Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Thursday, 31 May 2012

If music be the food of love * - Cleopatra Goes Jazz

1963 was the year of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra. The epic movie won four Oscars, not however, for the soundtrack which, although nominated lost out to the music for Tom Jones - remember that one (nor me)?
But nothing could stop the juggernaut of Cleopatra and Alex North's music found itself covered by such easy listening stalwarts as Al Caiola, Ferrante and Teicher and Dick Hayman.North had already scored the  sword and sand epic Spartacus and Yusef Lateef had taken the Love Theme and made it an achingly beautiful jazz classic. Read about it here
Not only did Burton and Taylor sizzle on screen, their real life romance obvious to the millions who saw them, but the story of love against the odds, of passion and, lets face it, exotic sexual lust, was irresistible.
Who couldn't fall for it? Who could jump on the bandwagon?
In jazz, as in all other genres of music, a movement cannot be allowed to pass by in case it can bring you to the attention of more people. Hence the fad for producing records of jazzed up Broadway musicals, or doing James Bond knock-offs and exotica cross-overs. If millions liked the movie, maybe they'll buy a jazz records related to it?
Three Cleopatra themed jazz records made it into the shops and each would take a slightly different approach to turning the epic movie into a piece of jazz history.

Cleopatra represented something more than a sexy screen idol. She was exotic and sensual but not just in the way of any number of record covers that showed exotic ladies in states of undress, or North African belly dancers and concubines, or wild Cuban or Haitian female dancers. Cleopatra was a world famous beauty as well as a Queen. She was a perfect combination of beauty and brains - but because she was from Egypt and an historical figure she could be depicted wearing titillating clothes!
And although she was played by the very British Elizabeth Taylor, the real Cleopatra was, of course from Egypt. In 1963 there was an ever growing awareness amongst black Americans that the history of the world was not necessarily the same as the history of white Europeans. Egypt was part of the African continent and therefore part of the original homeland of many who were starting to question their white-American-determined roots and heritage. Of course none of this is visible in the movie, nor in the music. However, it is worth noting Sun Ra's Egyptian obsession, Wayne Shorter's Black Nile and Jackie McLean's On the Nile as instances of the jazz world taking notice of Egypt.
The first to give it a go was Paul Gonsalves.

Gonsalves for some reason didn't take full advantage of the opportunity to have a picture of Liz Taylor on the front of his record and instead opted for a picture of himself in from of a stone, carved coffin. No accounting for taste!
A very solid effort on Impulse, Cleopatra, Feelin Jazzy sees the ex-Ellingtonian teamed up with a crack group consisting of Hank Jones, Dick Hyman, George Duvivier, Kenny Burrell and Roy Haynes. Even I could make a great record with these guys helping! However, despite the all star cast its the least adventurous of the three records.
Gonsalves acquits himself magnificently throughout, his tone and phrasing are impeccable. They cover two tracks from the original soundtrack, Caesar and Cleopatra Theme and Anthony and Cleopatra Theme. After that they are free to let rip.
However, although the original compositions (and Ellington's Action in Alexandria) are all given titles that relate to the movie - Blues for Liz, Cleo's Blues, Cleo's Asp and Cleopatra's Lament, the music itself has no hint of Egypt, Africa, exotica or anything other than an American swinging hard bop. Its all very nice but not great. There is little that is either exotic, or indeed particularly spectacular about Cleopatra Feelin Jazzy. It a good sold listen but once the needle leaves the record the music quickly fades.

Next up is another Paul - Paul Horn and he is fielding a more West Coast team than Gonsalves. This Paul called up some mates, Emil Richards, Larry Bunker who would later play with him on his Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts (read about it here) as well as some other experienced studio musicians such as Brit expat, Victor Feldman, Chuck Israels and Colin Bailey.
They also used this opportunity to have a very suggestive picture of Liz Taylor on the cover. As you can see she fixes you with a direct stare before your eyes are dragged down over the amazing necklace and shimmering gown.
Horn and co did not bring any original material to this record but their interpretations of Alex North's music is so original that I don't think that matters.
Horn's soaring flute work is given an even more exotic backdrop by Richards' vibes and Bunker's percussion work and although it is uncredited Horn also plays the melodia on some tracks. Taken together this makes this a very enjoyable and satisfying record. It mixes just the right amounts of exotica and jazz to make it interesting throughout. Compared to the massive orchestration of the original, Horn's record sound refreshingly clear and fresh.
There is nothing remotely North African or indeed Egyptian or even Arabian about this music. It owes its exotic nature as much to the movie's depiction of Cleopatra as to any knowledge of music beyond the borders of the United States.
Having said all of that, this is one of my favourite Horn records and although it takes Alex North's music as its starting point it is, in my view, has very much its own character. Of course, Horn and Richards would go on to make more 'authentic' records later in the decade.

