Future Strings

harp + kora

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita

Crotchety Man has been bingeing on prog rock recently so I thought it was time for something rather different. As luck would have it my Release Radar this week included an enchanting track called Listen to the Grass Grow by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita. Now, I used a photo of Catrin Finch in an earlier post so I already knew she plays the Celtic harp. The tune on the Radar sounded like a harp duet but, after a little googling, I found that the second instrument is actually a kora.

What’s a kora? Wikipedia tells me that a kora is a 21-string lute-bridge-harp and goes on to explain that it doesn’t fit into any one category of musical instruments. Not being much wiser Crotchety Man went in search of photos. The instrument, he found, looks like a large lute with many strings. But it was still hard to see how it is played. What was needed was a video.

YouTube couldn’t oblige with a video for Listen to the Grass Grow but it does have a mesmerising clip of the Finch/Keita duo playing Future Strings live in 2013. If you want to know what a kora is, watch this video.

I’m not going to try to describe the music other than to point out that I’ve tagged it ‘classical’ and ‘world’. Just watch and listen. If you are open to that kind of music you will not be disappointed, I promise.

Further research turned up another excellent video and the news that Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita are currently touring the UK. Crotchety Man has booked to see them at the Derby Guildhall Theatre on Friday. It’s not often you get the chance to see a Senegalese musician playing a traditional African instrument here in the UK, although it probably helps that this particular artist now lives in a city quite close to Crotchety Mansions.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita fuse Welsh and Senegalese traditional music, adding African rhythms to Celtic melodies, in what just might become a new sub-genre of ‘world’ music. Perhaps we should call it ‘future strings’.

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Green and Orange Night Park

bridge

A post on my Facebook page this week linked to this page on the DGM Live website. It reports that Keith Tippett is recovering from a heart attack and pneumonia and will be unable to work for the foreseeable future. Some of Keith’s friends in the music business are doing what they can to help him and his family. They have set up a “rescue fund” and all proceeds from the sale of his latest CD release will go there.

This news brought back fond memories of Keith Tippett’s contributions to some of the early King Crimson albums. One track in particular stands out: Bolero – A Peacock’s Tale from the Lizard album that was a Crotchety Man album of the month in January 2016. In that post I said this about the Peacock’s Tale:

Then, in amongst the other instruments, the piano goes off on an astonishing flight of fancy – the ivories ripple and tinkle, ascending like a pair of squabbling birds, up and up, octave after octave as if each hand is racing to be the first to leap off the top of the keyboard.

It was that short passage that engraved the Keith Tippett name on the honours board in Crotchety Man’s personal hall of fame. Here’s a six minute video I created by extracting the peacock from the 23 minute long lizard that stretches across the whole of the second side of the album. The extraordinary piano section comes at about the 4 minute mark.

But dedicated readers of this blog already know that story. It’s old news. So the research elves formed a search party and ventured off into the uncharted corners of cyberspace for more of Mr. Tippett’s music.

Wikipedia has a selected discography that lists around 100 albums, the great majority of which feature Keith Tippett as a collaborator rather than the headline artist. His own website, has a catalogue of 24 Keith Tippett CDs, again mostly collaborations and all but six out of stock. On Spotify there are three albums under Keith Tippett (all collaborations), two more by the Keith Tippett Group and one by the Keith Tippett Tapestry Orchestra. For a musician held in such high regard KT seems to be surprisingly under-promoted. Perhaps that’s why the rescue fund is needed.

A full search of the Tippett canon would stretch the Crotchety elves resources well beyond their Track of the Week budget so I have chosen a piece called Green and Orange Night Park from the Keith Tippett Group‘s 1971 album, Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening. The album title was, of course, stolen from a track on Soft Machine‘s Volume Two and Night Park does sound a lot like 1971 vintage Soft Machine. But, where the Soft Machine track uses just a guitar and Robert Wyatt’s idiosyncratic vocals Night Park is a full jazz band composition taking nothing (as far as I know) from the earlier cut.

Listen carefully to the first 1 minute 50 seconds. That’s where Tippett’s fingers pummel the piano in a glorious celebration of sound, pounding along somewhere between tuneful and tuneless, setting the scene for the horns. After that we barely hear the piano at all but its spirit lingers on like the homeopathic signature of a poisonous substance in ultra-high dilution.

keith

If you enjoyed this night time stroll in the park perhaps you’ll join with me in wishing Keith a speedy recovery.

