Archive for the ‘Newsletter’ Category

Roots delayed and the Sixties always with us

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Dear Mailing List,

After the blare of trumpets in the last newsletter about the imminent arrival of the Big Book, the publication date of And the Roots of Rhythm Remain has now been moved to the end of August. There will be launches and events on both sides of the ocean and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

A few things that had been planned for June have now been pushed back, but I will still be appearing at the Lyse Netter Festival in Moss, Norway on June 8 and the First Light Festival in Lowestoft on June 22. The first place where I’ll turn up with books to sell and sign will be in the UK at the Cropredy Festival on August 9, then at the Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham on August 27, and End of the Road on August 30. More events to follow as the schedule firms up.

Over the past few months, I’ve had a few occasions to talk into a microphone on non-book subjects and all are now available on line. I had a great time with John Wood, my old friend and engineer of so many classic Witchseason recordings, at an event in London hosted by Matthew Bannister. A recording of our conversation about how we made records once upon a time is available on Matthew’s ‘Folk on Foot’ podcast.

I had a slightly more raucous good time with Dan Pratt and Gary Kemp talking about the old days of Pink Floyd, UFO and other tangential subjects. Their show is called ‘Rockonteurs’ and my episode is available here on Apple Music or Spotify and other platforms.

To cap a triad of audio ventures into my record-producing past, BBC producer Toby Field paid me a visit to hear my recollections of producing Nick Drake’s ‘Northern Sky’ for an episode of Radio 4’s Soul Music series. Each show combines listeners’ experiences of being moved by a certain track with the memories of some of those involved in making them. Click here to listen.

That’s all for now. Back to my padded cell to keep recording more pages for the audio book of And the Roots of Rhythm Remain.

As ever

Joe

And the Roots of Rhythm Remain

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Dear Mailing List,

Remember me? You may recall that I used to send out newsletters fairly regularly. A few of
you even sent messages saying you missed them.

My excuse has been that I’ve been consumed by trying to finish the book I’ve been writing
for so many years. Well, I’ve finally done it! And the Roots of Rhythm Remain: a journey
through global music will be published on July 4 in the UK by Faber and on Sept 3 in the US
by Ze Books.

It’s a bit of a door-stop. Sherpas will be provided to purchasers to help them carry it home.
Faber is promoting it as the ‘global music’ equivalent of Alex Ross’s The Rest is
Noise, which I take as a great compliment. Mine may be slightly longer, but I’ve done my
best to make it a non-academic page-turner, full of anecdote and personalities and
backstories. Did you know, for example, that promoter Bill Graham was a champion mambo
dancer? That Charles Dickens wrote a scathing review of a Zulu choir’s performance in
London in 1853? That Frank Sinatra owed his career to a tango singer from Buenos Aires?
That Desi Arnaz’s father banned his son’s future meal-ticket, the conga drum, when he was
mayor of Santiago de Cuba? That the Soviets hated Bulgarian women’s choirs? That George
Harrison fell for Indian music while lying in ZsaZsa Gabor’s bathtub?

I’m about to embark on the process of reciting it into a microphone for the audio
book, so when the time comes, you’ll be able to either read it on the page or listen to my
dulcet tones through your headphones. Or both! I also plan to assemble playlists on
YouTube, Spotify and Apple so readers will be able to experience the music as they read or
listen.

In recent years, some of you have kindly invited me to festivals and readings and I’ve turned
you down in order to focus on finishing the book. Now that I’m done, my date-book is open
and I’m available. Just shoot me an email.

Now that I’ve climbed down from the garret, I hope to see many of your smiling faces in the
coming year as I travel the world plugging the book. Be sure to say hello!

All the best

Joe

Birthday Surprise

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Dear Mailing List,

Back in the forgotten mists of time, I used to send out regular newsletters… some of you older folk may remember them…   But since I’ve put on the blinkers and have caught a whiff of the stables, I’m racing to the finishing line of my book and haven’t got time for such frivolities.

I was startled out of that single-minded pursuit the other day when my wife, Andrea Goertler, summoned me to the kitchen. ‘You have to listen to this’, she said. It was Cerys Matthews on BBC 6Music Radio and she was giving me a shout-out for my birthday. I have, I confess (or possibly brag, depending on the mood) just turned 80.