So, finally, on to the wild card in the pack.. What is this all about?
The Music of Cleopatra on the Nile was released on the small Mount Vernon Music label based in New York.
There is exactly no information on either the sleeve or the label as to who was behind this record. No musicians listed, no producer credited, no writer acknowledged. It seems to have come out of nowhere.
And the music, I hear you ask? Well the it is an amazing amalgam of jazz, of what to my ears sounds like Eastern European clarinet - almost klezmer in places, an instrument that sound like an oud (read about Ahmed Abdul Malik and his fusion of oud and jazz here), and some great percussion of bells, gongs and hand drums. It sounds like music from North Africa rather than music from America - or more precisely it sounds like music played by musicians who were familiar with music outside of jazz but familiar with jazz as well. Particular highlights for me are Passionate and Exotica, both of which provide a great danceable mix of styles. Dance of the Perfumed Veils is strangely hypnotic and alluring.
Who made this music? There is some speculation on the web that Sun Ra had a hand in it. I'm afraid that I just can't hear that. I know he made the Batman and Robin record but this just doesn't sound like anything by Sun Ra I've ever heard.
I like the fact that we may never know who was behind this. It just means that there is nothing to distract you from the music. Unless its the busty drawing of our Liz on the front cover!
Track this one down. Its an obscure joy.

Or click here to go to the whole album

* Yes I know this is from Twelth Night - so sue me!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Jerry Cole - Super Charged Knock Offs

Jerry Cole was a go-to guy in the LA session world. Not only that he had a sideline (lucrative I hope) in exploito records, usually, but not exclusively with Crown Records.
Hot Rods, Surf, Bikes and even Drag Boats - he provided soundtracks to them all under a number of pseudonyms.

Here are some.

The Hot Rodders - Big Hot Rod

Jerry Kole and the Stokers - Hot Rod Alley (not a very good attempt at hiding his identity)

The Deuce Coupes - The Shut Downs

The Winners - Checkered Flag
The Blasters - Sounds of the Drags (notice that all of the images have been used for other records!)

The Kickstands - Black Books and Bikes

The Scramblers - Cycle Psycho

The Hornets - Motorcycles USA

The Hornets - Big Drag Boats USA (this boat apparently was trying to break the water speed record)

Mike Adams and the Red Jackets - Surfers Beat
Jerry of course, had his own band Jerry Cole and the Spacemen as well as playing in a lot of the Gary Usher studio bands, such as the Super Stocks and The Risers.

Any more that I've missed off?


My very first South African jazz record. Given to me by a friend in Johannesburg along with some non-jazz stuff.
My mum used to play this, he told me. Its a an anti-aphartheid anthem, he said.
Well, when I first played it I must confess I couldn't see why, an instrumental, should have any great political significance - beautiful as the song is.
If you want to know more about how it was made and how it came to be an anthem as well as an icon click here to read an amazing article about Dollar Brand and Mannenburg.
Its full of interesting stuff, such as the fact that the piano had drawing pins in the hammers (I'd always thought that - I wonder if its the same piano that crops up on other As-Shams, The Sun records?), that Mannenburg is spelt with two 'n's on the cover but only one in real life and the lady on the front is Gladys Williams, Morris Goldberg's former housekeeper.
It also puts the song in the political context of its time, which is essential.
Well worth reading in my opinion.
And here is the song in question to listen to while you do:

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Cal Tjader - Several Shades of Jade

I love this record but I'm not really sure why.
Tjader, the most famous latin musician from St Louis, is always a favourite of mine. He sometime comes under fire for being a bit too 'pop', and somehow not being authentic.
I'm not so sure. Just listen to his records with Eddie Palmieri and tell me that Tjader hasn't got the chops. Fiery stuff and no mistake.
Which brings us to Several Shades of Jade. Why did Cal think that he should ditch Latin America for Asia and the Middle East? Perhaps we will never know for sure but I wonder if Lalo Schifrin had anything to do with it.
Schifrin, from Argentina, recorded a number of latin-jazz and bossa records as well as arranged for Xavier Cugat. You might have thought that a collaboration with Tjader would have led to more sounds for 'south of the border'. However, Schifrin was always an experimental and adventurous musician who wrote Paul Horn's Jazz Mass (read about it here), and went on the conduct and produce for the likes of Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz amongst others. Schifrin was never afraid to stretch out.
Just don't expect any authentic sounding music. This is music for people who don't know what the music of Asia and the Middle East sounds (or sounded) like and don't particularly care.

In that regard it is a purely exotica record.
Like the music of Les Baxter, the music on this record owes as much to the movies as it does to a study of 'traditional'music.
As one might expect given Schifrin's later success as a film and TV composer, there is a definite filmic quality to this record. I suspect that this is helped by the crack team of studio musicians that appear here. Almost all of them veterans of film recording sessions, but also coming from jazz roots the likes of George Duvivier, Clark Terry and Urbie Green help give the music its swing and funk. Tracks such as Borneo and Horace Silver's Tokyo Blues could be used in any crime or spy show of the period without turning any heads. Perhaps Tokyo Blues has a little too many crashing gongs for the average New York cop but the horns provide cop show punch.

