. Then again, why would you want to leave this song behind? It is truly spellbinding, it gets played over and over here, but sometimes so much beauty can be painful and a reminder of what is lost: “Oh my heart shies from the sorrow”. That sort of thing.

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