What I thought was a nice radio moment turned into an extraordinary experience, with my musical life flashing before my ears. Cerys proceeded to play Boyd-related track after Boyd-related track for the next 3 hours, interspersed with some nice messages from friends and colleagues – Mike Heron, Maria Muldaur, Robyn Hitchcock among them – all organized by Andrea, Cerys and her producers behind my back. What a remarkable surprise present!

Here’s a link to the show – it will expire in two weeks, on Sept 5.

Health/endurance warning: it’s 3 hours long and it’s not all Boyd all the time, there’s other great stuff as well. And for those of you who haven’t experienced the unique brilliance of Radio Cerys, it’s a good introduction.

More radio: I’ll be at the ‘Aretha Franklin Proms’ this evening (Monday Aug 22) at the Albert Hall and discussing her career during the interval. It’s broadcast live on Radio 3. I think this link should work, even outside the UK.

Later

Joe

George Wein

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Dear Mailing List,

George Wein: October 3, 1925 to September 13, 2021

On a cold January day in 1964, I walked into George Wein’s office on Central Park West. He was looking for a tour manager for the Blues and Gospel Caravan featuring Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Rev Gary Davis that was booked for a UK tour that April. I was about to complete my undergraduate credits at Harvard and was itching to go to Europe where people seemed to appreciate the music I loved far more than in America. When I asked Boston promoter Manny Greenhill if he had any suggestions about what I could do over there to earn some money, he made a phone call, then told me to be at Wein’s office in New York the next morning.

George listened to me talk about blues for perhaps fifteen minutes, then motioned to a desk with a telephone and told me to get started finding a bass player for the tour. That moment was the beginning of my life in the music business; he made a quick decision, handed me responsibility for the tour and let me get on with it. George repeated that process again and again; an astonishing number of America’s best promoters, presenters and festival programmers have learned their trade working for him or with him. His influence goes far beyond the graduates of the George Wein school of concert promotion; Coachella, Glastonbury, Hardly-Strictly Bluegrass, WOMAD, Bonnaroo, before COVID hit us, music festivals seemed close to becoming the defining events in our musical culture. George invented the form.

The year and half I spent working for George on tours and at Newport was one of the most intense and enjoyable periods of my life. I talked about those adventures on a recent radio show; it’s more fun to hear those stories with a great musical soundtrack, so I won’t repeat them here, but you can click on this link to Johnny Fewings’ Jazz Blues and Beyond and have a listen.

* * *

George Wein was a doctor’s son from Newton, Massachusetts who started taking piano lessons at 8; by the time he reached high-school in the late 1930s, he was jazz crazy. After military service in WW2, he attended Boston University, then started a jazz club called Storyville in nearby Kenmore Square. One of the regulars was Elaine Lorillard, a tobacco heiress with a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island; a casual conversation one night at the club led to her backing the Jazz Festival there in 1954.

The Newport Festivals had a huge effect on the music of 1950s America, showing, for one thing, that there was a far broader audience for jazz than anyone had previously imagined. George was criticized sometimes for his mainstream tastes, but during those staid years, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry and Pete Seeger all appeared at Newport alongside the greatest jazz artists of the era. Charles’s set is immortalized on the great ‘Ray Charles at Newport’ lp and Mahalia’s is the centrepiece of the film ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’. (Stream them both if you haven’t already!) Newport had a powerful influence in the jazz world; Miles Davis got his deal with Columbia Records after a storming set at the 1955 event and the following year Duke Ellington emerged from his decade-long decline with an extraordinary performance of ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo’ in which saxophonist Paul Gonzalvez took a 27-chorus solo as the crowd roared him on. (Hear it on YouTube.) One can probably identify the Gonzalvez moment and Ray Charles’ set as key hinges that helped jazz turn funkier and more blues-inflected following the death of Charlie Parker in 1955.

