Sunday, 22 January 2012

Indo-Jazz Fusions, The Travels of Travis and the Doctor's Forgotten Adventures

Some good records have been donated to the Oxfam Music Shop in Exeter of late, and have made their way onto the online shop. There’s a copy of the 1976 LP Doctor Who and the Pescatons, a spoken word record in which the then current Doctor, Tom Baker, narrates a story written by Victor Pemberton. He’s certainly come up with a great monster name, evoking images of large fishy beings exuding a powerful odour. The scaly critter with large, luminous green saucer eyes rising from the waters of the Thames on the cover would tend to confirm this association. Baker is joined by the late great Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane, and Bill Mitchell as Zor, a simple, monosyllabic monster monicker which suggests subtle intelligence is not a salient feature of this particular alien menace. The record was engineered by Robert Parker and Brian Hodgson of the Radiophonic Workshop, who provide incidental sounds and atmospheres. The music was composed and played by Kenny Clayton, apart from Ron Grainer's (and Delia Derbyshire's) legendary theme music, of course.

More spoken word tales come in the strange form of a 1959 half-speed 16 rpm LP (presumably allowing more running time) on Top Rank/Vanguard in which Nelson Olmstead reads some of Edgar Allan's Poe's classic horror stories and gothic poetry. A good cover, in which the swooping, sharp-fanged bat seems to oddly echo Edgar’s hair and the rounded collar of his sober jacket. Many of Poe’s key works are sampled here, with a fair few having formed the basis of Roger Corman’s cycle of adaptations in the 60s; namely The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat and The Strange Case of M.Valdemar (all featuring in whole or part in the anthology film Tales of Terror), The Raven (well, yes, a very loose adaptation, played for laughs) and, perhaps best of all, Ligeia, filmed as The Tomb of Ligeia.

There are a couple of interesting East West fusion records from the 60s. Ravi Shankar was the pioneer and inspiration, of course, and we have his 1962 LP Improvisations in which he plays variations on his evocative and touching theme from Satyajit Ray’s 1955 film Pather Panchali, the first of the trilogy about the progress of the Bengali village boy Apu. He’s joined by West Coast jazz flautist Bud Shank on this one, who also takes part in the full on fusion of Fire-Night, which also features Dennis Budimir on guitar, bassist Gary Peacock and Louis Hayes on drums. Peacock was in the early days of his musical career here, which would see him playing with Albert Ayler on the free jazz classic Spiritual Unity, form a musical partnership with Paul Bley, make a couple of beautiful duet albums with Oregon guitarist Ralph Towner and, from the 80s onwards, settle down into the long-term renown of Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio, where he somehow manages to ignore the pianist’s incessant moaning and wheedling. Ravi engages in a different sort of fusion on Karnataki, blending Northern Hindustani classical music with the Southern Caranatic style.

We also have a copy (the second one which has come our way of late) of a more British take on Indo-jazz fusions: not John Mayer and Joe Harriott’s well-known recordings, but a record with the dubious title Curried Jazz made by a temporary grouping known as the Indo-Jazz Ensemble. This features the great British (well, Canadian, but he’s been based in Britain since the 50s) trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who celebrated his 82nd birthday last week, and is happily still in fine form. The group also features Ray Swinfield on flute, an Australian musician who moved to England in the 60s. Swinfield was a regular member of Johnny Dankworth’s band and a prominent figure on the 60s British jazz scene. He was also a tireless session musician, and featured on The Beatles’ Penny Lane. He recorded with Johnny Pearson (who died just last year) on many of his KPM library recordings, and I’m fairly sure he is the flautist bringing a touch of the pastoral to the brave new high-rise world of Mary, Mungo and Midge, which used selections of Pearson’s ‘Mini’ tracks (Mini Walking, Mini Clarinet, Mini Movement etc.). He teamed up with Kenny Wheeler again along with a great group of jazz musicians to provide the soundtrack for the varied adventures of Mr Benn. His contributions are particularly effective in the balloon race episode, with the lovely theme accompanying Mr Benn and his cohort’s dreamy drift through the clouds. The music which propels chase scenes or conveys bustling activity is a particularly tricksy and fastpaced piece of lightning bebop, expertly played in faultless ensemble. There’s a bit of breathy flute exotica over a tom-tom rhythm in The Hunter episode, and even a blast of raucous, atonal free jazz chords in the Spaceman story. ‘Mr Benn and the spaceman ran back to the spaceship, the noise was so terrible’, Ray Brooks observes in his narration, perhaps a reflection of common percepetions about the wilder shores of freeform jazz improvisation in the 60s and early 70s. This is definitely music worthy of the attention of Mr Trunk for a potential future release. Swinfield released one LP under his own name in 1968, One For Ray, which featured compositional input from Barbara Moore, she of the Barbara Moore Singers, who also produced some of the most distinctive library sounds of the era. The solarized and dazzlingly colour-drenched photographic cover is unmistakeably of its time.

