The Black Rock

antarctic ice

March came in with an icy blast here in the UK. We had 10 – 20 cm of snow, much of the country’s transport system ground to a halt and some unfortunate motorists got stuck on a Scottish motorway for eight hours. It was all due to “the beast from the east” – a weather pattern that drew extremely cold air from Siberia across mainland Europe and over the North Sea to chill the bones of the British people. The beast didn’t stay long but this weekend he wagged his tail again and some parts of the country have had freezing temperatures and more snow showers. So I thought it was time to feature a track by the Scottish group, The Cauld Blast Orchestra, in these pages.

You won’t find the Cauld Blast on streaming sites. There are a few videos on YouTube, all uploaded by a member of the band, Steve Kettley. Those videos are live recordings with less than perfect sound quality and intrusive text captions added by the video recorder. They serve as an archive of the band’s performances but they don’t do full justice to the 8-piece orchestra. So Crotchety Man has had a go at making a YouTube video from his copy of an album the band released in 1994. Here’s The Black Rock from Durga’s Feast.

I think I must have picked up the CD at the end of a concert but, frankly, I don’t remember the occasion at all now. Certainly, I was not familiar with the band before buying the shiny round disc in the standard jewel case. Steve Kettley’s website describes Cauld Blast‘s music as a “heady mix of jazz, folk, classical and rock, not to mention the odd tango or march for good measure”. That sounds like an event for the local arts centre and that’s probably where this seeker of all things weird (wonderful or not) stumbled upon them.

Between them the eight members of the band play nearly all the instruments in a modern orchestra: violin, cello, flute, clarinet, tenor horn, tuba and piano all feature on Durga’s Feast. Whistle, concertina, accordion and mandolin add folk music sounds to the mix. Then there are saxophones, bass guitar, drums and assorted percussion to spice up the tunes with a little jazz. Notable by their absence are guitars and vocals. The rock element sneaks in surreptitiously in the pulsing rhythms of the compositions.

The Black Rock, though, is a quiet instrumental; “the gentle side of the Cauld Blast” to quote Kettley again. It’s a piece for piano, violin and clarinet that ambles along in a contented 5-time, just the thing for looking out onto snow-covered fields from a comfortable armchair in a snug room. Come, sit beside me and together we will laugh at the mini-beast as it sidles off to bring shivers to some other part of the world.

cauld blast orchestra, trimmed

A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows

rainbow stars

Before we get into the new year in earnest here’s a belated Album of the Month post originally scheduled for December 2017. The album in question is called A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows and it was one of my first forays into the hinterlands of jazz.

I must have bought this record in the late seventies before CDs were invented and long before the Internet became available to the ordinary citizen. It was a time when good new music was hard to find and Crotchety Man had to resort to speculative purchases to satisfy his cravings. The Kaleidoscope was just such a leap in the dark. Although ‘dark’ is a rather peculiar word to use for an album whose title describes shifting multi-coloured shapes reflected in a mirrored tube held up to the light.

It was the record cover that compelled the plunge into the unknown. On the front there was a shimmering rainbow galaxy viewed through a mysterious wisp of smoke. It is still one of my favourite pieces of album artwork. Although, looking at it again today, I wonder what the dark foreground shape might be: the silhouette of a human body, a near-Earth asteroid or just a potato waiting for the chipper and the deep fat fryer?

In contrast, the back cover was almost entirely monochrome, consisting mainly of black text on white paper listing the tracks and musicians, carrying the copyright notices and giving a little information about Neil Ardley, the composer, and the compositions on the disc. Intriguingly the inspiration for the album came from a form of Balinese gamelan music, which uses a five note scale. The seven main tracks on the album emerged from  Ardley’s exploration of this scale. (There was probably also something about rainbows but I no longer have the vinyl and haven’t been able to check.)

Among the musicians the names of Barbara Thompson and Ian Carr stood out. They were both well respected jazz instrumentalists and their contributions served to reassure Crotchety Man that this record would not disappoint. So, on the strength of the artwork, the blurb and the personnel, the Kaleidoscope was added to my small collection of LPs. And it sparkled like bright sunbeams reflected in falling drops of rain.


The Kaleidoscope of Rainbows is an album that begs to be played all the way through, from Prologue, through the seven Rainbows to the Epilogue. Like a box of tasty chocolates one bite is never enough and it’s impossible to play one track without drooling over the others. Some tunes are soft and soothing, others have a certain funky piquancy. None are bitter. All are food for the soul.

Unlike chocolates this album has no ‘best before’ date; it sounds as good today as it did 40 years ago. And, fortunately, you can’t overdose on rainbows.