Wein was balding and round and looked (and sometimes talked) as if he should be smoking a cynical, tough-guy cigar. But not only was he a sweet and open-hearted man, but for his entire life he remained supportive of music that he may not have always enjoyed and which may not have commanded a large following, but which he believed should be heard. When folk music surged in the late ‘50s, he added a folk festival to the Newport summer but soon realized the folk world was politically complicated and he wasn’t the one to create a great festival single-handed. Following a 3-year hiatus, the Newport Folk Festival returned as a non-profit event, run by Pete Seeger’s committee. George’s company provided the infrastructure, but the profits went to a foundation that supported traditional music, while creative decisions were in the hands of Seeger’s board. I attended the 1963 event and seeing Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson for the first time with the fog rolling in off Narragansett Bay remains an indelible memory. To say that the Folk Festival had an even greater effect on popular culture in the ‘60s than the Jazz Festival had in the ‘50s would be an understatement. (Events at the notorious ’65 festival, where I was production manager, are addressed in the radio show…)

In the early ‘70s, as changing conditions (in both the American cultural landscape and in ever-more-touristy Newport) were making it impossible for the Folk Festival to continue, George turned his attention to New Orleans. The background to the Jazz and Heritage Fair (now, as you know, an immense annual event) is instructive about George. He was approached in the early ‘60s by the mayor, who wanted to bring a jazz festival to the city. When it became clear that such an event could not be fully integrated – onstage, backstage and in the audience – George walked away and turned down repeated efforts by the city fathers to engage with him. When, in 1968, New Orleans finally felt ready to have a racially mixed event, George agreed, only to have the deal cancelled when the city discovered that Joyce, George’s wife (and invaluable cohort), was African-American. They went ahead with another promoter and for two years had money-losing, unimpressive festivals.

These failures drove the city back once again to George in 1971, with no caveats this time, and giving him full control. (Culture seemed to shift a lot faster then than it does now…) George took the Folk Foundation approach, forming a non-profit organization with local presenters Quint Davis and Alison Miner and blurring the boundaries between jazz, r&b, cajun and the unique cultural traditions of New Orleans. In the most recent pre-Covid Festival, half a million people attended over two April weekends. An endless list of great artists, obscure and famous, from James Booker to Wynton Marsalis to Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones have played the festival, while the Foundation continues to support cultural initiatives across the region including the great local radio station, WWOZ (which you can get online). The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fair is one of the great commercial and philosophical success stories of American culture.

Over the years, George launched many festivals around the world in collaboration with local promoters. Many artists came to rely on him to fill their dwindling datebooks during jazz’s lean years. Though he loved doing the occasional turn at the keyboard as part of a band, his comfort zone was behind the scenes, doing what he loved – producing. There has never been anyone better.

* * *

My favourite personal memory is from Paris, in August, 1964. I had stayed on in London after the ‘Blues and Gospel Caravan’ that spring and was broke and eager to go back on the payroll, helping George get ready for the autumn ‘Newport in Europe’ tour. I crossed the channel by motorcycle and ferry while George arrived straight from a gastronomic trip up the Rhône. On the agenda that first day was lunch at Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysees with the editor of Jazz Hot magazine and George insisted I come along. As I ordered ‘bifsteak bien cuit avec pommes frites’, I noticed a frown out of the corner of my eye. When the lunch was over and we were walking back to the hotel, he put an avuncular arm on my shoulder and said, gruffly, ‘listen, kid, if you’re going to work for me, you gotta learn how to eat!’ Over the next three evenings, he took me to some of the best restaurants in Paris, ordering instructive and delicious courses and wine. I never ate a well-done steak again.

* * *

Phil Schaap: April 8, 1951 – September 7, 2021

Jazz lost another great champion this autumn. Whenever I spent time in New York in recent years, I made a point of eating breakfast to the sound of Phil Schaap’s Bird Flight on WKCR-FM. For those who never experienced this unique show, it may be difficult to convince you how compelling it was. The episodes consisted of Charlie Parker’s full discography (including out-takes) in chronological order, with Schaap’s vivid, thorough and ever-changing introductions. When he got to the end, which usually took about ten months, he’d start again at the beginning. On weekends, he celebrated jazz birthdays with marathons devoted to individual discographies (in chronological order, of course). This makes him sound like the ultimate ‘trainspotter’ (if you’re British) or ‘music nerd’ (American), but he was so much more than that. His passion, enthusiasm and deep knowledge allowed him to spin fascinating tales, to evoke long-past times and cultural twists and turns that have disappeared beneath the waves of history. I remember being entranced one morning by his introduction to a mid-February Parker session from, I think, 1946 or thereabouts. Schaap veered into a 10-minute monologue about Lincoln’s Birthday (Feb 12) and how it was celebrated in Harlem during those years with all-night parties, school assemblies, speeches and parades, an urban culture galvanized to celebrate Emancipation in a way that has completely disappeared.