Whistle Down the Wind

girl + jesus

Hayley Mills and Alan Bates in Whistle Down the Wind

This week it was announced that Joan Baez is releasing a new album on 2nd March. Whistle Down the Wind will be her first new recording for a decade and its promotion marks the end of more than 50 years of touring for Baez.

The phrase, “whistle down the wind”, evokes a forlorn sense of helplessness as if the sound of your nervous whistling is being carried away on the breeze, betraying your presence to the spirits of the forest, both good and evil. But whistle you must because otherwise your feeble courage will melt away and your fate will be cast to the cold capricious wind.

Whistle Down the Wind was the title of a novel by Mary Hayley Bell which was published in 1959 and made into a film in 1961. The film starred the author’s daughter, Hayley Mills, and the British actor Alan Bates. In the story some children discover a bearded man hiding in their family’s barn. When the man exclaims, “Jesus Christ!”, the youngsters think he is telling them his name and that they are witnessing the Second Coming. The film was nominated for four BAFTAs and the British Film Institute included it in their list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.

Tom Waits later used Whistle Down the Wind as the title for one of the tracks on his 1992 album Bone Machine. It is that song that Joan Baez has chosen as the title track of her forthcoming album. It is a simple folk song in a waltz time featuring folk guitars and a backing track with accordion, bass and drums. On this song Joan’s voice is sweet and satisfying but it has lost some of the characteristic lustre of her earlier work. As if to make up for that missing sparkle the Baez version of Whistle Down the Wind adds short strains of theremin notes, taking us into a mysterious world where gods and goblins determine our future, unswayed by any wishes of our own.

joan baez

The other important event in Crotchety Man’s week was the Third Age Orchestra’s Christmas/New Year ‘fuddle’, a social gathering in which we played a few songs before delving into a buffet to which we all contributed. In the rehearsal room everyone drifted around like dandelion seeds on a summer breeze, balancing paper plates and chatting amongst ourselves, until our leader called for our attention. “Pull a cracker”, she said, “and keep what you find inside”.

Bang, crack, snap went the party crackers. And soon we were all holding plastic whistles marked with a number between 1 and 8. Lining us up in whistle number order our maestro then called out numbers: 3, 2, 1, pause, 3, 2 … As each number was called the musician(s) with that number on their whistle blew hard and the air was filled with a laughable rendition of Three Blind Mice or Good King Wenceslas. Believe me, it’s a lot harder than you think to puff into a plastic tube in time with the conductor when you don’t know which tune has been chosen. Especially when you’re laughing at everyone else’s efforts! And, as most of us found out, it’s harder still to conduct such a performance. You may as well try and catch the whistling wind.

Raven

Aurora 1 - Hi Res.jpg

The rain clouds have blown over and the rainbows have faded away. Neil Ardley’s bright kaleidoscopic colours have dissipated leaving only black, white and 50/50 shades of grey. These are the colours of penguin suits and polar landscapes but for this Track of the Week we are in temperate regions much closer to Crotchety Man’s green and pleasant homeland. Today we are going to focus on the black feathers of a Manchester Raven.

Although the colours have gone and the ad hoc collection of musicians has been replaced by a piano-led trio the overall feel of the music on all of GoGo Penguin‘s albums is quite similar to Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows. It’s a kind of jazz that sits outside the primary sub-genres of mainstream, trad and bebop. Chamber jazz is the best description I can find. It has more in common with modern classical music than the blues or the shock and awe of experimental and free jazz. In short, it is some of the most listenable jazz you could ever hope to hear.

Raven is a track from GoGo Penguin‘s fourth album, A Humdrum Star, which is due to be released on 9th February. While googling for headline images I came across this link to a YouTube video of the track, but it’s not available here. I suspect it’s just a placeholder for when the album is released but the video may not exist at all so I’m embedding a Spotify player link instead.

GoGo Penguin is new to Crotchety Man; the three-headed beast waddled over the cyberspace horizon here just two weeks ago. They are Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (double bass) and Rob Turner (drums). The band is based in Manchester, a UK city with two famous football clubs and a thriving modern music scene, but there is also a French connection. They are signed to Blue Note Records (France) and that publishing company seems to provide the official GoGo Penguin website. That, presumably, explains why the legal notices on the home page of this British band are in French.