We have the soundtrack LP to Lindsay Anderson’s sprawling, surreal 1973 film O Lucky Man!, which follows the picaresque misadventures of Malcolm McDowell’s Travis through the various levels of society and murky professional masonries in the England of the time. Alan Price’s band turn up at various intervals (with Helen Mirren in tow) and look on with distanced amusement, and the songs provide a jaundiced commentary on the proceedings in a traditional theatrical manner. Travis, who Anderson would take into one final film in 1979, Britannia Hospital, first appeared in If…, full of anger and firy, romantic rebellion. We have the LP Missa Luba, recorded by the Congolese vocal group Troubadours du Roi Baudouin, which contains the Sanctus which Travis repeatedly plays as he waits to make his move. It even turns up on the jukebox (probably only the jukebox in his head) to console him after he’s received a resounding slap from Christine Noonan’s dark-haired roadside café siren.

The Modern Jazz Quartet’s The Sherriff is notable for its fantastic cover, designed by Polish artist Stanislaw Zagorski. Zagorski also designed many Polish film posters in an era when Eastern European poster design was at a real artistic peak. These posters often avoided direct representation of the film’s content, aiming instead for a telling image or piece of surrealist association which would evoke the spirit of the picture. Skulls often seemed to feature, particularly when it came to Hitchcock movies. There’s a great book of Polish film posters in Exeter library for any in this neck of the woods who wish to explore further. Zagorski also designed the cover for the Velvet Underground’s Loaded LP, the one with the roseate clouds floating up from the subway entrance. The music of The Sheriff includes some Brazilian tunes, de rigeur for the time (1963), although the Quartet, as befits their restrained classicism, steers away from the standard bossa favourites and opts instead for one of the pieces from composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras suite.

When it comes to undiluted strangeness, its impossible to outweird The Residents. The compilation Ralph Before 84: Volume 1 gathers together a variety of material from the anonymous San Franciscans originally released, via their Cryptic Corporation, on their own Ralph Records lable. Matt Groening is a big fan, and The Residents have probably influenced his skewed view of the world's inherent oddness to a great degree. He included them in his All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2010, and they put on a compelling show, strange, theatrical and musically disconcerting. These tracks are taken from the LPs Residue, Duck Stab/Buster and Glen, Subterranean Modern, The Tunes of Two Cities, Fingerprince, Title In Limbo and the imaginary anthropological study Eskimo. It’s a good and wide-ranging general introduction which even includes a James Brown cover, It’s a Man’s Man’s World. Needless to say, it differs significantly from the original, and further covers of easy listening and rock and roll standards I Left My Heart in San Francisco and Jailhouse Rock warp the originals in wonderful ways.

More theatrical musical comes in the form of The Incredible String Band’s U, recording the original psych folk band's touring song and dance show, or 'surreal parable' as they style it. Mike Heron and Robin Williamson are joined by Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, along with dance troupe Stone Monkey, amongst whom is Malcolm leMaistre, a future member of the band. The record was produced by Joe Boyd. Whilst it’s generally accepted that they overreached themselves with this ambitious multi-media project, Williamson's Queen of Love and Invocation are fine songs, the former featuring some lush orchestrations, and they stand up alongside the band's best. Changing Horses was the 1969 follow up to the double album Wee Tam and the Big Huge, which had found them at their creative peak. This is a bit of a comedown, dominated by lengthy, multi-part epics written by Heron and Williamson, neither of which really cohere in the way that A Very Cellular Song had on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. This was the LP in which Williamson and Heron’s other halves, Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, joined the fray. The cover photo, by Janet Shankman, is perhaps the definitive representation of the Edenic, rainbow-coloured hippie idyll which the likes of the Incredible String Band dreamed of and tried in a muddled way to achieve in the late 60s. Both LPs were produced by Joe Boyd, the architect of the British psych/folk/rock sound of the era, who provided similar services for Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan.

North Carolina singer-songwriter and producer Teresa Trull’s debut LP The Ways A Woman Can Be is an interesting and inspiring record of 1970s feminism. It was released on the Olivia Records label, which was run by women for the benefit of women, giving them a supportive environment free from the usual pressures and prejudices of the music industry. The songs address the issues of the women’s movement at the time, and there is a strong sense both of celebration and of self-questioning. The music is soulful and bluesy, with a hefty brass-based backing band, loudly getting the message across without the usual introspective singer-songwriter quietude. We also have The second LP by Throwing Muses, House Tornado, centring around the formidable songwriting presence of Kristin Hersh, at this time also ably abetted by Tanya Donelly in pre-Belly and Breeders days. They both provide songs, sing in a powerfully declamatory style and play angular, off-kilter guitars, creating a whirlwind of circling, rhythmically offbeat sound. The distinctive paintings and collages on cover and insert were created by the artist Shinro Ohtake. And that’s all for now.

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