Schaap was a connoisseur of shellac and vinyl, pointing out how vivid the original 78s sound compared to a reissue LP or – horror of horrors! – a cd or digital download. Schaap toiled in the shadows for years, but his gifts became more recognized in the new century. He taught jazz at Columbia and Julliard and gave adult education courses at Lincoln Center. If you want to experience the man’s unique brilliance, dip into the archives at: http://www.philschaapjazz.com/index.php?l=page_view&p=radio

Though jazz was at the centre of my youthful listening (and still is) I never got to work much in the field after leaving George. It seems to be surviving pretty well into the 21st century. I hope today’s virtuosi and their champions spare a thought for those who helped ensure its continuity and its future – George Wein and Phil Schaap.

As ever
Joe

PS – My friend Johnny Fewings host of the radio show linked above, is worth a newsletter all on his own; he was the man behind Virgin Megastores and has guided many of your favourite music documentaries from vague idea to the big screen. And before the lockdown, in his spare time from doing million-dollar movie deals, he and his wife Anna built up a wonderful acoustic concert series in their home town of Whitstable. George would approve.

Old Music For A New Year

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Dear Mailing List,

As we stagger into 2021, I can suggest a couple of comforting musical crumbs.

For those of you in the UK, BBC2 is screening Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace this coming Saturday, January 2 at 2030 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000qzvh). For Brits, this is, of course, free. For everyone else, the film is available on various digital platforms for a small charge. I wrote a newsletter last year about my walk-on part in getting this extraordinary performance filmed and released; your memory can be refreshed here:  http://www.joeboyd.co.uk/amazing-grace.

There are no geographical restrictions on a new release from the Dust-to-Digital label. I have collected a number of their great box-set reissues over the years, enjoyed the rare and wonderful clips they send out regularly on Instagram and recently became e-friendly with the label’s proprietors, Lance and April Ledbetter. Hearing about the subject of my (as-yet-untitled) book, they kindly sent me a wonderful 100-track global compilation called Excavated Shellac, assembled by their colleague, and collector extraordinaire, Jonathan Ward: https://dust-digital.com/shop/excavated-shellac. I reciprocated with a review/essay which they have posted on their blog and which I am herein sharing with you.

* * *

78 rpm records conjure up a scratchy, lo-fi image for many, something for scholars and archivists to study, rather than for listeners to enjoy. Not for me; from the age of 12, 78s represented a romantic connection to the past, and besides, they sounded great! I first heard them on players designed for the purpose, with heavy tone-arms and graphite styli that sank deep into the grooves, delivering a vivid, punchy sound even as they wore out the disc. My brother Warwick once had a Wurlitzer 78rpm jukebox that produced audio as powerfully satisfying as anything today’s digital technology can manage.

A century ago, shellac 78s acted as both mirror and telescope, magically bestowing a glamorous modern iteration of different peoples’ own musical cultures while opening a window onto sounds from thousands of miles away. New discs often drew crowds, like the amazed gathering at a Harlem barbershop that listened over and over to Louis Armstrong’s scat singing on ‘Heebie Jeebies’ the day it was released in 1926, a scene echoed in 1940s Leopoldville when the first Afro-Cuban 78s arrived and people recognized their own Kongo rhythms transformed by time, distance and genius. Other styles from across the globe fascinated listeners: Hawaiian slide guitars on Jimmie Rodgers records, tango rhythms from Buenos Aires, Arabic singers from Cairo and Baghdad, Jewish and gypsy violinists from Eastern Europe. The allure of such sounds subtly (and not-so-subtly) re-set musical compasses across the globe.

Jonathan Ward and his Excavated Shellac project, in collaboration with Dust-to-Digital, have produced a collection by that name that transports us to every continent during the formative years of recorded music, before science got the upper hand, when music and technology could still meet on equal terms. Arguments have been made that field recordings by ethnomusicologists are somehow truer, more authentic, than commercial discs. I disagree; I always found music on commercial 78s had a different intensity than that recorded by academics. Perhaps the lure of fame and wealth, or at least recognition, brings out the best in a musician. Plus, as Excavated Shellac’s accompanying booklet demonstrates, they had far more beautiful labels.