GGP have released three albums to date: Fanfares (2012), V2.0 (2014) and Man Made Object (2016). All three are excellent. (V2.0 was one of four Mercury Prize albums of the year in 2014.) There is little to choose between the compositions on those albums but the maturity and confidence of the performances has improved steadily with each release. If A Humdrum Star continues this progression it will be a very fine album indeed.

GoGo Penguin start a world tour in February taking in the UK, mainland Europe, Japan and the U.S. Of the four UK dates two are already sold out but you can still catch them in Brighton on 7th February or at the Roundhouse, London the day after.

the band

GoGo Penguin – Nick Blacka, Rob Turner, Chris Illingworth

Raven is the first single to be released from the forthcoming album and it provides as good an introduction to GGP‘s music as any. The rhythm section scuds along like fluffy white clouds blown on the wind while the piano swoops and soars with the irrepressible joie de vivre of a bird on the wing in the early Spring. If, like me, you found 2017 endlessly depressing, Raven is the perfect way to dispel the black clouds and get the new year off to a flying start.

Come, fly with me and the Raven.

Something Different

white apples

Crotchety Man lives in two parallel worlds. There’s the real world of solid objects like houses, apples and people. Then there’s the insubstantial world of the imagination. The other day, at the click of a mouse button, a bubble of the imagined world burst into the mundanity of real life.

My computer screen had given a link into a province of La La land known as Prog Rock and through that portal I glimpsed a new and intriguing vista. Here was a video showing a guy with a seven-string bass guitar, the bottom three strings unfretted. I’d never seen one of those before. Like a tractor beam the play button drew me in.

I have, of course, visited those regions many times before. Although I know the landscape pretty well I am always on the lookout for something different. And now I’ve found it. Something Different is the debut solo album by the Italian bass player and composer, Alberto Rigoni. He is currently crowd funding his next EP and you’ll find his biography here.

In some ways Something Different is much the same as any number of prog rock albums on the heavy side of the genre. It kicks off in typical prog fashion with a funky, rocky track called Factory with some fine guest musicians on guitar, keyboards and drums. Then we are treated to the “bass ballad”, Trying To Forget, a slow, melodic bass solo in which Alberto plays his instrument more like a Chapman Stick than a bass guitar. The contrast makes you sit up and promises good things to come.

Next up is Glory Of Life, another full band instrumental that swings easily along as it celebrates the joy of living. Track four, SMS, starts with an electronic buzz vaguely reminiscent of the original text message ringtone before slipping into a bass guitar duet backed by handclaps simulated on electronic drums.

It’s been a gentle perambulation down some pleasant prog paths so far, but just around the bend there’s a roadside bomb that will knock your socks off – along with a few toes if you’re not careful. Here’s the video for the X-rated BASSex. (The sexy vocals are by Irene Ermolli.)

Phew! After that we need a breather (or a cigarette, perhaps). And that’s just what we get for 1 minute 59 seconds with the ambient keyboard and bass piece, One Moment Before. Then it’s time to fasten your seatbelt for the Roller Coaster ride into prog metal territory complete with fast fuzzy guitars and snarling vocals.

The sleeve notes for Desert Break only list Alberto’s bass guitar but that’s misleading. There’s an intricate drum machine beat and recorded voices of children playing in the background that take it way off the main path and, presumably, into the desert. While we are there we are treated to some Jammin’ On Vocal Drums (whatever they are) with some superb jazzy guitar over a funky beat.

The album ends with the kind of ambient piano and bass track that plays behind the credits of a film in which the gutsy central character has seen unimaginable tragedy but has come through it and can now look forward to living out her days in comfort surrounded by those she loves. It’s called Sweet Tears.

Looking back, where have we been? We have encountered the heavy metal edge of hardened steel, we have celebrated the glory of life and even indulged in a little casual sex. There have been calmer moments, too. Times when we tried to forget and, finally, we have been able to rest easy bathed in our own sweet tears. A lot has happened on our short journey. And that’s the something that’s different about this album.

