This piece comes with a bit of a backstory. I recently spent several weeks holidaying in Europe and, while in northern Italy, I ran out of English-language reading material. A forthcoming train journey between Milan and Paris and then another from Paris to London started to look a pretty bleak prospect without anything to read other than a cell phone. After an out-of-date internet map had taken us on a long walk in barely believable heat to the former site of Milan’s apparently no-longer extant English bookshop, I managed, more or less by chance, to find a shop with a huge selection of music magazines in various languages, including English. In case you ever find yourself in a similar position, that shop is just across the piazza from Milan Cathedral, and it sells ‘Downbeat’ magazine. So I bought the latest two issues.
By the time I boarded the Eurostar back to London my mainland European musical experience had most memorably been limited to visiting the Paris graves of Chopin, Edith Piaf, jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani and, of course, Jim Morrison, which they say also includes some of the DNA of Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys whose girlfriend scattered his ashes there; that and waiting with my 13 year-old granddaughter for about five hours outside Harry Styles’ Turin hotel so that she could catch a glimpse of a man she had seen in concert at Wembley just a few weeks earlier. It seems, however, that Harry snuck out the back door on his way to that night’s performance, which was later streamed by some mysterious means to my granddaughter’s phone. So, I did see a few seconds of him that day. That’s Harry Styles the ‘Dunkirk’ actor, you understand, rather than Harry Styles the former One Direction singer.
Anyway, there we were, eventually, on the Eurostar, readying ourselves for what turned out to be a three-and-a-half-hour journey back to London – the French voice on the tannoy assured us several times that the delay was on the British side – and, praise be, the seat next to mine was vacant … pretty much right up to departure. Then a bloke came and sat there. Ah well, I thought, setting my communications device to Spotify and continuing to read ‘Downbeat’, but it wasn’t long before he had tapped me on the shoulder and asked whether I was a musician or just a jazz fan. I answered briefly and politely and was about to resume my avoidance behaviour when he disclosed that he was a producer and composer from Colorado. And so began the kind of musical conversation neither of us, nor anyone else I should think, could possibly have imagined as we covered Link Wray and Béla Fleck; mutual connections with Ellingtonian fingerstyle guitarist Steve Hancoff, bluegrasser Tim O’Brien and Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet – his were more impressive but I still treasure mine; the respective responses of Greeks and Turks to the oud and the bouzouki; the difficulties involved in keeping a rebuilt cimbalom in tune; the origin of the band name Orange Free State, young South African ex-pats he had once produced; the recent visit by Blue Note Records boss, acclaimed producer and session player and, once, briefly, rock star Don Was to the studio my friend Marius Botha runs from his home in Durban; the joys of playing in a stone ensemble all of whose instruments are made out of … yep, you guessed it; the music of recently deceased trumpeter Ron Miles; the Tank Centre for Sonic Arts, where Bill Morrison had filmed Bill Frisell playing (I had seen Miles playing with Frisell some years ago in front of Morrison’s silent film of the great Mississippi flood of 1927); and even my companion’s Denver, Colorado guitar teacher about whom I had recently been reading in ‘Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed The Sound Of American Music’, the wonderful new Frisell biography by Philip Watson which you should certainly read even if you don’t agree with the title. This was all totally unexpected, of course, as were the snippet of Afghan rubab he played me on his phone and the production from his bag of the 1918 ukulele with which he regularly travels. But the chance that two foreign strangers sitting next to each other on a train from Paris to London would both play the Weissenborn … well, I’ll leave the gamblers among you to figure out those odds.
I learned along the way that I was talking to Tom Wasinger, who had won three Grammy awards as the producer of records by Native American artists and that his work features in my record collection. Look him up.
Mary Halvorson – Amaryllis / Mary Halvorson – Belladonna
And what has all of this to do with Mary Halvorson, a hugely prolific guitarist and composer in the broadly jazz idiom – Allmusic lists nearly 40 albums by her since 2005 – whom some have compared with Frisell, not in sound or style as much as in the fact that she has developed a sound and style that is as recognisably hers as Frisell’s is his? Well, that ‘Downbeat’ magazine reviewed these two albums, released simultaneously, and gave each five stars.
Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, London is still full of record stores where you can buy new CDs – though, sadly, my favourite of these, Rough Trade West in Notting Hill, now focuses virtually exclusively on vinyl – so I bought them both and they are still revealing, play after play, strengths and depths that may not have been immediately discernible.
This is complex music, both melodically and harmonically and, in the case of Night Shift, the opening track on ‘Amaryllis’, rhythmically as well. The fact that this piece’s unusual time signature proves so propulsive and so captivating is testament to the compositional skill involved and the quality of the sextet assembled by Halvorson, which includes, as featured instruments, trumpet, trombone and the brilliant vibraphone of Patricia Brennan, whose own ‘Maquishti’ was one of my most-played albums of 2021, along with the leader’s guitar. Halvorson’s own playing is full of a kind of brittle fluency, spikey yet careful and precise, even fragile when it needs to be, and featuring enough inventive sonic treatment and stylistic variety to make its point without labouring it. Essentially, ‘Amaryllis’ is a superb ensemble album rather than a vehicle for individuals’ highlights, although there are plenty of those. Side Effect, one of three tracks to feature the adventurous and innovative Mivos string quartet with the band, is positively joyous.