The set’s running order isn’t academic at all. Is it disorienting to listen to a track from Kenya followed by one from Japan, then Colombia, then Norway? For me, this allows each to stand out and be considered on its own, to keep the attention from wandering. And the stories! Extraordinarily detailed research plus exquisite photos and reproductions make each track an adventure.

Like all Dust-to-Digital releases, it is impeccably mastered and produced. That such great work originates with Lance and April Ledbetter in Atlanta, Georgia constitutes poetic justice for me. A Boyd family trauma was suffered when my brother and I were in our early teens. While visiting an Atlanta-based cousin, we mentioned that we were interested in collecting blues and jazz 78s and he told us about a Salvation Army collection drive he had helped organize; among many other things, it had produced stacks and stacks of 78s donated from the African-American part of town. We rushed straight over to the SA’s huge downtown store only to find that the 78s had all been sold. Imagining we might have been beaten to the punch by one of those legendary blues collectors who loomed large in our teenage imaginations, we asked the manager who bought them. He told us the entire lot was sold to a man with a county-fair concession, one of those stalls where you got a prize for how many records you can break by throwing a baseball. Thankfully, Jonathan Ward and the other passionate and diligent collectors mentioned in the credits weren’t as easily deflated as we were; Excavated Shellac goes a long way towards assuaging a 60-year old wound.

* * *

For further audio-visual stimulation and satisfaction, we can highly recommend The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, A Great Day In Harlem, a documentary about the famous photograph of New York’s jazz community and Lovers Rock, the musical segment of Steve McQueen’s wonderful Small Axe series of films set in Afro-Caribbean London. If you want an entertaining peek into the world of the obsessive 78 collector, you can’t do better than to rent Ghost World with Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson.

Wishing everyone a New Year that brings good health, better politics and live gigs!

Joe

Dudu Pukwana

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Dear Mailing List, 

I got a very nice surprise last year. Matsuli Records got in touch to tell me they had tracked down a project I worked on fifty years ago with the great South African saxophonist, Dudu Pukwana. They have just now released it as a good-looking double vinyl album and, if I do say so myself, it sounds wonderful. And don’t just take my word for it, the Financial Times gave it 5 stars and called it “an unheralded classic of South African jazz”. All credit to Matsuli for doing a brilliant job of re-mastering and putting it all together. 

Dudu and I met one night in 1966 in Ronnie Scott’s ‘Old Place’ in Gerard St, where South African pianist Chris McGregor and the rest of the Blue Notes, South Africa’s first inter-racial jazz group, were performing. I was astounded; they had great jazz chops but weren’t just following the Yanks, the way most ‘international’ jazz players did; their music was overflowing with South African harmonies, rhythms and attitudes. I produced a jazz album with them, Very Urgent by The Chris McGregor Sextet. We later did a Brotherhood of Breath big band album and a few others.  

Dudu and I, meanwhile, became friends. We spent one evening in 1969 talking about South African township music and came up with the idea of doing an updated kwela album for a non-South African audience. (This was almost 20 years before anyone uttered the words ‘world music’ or ‘Graceland’.) We got McGregor and a few Blue Notes involved, as well as some Nigerian players (who were working on their own Osibisa project) and some English guys Dudu knew. We recorded enough for an album but didn’t think it was really good enough. We spent another long evening drinking wine and talking about South Africa and the fact that Dudu had been away for over five years and things there had changed a lot. We agreed to go to Johannesburg together and check out the music scene. I said I’d buy the tickets and bring along a tape of what we had so far and try to sell it to a South African label to recoup the cost of the airfares. Which was pretty nuts, considering I knew almost nothing about the South African music business. In the end, though, it worked, sort of. A Trutone executive gave me £1000 for the South African rights, along with a lecture about how Miriam Makeba would “come crawling back to South Africa on her knees one day…” I couldn’t wait to get out of Jo’burg. 