And, of course, Tjader plays his part too. When he really lets go (and starts to sound like the brilliant Latin player he was) he adds, just the right amount of attack and flair. When it doesn't work, the music starts to slip into middle of the road exotica territory. Song of the Yellow River has Tjader playing like a fiend while the band race to keep up with him. The 'Chinese' into and outro are, perhaps, slightly unfortunate.

However, the highlight of the record is the song the kicks it off - Fakir. A somewhat spurious 'Middle Eastern' theme is beefed up by think heavy drums until Cal takes control. Awesome stuff.

A great example, to my ears, of the permeable line between exotica, jazz and soundtracks. If you can find the original Verve gatefold so much the better.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Heshoo Beshoo Group - Armitage Road

The Heshoo Beshoo Group comprised Henry Sithole on alto sax, his brother Stanley Sithole in tenor, Cyril Magubane on guitar, Ernest Mothle on bass and Nelson Magwaza on drums. This is there only record together and it is marvellous.  Like Batsumi (read about them here) The Heshoo Beshoo Group created a persuasive mix of American jazz and African jazz and create a sound of their own.
The music was composed by guitarist Cyril Magubane and, as you might expect, the guitar features prominently on every track. Magubane's playing owes a lot to US jazz guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. However, it owes just as much to South African traditions of guitar playing.
The guitar features on many South African jazz records with amazing guitarists such as Phillip Tabane, Lucky Ranku, Allan Kwela and Ray Phiri of Stimela featuring prominently. Unlike US jazz, guitars are an integral part of jazz in South Africa rather than a slightly unusual instrument struggling against the horns.
Like jazz itself, the spread of the guitar throughout Africa, and in South Africa in particular, was a symptom of increased urbanisation. With increasing numbers of people migrating to urban areas, especially with the development of the gold mining industry, traditional music making, and traditional instruments were forced to adapt to new social conditions. Mineworkers who came from across southern Africa, brought their instruments with them but slowly replaced them with Western instruments. Instruments such as guitars, accordions and pennywhistles, while relatively cheap and easy to come by, also represented modernity, and a new urban condition and could even be seen as sign of success and prosperity.
It is probable that the guitar, like the accordion, was brought to Africa by European sailors and it seems to have arrived at about the same time in West Africa and South Africa. Like the pennywhistle, its popularity owed something to its similarity to already existing instruments, making its adoption somewhat easier. Styles of playing changed from one part of the continent to the other. However, the advent of recording, and of radio in particular, made it easier for styles of playing, as well as the songs themselves, to spread much further than ever before.
In South Africa the kwela boom also helped popularise the guitar. While not as cheap to buy as the pennywhistle many aspiring musicians made their own guitars. Apparently jazz superstar Sipho Gumede started his musical career on a home-made guitar.
However, the guitar might also represent a bridge between 'traditional'music and 'international' jazz. The adoption of the instrument by mineworkers, in particular Zulus, meant that, when they finished their work periods, they took their guitars back home with them. So popular was the instrument that it became an integral part of 'traditional' music making, while at the same time being an 'urban' instrument. In contrast, saxophones, pianos or trumpets were urban and owed much to European styles and methods of playing. I think that the popularity of the guitar in South African jazz was a factor behind the rise of Afro-Rock bands in Europe in the 70s. Without the guitar the bands would have seemed too 'jazz' for rock audiences, but their presence allowed bands such as Osibissa and Assagai to be considered 'rock'.
One of the things I like about Armitage Road is the way that the guitar is an equal partner to the horns. For me US jazz records with lead guitars are, like US jazz records with lead saxophonists, often about the 'star' with the other musicians backing him up. The Heshoo Beshoo Group are not like that at all. They feel more like a band in which they are all equals, and as such the music is much more integrated. Magubane provides rhythm as well as lead guitar giving each song amazing continuity. His playing is shown off to outstanding effect on Emakhaya, which starts with him playing unaccompanied before the rest of the band come in behind him. His solo on this track is a thing of funky beauty.
The Sithole brother's playing is also great. To me their style seems to owe a great deal to Winston Mankunku and therefore, I guess to John Coltrane. The brothers, together with Nelson Magwaza would go on to form The Drive, one of South Africa's most successful soul jazz groups.
Ernest Mothle eventually left South Africa, as did so many musicians, and played in Jabula with another great South African guitarist, Lucky Ranku, and Julian Bahula, as well as in Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath.
There is a 'funky', danceable element to this record, and I invariably find that without knowing it I am tapping my feet and nodding my head. It combines graceful and moving playing with invention and passion. What more do you want?
The cover, as has been pointed out on flatinternational (here) references The Beatles' Abbey Road sleeve. The message is clearly that Armitage Road, in contrast to Abbey Road, is a place of poverty which has been caused by apartheid. The guy in the wheel chair is Magubane who suffered from polio.
My copy is a French copy on Pathe Marconi. I'm not sure how this record came to have a French pressing, international distribution being something that South African jazz records simply didn't have. If anyone knows let me know!