Earthworks/All Heaven …

fall of rebel angels

All heaven breaks loose on Earth’s sordid works

Sit up straight and pay attention, everyone, because if you don’t what follows will be terribly confusing. For this Album of the Month piece I’m going to review two albums by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks. Yes, Smithers minor, this is cheating but it provides a partial solution to a difficult problem. You see, I am very familiar with All Heaven Let Loose and I really want to blog about it but I can only find one track from that album anywhere online (see below).

So, what to do? Well, there is exactly one Earthworks album on my favoured streaming service and it matches All Heaven … for style, quality and inventiveness. That album is called Earthworks. (You see why this might get confusing?) Here’s My Heart Declares a Holiday from the band’s first, eponymous album, the one with the big ‘E’ on the cover.

This particular track has an almost latin beat to it, which sets it apart from everything else on the Earthworks album. In all other respects, though, it is typical of both albums. Django Bates swaps effortlessly between keyboards and tenor horn, Iain Ballamy adds soulful saxophones, Mick Hutton anchors the ship on double bass and Bill Bruford sits at acoustic and electronic drums in the engine room. All four players lock unerringly into the beat, even when it deliberately skips and stutters for rhythmic effect.

In contrast, the title track from All Heaven Broke Loose is a melodic piece in two parts: Psalm and Old Song. I don’t think you’ll find the psalm in a psalter or the old song in any hymn book but I can’t deny that the instruments sing as sweetly as a church choir. On this track Bill Bruford’s chordal drums prove that percussive instruments can carry a melody, too.

Those two tracks mark opposite sides of the Earthworks repertoire. In between there are delightful tunes, pulsing grooves and inventive riffs. If Frank Zappa’s band were the mothers of invention then Bill Bruford’s Earthworks must be their jazzier children. There’s nothing quite like the scintillating horn and saxophone duets by Ballamy and Bates, both ex-members of the legendary Loose Tubes jazz orchestra. The bass playing of Mick Hutton (on Earthworks) or Tim Harries (on All Heaven …) simultaneously holds the sound together and drives it on. And there’s no better exponent of electronic and acoustic drum kits than Bruford himself, rock drummer turned jazz percussionist.

Of the two albums, Earthworks is the more rhythmic, solid and earthy, All Heaven … the more melodic, dreamy and heavenly. Both are very fine examples of the jazz fusion genre and fully worthy of the Album of the Month slot in these pages.

Earthworks (the album) was released in 1987, All Heaven … in 1991. In between, Earthworks (the band) released Dig?, an album that Crotchety Man is not familiar with. If you want to hear more from that late eighties/early nineties period there are a few YouTube videos of live shows. This one is a bit low in volume but otherwise of decent quality.

Now, class, I’m setting a test to see if you were paying attention as I asked.

Question 1: Which band have we been discussing?

Question 2: Which two albums have I been talking about?

Question 3: What makes these albums so enjoyable?

Question 4: There is no question 4. You may now leave the room.

Quietly, boys! The other classes may not have finished yet.

Tears in Heaven

eye in the sky

While idly browsing the Web the other day, with my Release Radar playing in the background, my thoughts were hijacked by a bluesy bass solo. I knew immediately that it was something by Colin Hodgkinson. It had to be him because nobody plays bass like Colin Hodgkinson. Switching to the Spotify window I saw the track was called Tears in Heaven and the artist was listed as Kinga Głyk. The anomaly detector in my head said, “Hmm, that’s odd” and in a reflex action that a computer hacker would be proud of the fingers steered the mouse over to the artist’s name and clicked.

Kinga Głyk it turns out is an astonishingly young and accomplished Polish bass player with her own band; according to her website she is still only 20. Her version of Tears in Heaven is a cover of Jeff Berlin’s solo bass arrangement of the well-known Eric Clapton song inspired (if that’s the right word) by the death of his four year old son, Conor, in 1991. Here’s the original:

And this is Jeff Berlin’s interpretation from his Taking Notes album:

I must confess Jeff Berlin sounds a lot like Colin Hodgkinson here. And readers may remember that I compared Tal Wilkenfeld (another young, female bass player) with Jeff Berlin a few posts ago. So it seems I was wrong when I said that no-one plays bass like Colin Hodgkinson.

On the streets of London it’s said that you wait half an hour for a bus and then three come at once. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s just one example of a much deeper universal law. Jeff Berlin, Tal Wilkenfeld and now Kinga Głyk arrived at Crotchety Man’s stop on the Spotify music-go-round in swift succession. Take a ride on the third in line, where it’s less crowded, take a seat at the front and watch the lady with the hat and the nimble fingers. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kinga Głyk:

As yet there is no Wikipedia page for Kinga Głyk and much of the information that is available is in Polish. The band’s website, however, let’s you choose English or Polish and there’s plenty of useful information there. That site lists four albums, one by Głyk P.I.K. Trio from 2013 called Released At Last, and three further albums by the Kinga Głyk band: Rejestracja (2015), Happy Birthday Live (2016) and Dreams (2017). Of those the last three are on Spotify and carry the Crotchety ‘highly commended’ rosette.