The new style there was mbaqanga, which was guitar-driven and edgy, quite a change from the jazzy lilt of kwela. I brought back some records and, on a whim, gave them to Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol from Fairport Convention and asked them to learn those licks. The sessions weren’t bad and we felt we were on to something, but somehow never really got to where it sounded to us like the finished article. Meanwhile, my production company was struggling with too many nice reviews and too few sales. Nick Drake, for whom I’d had such high hopes, wasn’t selling at all. I accepted an offer to go to work for Warner Bros in LA and Dudu’s album never got released outside South Africa. 

The Blue Notes’ story is a sad one. The Brotherhood of Breath, of which Dudu was a part, had a huge influence on European jazz, but never sold a lot of copies. When I persuaded Virgin to fund a revival in 1989, no sooner was Country Cooking released than Chris was diagnosed with cancer and died within weeks. Dudu passed away a few months later. 

Hearing Dudu’s album (which includes all the tracks recorded before and after our trip to South Africa) after so many years was a traumatic experience: wonderful, because it’s so joyful and beautifully played, but also heart-breaking. Why didn’t we think it fit to release? Is the zeitgeist so altered that what sounds great now could have felt like a work in progress in 1970? It’s painful to think how much Dudu would have loved (and badly needed) the acclaim then his record is getting now. 

“Don’t look back”, a great man once said. You, readers, are not burdened with agonizing over choices made by my younger self. You can simply put it on and enjoy it, so go on, click here: 

https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/dudu-phukwana-and-the-spears 

and get yourself a vinyl album or a download. And if you want to hear more, the equally diligent and praiseworthy Fledg’ling Records has the 5 albums I produced with Chris McGregor, Dudu and the Brotherhood of Breath: 

http://fledglingrecords.co.uk/product-category/chris-mcgregor/

 

Until next time, look after yourselves.

 

Joe 

Singer of Tales

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Dear Mailing List,

This is hardly the ideal time for a newsletter, since there seem to be a plethora of blogs, sharings, essays, diaries, etc triggered by the lockdown. You’re probably tired of people saying you must have time on your hands, so I’ll come straight to the point.

Andrea and I produced an album last year with Damir Imamovic, a sevdah singer from Sarajevo; we’re very proud of it and think everyone should hear it. The release was scheduled for Friday, April 3 – today. We thought about postponing it, but talked it over with Damir and the label, Wrasse Records, and we all agreed to go full speed ahead, whatever that now means. If you aren’t in a mood to hear the backstory, you can click
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfNw-QKisKw for a video of the album’s first track and you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s your cup of tea.

For those still with me, it all began five and a half years ago when Andrea and I found ourselves having a drink with Bosnian journalist and human rights activist Nidžara Ahmetasević at a deserted bar high above Sarajevo. The view over the city and its surrounding green hills was beautiful, though it was hard not to think of the stories of the siege she had just told us. Our mutual friend Ed Vulliamy had told her that I was in the music business, so Nidžara had invited along her singer friend, Damir. When he said there were no local music shows scheduled that weekend, we must have looked very disappointed; he made a few phone calls and the following night we all re-convened at a gallery space for a private concert with fifty of his friends.

What a way to be introduced to this music! Damir is from sevdah royalty, with a musician father and a legendary grandfather who was a Yugoslav radio star in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The word sevdah is derived from the same Arabic root – sawdah – that became saudade in Portuguese. I guess it makes sense that the original meaning – ‘black bile’ – could result in ‘sad nostalgia’ at one end of Europe and ‘the sorrow of love’ at the other. A century ago, this folk tradition (like so many around the world), made its way to the bars and brothels of the cities and was accused of being disreputable. But it also got formalized and recorded and, when Tito endorsed it after the war, sevdah entered its ‘Golden Age’. When the country splintered it fell into disfavour, but Damir is part of a new generation bringing it back to life. Not only does he perform and compose sevdah beautifully, but he also teaches it and has written the only history of the genre.

Fast forward a few years, during which Damir serenaded us at our wedding with a beautiful love song (track 3 on the new cd). The following autumn, Andrea and I (along with our Albanian friend Edit Pula) produced our first album together, “At Least Wave Your Handkerchief At Me” by Saz’iso. Eighteen months ago, we flew to Sarajevo for Damir’s 40th birthday concert, intrigued by the ensemble he had invited: violinist and frequent collaborator, Ivana Ðurić, the Turkish kemenche master from Istanbul, Derya Türkan, and Greg Cohen, an old friend of mine from New York, on bass. We wondered how the European and oriental bowed instruments would sound together, but that night the quartet (Damir’s own custom instrument has a guitar neck and a bowed back like a saz) blended so beautifully with his singing that we cornered Damir after the concert and said we ought to record it.