‘Belladonna’ is a quite different record and might take a little longer to serve up its secrets, especially to those expecting something more conventionally recognisable as jazz, but a few listens in I found I couldn’t honestly pick a favourite. The albums supplement and complement each other that beautifully that I soon found myself invariably listening to them together, and it didn’t matter which went first. The guitar, which is largely improvised on ‘Belladonna’ over new music composed by Halvorson for the Mivos Quartet, appears to take more of a central role than on ‘Amaryllis’, but it takes more risks too. It may be tempting to consider ‘Belladonna’ the more cerebral and its fellow the more visceral, but that over-simplifies matters and ignores elements in each that reverse those roles. According to Wikipedia the two titles together create, in amaryllis belladonna, a plant that is native to South Africa. Perhaps they do belong together.
Charles Lloyd – Trios: Chapel
Though 84 years-old now, Charles Lloyd, who has spent a lifetime pushing boundaries, is still looking for challenges. His latest is a trio of trios for the Blue Note label where the storied saxophonist and flautist is joined by two different musicians each time, though in each case one of them is a guitarist. The Chapel Trio, so named because they first played together in a San Antonio chapel, sees him hooking up with Bill Frisell, who is also, among a bewildering array of other things, a member of Lloyd’s group, the Marvels, and Thomas Morgan, a wonderful bass player who has released a couple of outstanding duet albums with Frisell in the last few years and of whom the guitarist has said that his playing is so sympathetic that he predicts Frisell’s mistakes and compensates for them at about the very moment they’re made. As Lloyd’s sleeve note points out, three is the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding, all of which are in plentiful supply on an album that features five pieces, three originals, one by Cuban composer Bola de Nieve and the last composition by Billy Strayhorn before his 1967 death from cancer, all of which have been previously recorded by Lloyd – Dorotea’s Studio with a guitarist, John Abercrombie, in the band back then – but all of which shine differently in this setting. Three, as De La Soul once reminded us, is the magic number and there’s plenty of that magic on show on this gorgeously understated set.
John Scofield – John Scofield
It seems that it took the enforced isolation of lockdown for the remarkable John Scofield, who has been making records under his name for 45 years, and whose employers and collaborators who have benefitted from his blues-inflected bop, hard bop and post-bop stylings on hundreds more have included Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Billy Cobham, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and fellow guitarists Bill Frisell, John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, Mike Stern and Vieux Farka Touré, to get round to making a solo guitar record, with the only accompaniment to Scofield’s guitar being Scofield’s looper pedal. That it’s a good one goes without saying as a wide-ranging selection that kicks off with a Keith Jarrett composition, ends with the resigned sigh of Hank Williams’s You Win Again and takes in the much-covered New Orleans blues Junco Partner in a setting that is more blues than Nawlins, a driving, rocking Not Fade Away, a few beautifully played standards, a gorgeous Danny Boy that avoids any sense of cliché, and a few fiery originals, some of which he has recorded before, allows him the scope to demonstrate the elegance, imagination, bite and, to quote one of his album titles, grace under pressure that have become such a Scofield trademark.
The Delines – The Sea Drift
Before heading off to mainland Europe I spent a week in the Northumbrian countryside and took in what was, unusually, the only live performance of my trip, the Delines at the Gosforth Civic Theatre in Newcastle upon Tyne. The Delines are the natural successor to Richmond Fontaine, a band in the general Americana/alternative country neighbourhood that made around a dozen fine-to-exceptional albums before finally working out, in 2016, that they were never going to make any kind of a decent living and that, in the title of their last album, you can’t go back if there’s nothing to go back to. But Willy Vlautin, singer, guitarist and, especially, composer of some of the most pointed and poignant songs about life on the American margins, wasn’t ready to quit altogether. A parallel career as an acclaimed and award-winning novelist was beginning to gain momentum but he was still writing those wonderful songs, singable short stories almost, about those that Bob Dylan once called the luckless, the abandoned and forsaked. In Amy Boone, once in the terrific but underappreciated Austin bar band the Damnations Tx with her sister, Vlautin found the perfect voice for the songs he no longer wished to sing himself, a voice that is equal parts country and soul, equal parts likely as not unwarranted optimism and definitely resigned experience, perhaps equal parts Bobbie Gentry and Shelby Lynn, and yet totally Amy Boone.
So, he gathered a few former Fontaines around the two of them and strapped on his guitar but retired into the background and let his songwriting go to work. ‘The Sea Drift’, a series of carefully observed vignettes set on America’s Gulf Coast is the Delines’ third fully-realised album and the first since Boone was involved in a horrific motor collision the effects of which were still noticeable in her limited mobility on stage. But her voice, thankfully, appears unaffected and invests these songs and stories with a matter-of-factness that gels perfectly with trumpeter/keyboardist Cory Gray’s rainswept, dimly lit, frequently cinematic string and horn arrangements that frame what could almost be mini screenplays by someone like Raymond Carver. Start, as the album does, with Little Earl, about a convenience store robbery gone hopelessly wrong, move on to This Ain’t No Getaway about a woman leaving, not escaping, a relationship in which the stereo’s too loud but the neighbours are scared to complain, and then go in any direction you like. Do that a few times and you might wonder, as I have, whether, even in a year that has delivered fine records by favourites like Calexico, the Drive-By Truckers, Big Thief and the Sadies, there is likely to be anything obviously better than this.