The music on those albums is jazz fusion with a strong blues heritage. Many of the pieces were composed by Kinga Głyk herself although there are covers, too, including tunes by Charlie Parker and Weather Report.

There may be a few tears in heaven but they can easily be fixed with a needle, some thread and a few lightning fingers.

Corner Painter

in a corner

Q: What’s small, female, Australian and brilliant?

A: Tal Wilkenfeld.

No, it’s not a joke. It’s what I asked Mrs. Crotchety the other day after reading a blog post by CirdecSongs. The article was a personal appreciation of Jeff Beck and it just happened to mention Beck’s bass player on his Live At Ronnie Scott’s album. In Cedric’s words:

The tiny Australian bassist had jaws scraping the floor as she played with style and soul well beyond her years.

As a diminutive ex-bass player myself I’m well aware that small hands are a handicap you really don’t need for that instrument. Being small, young, female and still good enough to draw that sort of remark is, well, remarkable. Hell, touring with Jeff Beck would be the apex of most musicians’ careers and in 2007, aged 20, Tal was just starting out on hers. Crotchety Man instantly developed an itch he just had to scratch.

Who is this woman with a strange name? How did she come to be in Jeff Beck’s band? What else has she done? Tell me Wikipedia, please.


The cyberspace oracle does provide a few details about Tal Wilkenfeld’s life and career to date. I won’t try to summarise them here. What strikes you most is that Tal was playing bass with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Prince, The Who (as support act), Chick Corea and, of course, Jeff Beck at a relatively tender age. Her Wikipedia page lists collaborations with another couple of dozen big name artists, too. That’s a C.V. to be mighty proud of.

And that’s not all. In 2007, when she was still virtually unknown, Ms. Wilkenfeld formed her own band, recorded some of her own compositions and released the album, Transformation. The tunes on that record fall squarely into the jazz fusion category and Tal’s bass playing sounds a lot like Jeff Berlin on some of Bill Bruford’s albums. (That’s a Crotchety Man 5-star recommendation, by the way.)

More recently, Wilkenfeld has ventured into song writing. On what Wikipedia describes as her ‘upcoming’ second album she sings her own songs as well as playing guitar and bass. But that seems to be old news. Corner Painter, the album’s title track, was released as a single over a year ago, on 3rd March 2016. Tomorrow a live version of Corner Painter is due to be released on the Tal Wilkenfeld YouTube channel. But I can find no evidence that the album will be out any time soon.

I did, however, find this YouTube video that fits the description for tomorrow’s video release perfectly. Is it the same one? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

After the exciting sounds of Wilkenfeld’s bass playing I find this latest single rather less convincing. It’s a perfectly good song, Tal’s voice is pleasant enough and there’s nothing wrong with the performance. It just doesn’t rise far enough above the bar set by myriads of singer/songwriters out there to get the pulse racing. Tal Wilkenfeld is no competition for Taylor Swift. Then again, Taylor Swift doesn’t play bass guitars like Tal Wilkenfeld.

Postscript, 17 October 2017

The video that was released yesterday is different. It’s from her set opening for The Who and it’s rather good.


Bolek i Lolek

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Nearly a year ago now Crotchety Man got very excited about a band/project called Hidden Orchestra. Regular readers will remember my review of the album Archipelago in which I introduced the term “orchestral beats” to describe the music of Joe Acheson and his collaborators. Since then there has been one other post in these pages tagged “orchestral beats” (Cantorum by Penguin Café) and the next Album of the Month will be on Feathers, a solo album with a similar feel by another member of Hidden Orchestra, the violinist and pianist, Poppy Ackroyd.

But, first, I want to bring your attention to the orchestral beat music from Clarinet Factory. Please don’t be put off when I tell you that Clarinet Factory is a clarinet quartet from the Czech Republic. All four players are classically trained and they draw on a wide range of influences from Bach through to jazz and other forms of modern music. They adapt and interpret other composers’ work; they also write their own pieces. And sometimes they add voice, percussion and electronics. (Now you’re taking notice, aren’t you?)

Where Hidden Orchestra‘s sound relies heavily on electronic instruments Clarinet Factory create very modern music almost entirely from traditional instruments. Just listen to what they can do with four clarinets and a few recorded natural sounds in this YouTube clip of a track from their latest album, Meadows, released in March of this year.

If you were paying attention you will have noticed a direct connection between Hidden Orchestra and Clarinet Factory – Joe Acheson is credited on the video. My guess is that Joe provided the recordings of the trains and the bees that he mentions on Facebook and he may well have had a hand in producing the record.