Bottle

bottle

Paul Weller will be a father again this summer. It will be his eighth child. The announcement came hard on the heels of the news that The Modfather’s 13th solo studio album, A Kind Revolution, will be released on 12th May. Shortly after that a film called Jawbone will reach the movie screens. The soundtrack to Jawbone was written by Weller and is available now as an album from all the usual places.

paul weller

Paul Weller

One of the tracks from Jawbone came up on my Release Radar playlist last week and it surprised old mister Crotchety. Bottle is a simple folk ballad – just two acoustic guitars and a male voice in reflective mood. I haven’t been keeping abreast of Paul Weller’s work but this was so very different from what he was doing with The Jam in the late seventies and The Style Council in the eighties that I felt I had to investigate further.

The first thing to say is that the Jawbone album is the soundtrack from the film, not separate recordings of the songs. The first track, Jimmy/Blackout, is over 20 minutes long and consists mostly of atmospheric sounds rather than conventional music. Several of the other tracks include dialogue from the film, which gets in the way of the songs. This is a collector’s album for those who loved the film, not a recording purely for listening pleasure. Having said that, though, Bottle does stand up in isolation.

Words are never enough to convey the effect of a piece of music on the listener and that’s particularly true for Bottle. The lyrics tell the thoughts of a man who has lost his way and must move on if he is to rescue himself from the wasteful life he has been leading. Here, ‘bottle’ seems to stand for both the ‘courage’ he has lost and the undefeated demon of ‘alcohol’. The singer regrets many things hidden in the dark of the time tunnel called the past but there is a glimmer of light up ahead, the promise of a better future if he can but face it. And all that comes across in the simple tune and folksy guitar accompaniment.

I haven’t been able to find any credits for the songs on the Jawbone album so I don’t know if Paul Weller is playing or singing on Bottle. I can say, though, that it has an insidious charm brought out beautifully by a stripped down production. If this is what Paul is doing these days he deserves to be taken as seriously now as he was in his days with The Jam. It’s completely different material but he still has the knack of making compelling music.

Notes

  1. There’s a quite different song called The Bottle on Paul Weller’s 2004 album, Studio 150. Videos of The Bottle exist on YouTube but there are none that I can find for Bottle from the new film.
  2. Jawbone is a film about a former youth boxing champion, Jimmy McCabe, who returns to his old haunts in the hope of picking himself up off the canvas after taking too many of life’s hard knocks. “In a battle between fear and faith, Jimmy risks his life, as he tries to stand tall and regain his place in the world”.

Wild Fire

jungle

What would you get if Lou Reed was to take a walk on the wild side with Joni Mitchell? Well, I’ll tell you. You’d get something that sounds a lot like Wild Fire, a track from Laura Marling’s sixth album Semper Femina, which is due to be released on 10th March.

Laura Marling has appeared in these pages once before. Soothing, another track from Semper Femina, was a Track of the Week back in December. That earlier post highlighted the unusual instrumentation on Soothing, which I described as a duet between acoustic and electric bass. Wild Fire is unusual, too, but for different reasons. It has the languid pace of Walk On The Wild Side and borrows a little of Lou Reed’s drawl in the vocals. The instruments are relatively conventional: guitars with a heavy tremolo effect and electric piano. And, while the bass lines in Soothing add a dash of jazz, the electronic effects on Wild Fire provide a pinch of rock. But, in spite of that, the later track falls squarely in the folk circle on the Venn diagram of musical styles.

To illustrate the folk roots here’s a live version with Laura on (unprocessed) acoustic guitar embellished only by a few licks from Chris Thile on the mandolin.

Wild Fire ambles along while the singer muses on some of the people in her life.

Your mama’s kinda sad; your papa’s kinda mean.
. . .
She keeps a pen behind her ear because she’s got something she really really needs to say.
. . .
Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?

There’s no overall message, no call to arms, just a few tart observations. The guitar chords delight the ears the way a lemon meringue pie delights the tongue – crisp and deliciously sweet but with a fresh sharp edge – and Laura’s vocals slice into it in big spoonfuls, savouring every mouthful. To the Crotchety ears there has never been a song more like Lou Reed’s wild side and no vocal more like Joni Mitchell on a big, lemon yellow taxi ride. And that all adds up to a song good enough to break the ‘variety’ rule on this blog. This is the first time Crotchety Man has published two Track of the Week articles by the same artist.

Three of Laura Marling’s previous five albums have been nominated for the Mercury Prize and Semper Femina is shaping up to rival them. Don’t let that pie go stale, listen to Wild Fire while it’s fresh out of the oven. If the other tracks are as good as this one the album will fly off the shelves like fluffy meringue on lemon custard and shortcrust pastry. Mmmm…