Judging by their concert schedule Clarinet Factory are reasonably well-known in the Czech Republic. They have also performed in a number of other European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Israel) and even in China and Japan. As far as I know, though, they have never visited the U.S. Perhaps that’s just as well because I have a feeling they may find it hard to find an audience over there.

on stage

Clarinet Factory – WOMEX 2015

Crotchety Man’s knowledge of the Czech language is non-existent so I don’t know what Bolek i Lolek means. Google translate tells me that the equivalent English is something like “Bolek i Lolek”, which I interpret as a polite way of saying that my request indicates a level of intelligence slightly below that of a snail. So what picture, I wondered, should head up this post? Well, that troublesome track title sounds like a double act to me: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That sort of thing.

So that, if you were wondering, explains the little slide show at the top of this post.

Living, Breathing

babe in arms

The winner of the Mercury Music Prize for 2017 was announced in a live BBC TV broadcast on Thursday evening. At Crotchety Mansions the TV was tuned in and the Crotchety Couple watched with a mixture of hope and trepidation. The shortlist was promising, with a high proportion of deserving acts, but last year the judges took the insane decision to award the prize to a wholly unmusical assault on the senses by a rapper called Skepta. Would they disappoint us again? Or would we enjoy the live performances and respect the opinion of the judging panel?

To give you some perspective, here are the shortlisted artists and their albums:

  • Alt J, Relaxer
  • Blossoms, Blossoms
  • Dinosaur, Together, As One
  • Ed Sheeran, Divide
  • Glass Animals, How to be a Human Being
  • J Hus, Common Sense
  • Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos
  • Loyle Carner, Yesterday’s Gone
  • Sampha, Process
  • Stormzy, Gang Signs and Prayer
  • The Big Moon, Love in the 4th Dimension
  • The XX, I See You

Everyone on the planet knows who Ed Sheeran is. I don’t need to say anything about him other than that Crotchety Man regards him as a genuinely great artist and his Divide album had to be a contender for the title of Best UK Album of 2017. Alt J and Kate Tempest have both featured in these pages before; I have a soft spot for both artists and was very happy to see them in the running. Tracks by Blossoms, Glass Animals and The XX come up on the BBC 6 Music radio station from time to time and have earned a place in the Crotchety heart. If any of those artists’ albums should win that would be OK with me.

At the other end of the spectrum, Stormzy was already sitting dejectedly in the rejected pile of rubbish rap and J Hus, a name I’ve never heard of before, had been tentatively assigned the same fate based on a description on the Mercury Prize website. That left Dinosaur, Loyle Carner, Sampha and The Big Moon as unknown quantities. So we watched their live performances with particular interest.


Dinosaur – Corrie Dick, Laura Jurd, Elliot Galvin, Conor Chaplin

As I’ve said before, the nice thing about the Mercury Prize is that it has a habit of throwing up artists paddling their canoes a little way away from the mainstream but coming up fast. In this case, though, The Big Moon‘s performance of Cupid was disappointingly ordinary and we dismissed them as just another unexceptional all-girl guitar band.

Loyle Carner gave us a song called Isle of Arran. It was sung by a nice gospel choir but spoiled by his tuneless rapping and we reluctantly consigned him to the ‘mediocre’ bin. Sat at an upright piano, looking like Stevie Wonder (without the glasses), Sampha sang (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano. That’s a good title and his piano playing showed a glimmer of promise but, in the end, neither the song nor the performance warranted more than a ‘not bad’ rating.

Dinosaur, though, did hold our attention. They are a modern jazz quartet led by Laura Jurd (trumpet, synthesiser, composition) with contributions from Elliot Galvin (keyboards), Conor Chaplin (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums and percussion). They played Living, Breathing from their one and only album, Together, As One. The clip here is the official video; their live session for the Mercury Prize is also available on YouTube.

It was immediately obvious that these musicians could play. Whether you like their material, though, may well be a different matter. I chose Living, Breathing as a Track of the Week because I think it is the most accessible of their works. It is bright, bold, complex modern jazz and most people just won’t ‘get’ it. Sitting there in our living room Crotchety Man confidently predicted that Dinosaur would not be on the winner’s podium at the end of the programme. But they do have the mark of a Mercury Prize nominee: their canoe is well off the mainstream and they deserve greater recognition, especially outside jazz circles.

All in all the Crotchety Couple enjoyed the Mercury Prize award show. Unlike last year I didn’t spout invective when they announced Sampha‘s Process as the winner. The likes of Ed Sheeran, Alt J and Kate Tempest would have been better choices, but they don’t need the cash or the publicity. I would have put Blossoms, Glass Animals and The XX above Sampha, but at least the rappers lost out. Sampha wasn’t the best choice but I can live with the disappointment this year. Introducing me to a living, breathing Dinosaur is all the compensation I need.