Greg’s own wonderful-sounding bass lives with him in Berlin and costs a lot to move plus Damir loves that city, so we booked a studio there for a week last March. Jerry Boys, an engineer I first worked with on Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay album half a century ago, joined us and we got started. Two days rehearsal in Greg’s flat, four days recording (all in one room, no overdubs) and three days mixing. Thanks to Damir and Andrea’s work selecting the repertoire, we were well-prepared. But not too well-prepared; arrangements were often improvised on the spot, tempi altered, experiments attempted. The classically-trained Ivana was a revelation, with her elegant embrace of Balkan gypsy and folk styles. Derya’s instrument is surprisingly small, but in his hands, its feline sound weaves in and out of the other instruments, providing the magic ingredient to create a blend like a string-quartet from a parallel universe. Greg has played with everyone from Tom Waits to Ornette Coleman and has often embarked on complex and abstract sonic adventures. His playing here might sound straightforward yet it’s full of feeling and, I think, transforms the recording. He and Derya bring their Western and Eastern sensibilities to sevdah but always remain in the service of the music; this is not ‘fusion’, it’s exploring a timeless form in joyful harmony with Damir and Ivana.

When we began looking for a label, Wrasse Records responded immediately. Owner Ian Ashbridge said that they almost never release anything that comes “over the transom”, but they loved this recording so much they wanted to release it. And so they have!

Until a few weeks ago, I was planning to alert all of you to the European tour booked for April and May, including May Day at the Barbican/St Luke’s in London, where we have such great memories of Saz’iso’s concert two and half years ago. You could have experienced up close what I have described. But Jerry Boys’ magic fingers and microphone placement mean you can get a vivid sonic picture of it on the cd. The album is called “Singer of Tales” in honour of a seminal book by ethnographer Albert Lord about musical storytelling in the Balkans. Lord makes the case that this art is ancient, perhaps providing a clue about how The Odyssey might have survived down the oral generations until they reached the pen of Homer. (Damir was surprised I knew the book, but I recall sweeping it onto the floor of my Harvard dorm room when Lord was my room-mate’s tutor and we were competing for time at the only desk.)

The stories and poetry contained in the lyrics are annotated and translated into English in the cd booklet. You can buy the physical or digital cd on all the usual platforms. (The vinyl will be coming later.) For now, it’s only available digitally in most territories outside Northern Europe, but cds can always be ordered directly from the label: http://www.wrasserecords.com/Damir_Imamovi_263_315/Singer_Of_Tales_919.html.

As for me, I go back and forth during this hibernation. Sometimes I love listening to music, familiar and new, or watching films. Often I prefer the silence. I’ve got a deadline from Faber & Faber for my book (still waiting for the perfect title) and I try to hypnotize myself into imagining the world might still be interested when it comes out in a couple of years. I sleep pretty well; the only things that keep me awake are the fate of the planet and imagining how much better some of the records I produced in the past might have been if I’d had Andrea with me as co-producer.

Be well and safe.

Joe

Amazing Grace

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Dear Mailing List,

Long time no see!

The subject of this newsletter is one of the reasons you haven’t heard from me lately. I don’t believe I’ve previously mentioned my involvement in Amazing Grace, the film of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel recording sessions, but I’ve been working on it for some years, helping to get it into the theatres.

I trust Amazing Grace’s release is not news to most of you – it’s had a huge splash of press in the US (where it was released April 5) and the UK (it came out here last Friday). In the coming months it should reach every corner of the world. Finally seeing it with huge audiences at festivals in New York and Berlin over the past few months and reading critics’ and audiences’ reactions has been a gratifying coda to the years of frustration.

The story goes back to 1972 when I was living in LA and working for Warner Brothers Films as ‘Director of Music Services’. Parts of the job were really interesting, like helping Stanley Kubrick put together the music for Clockwork Orange or inviting a Greenwich Village folk-billy down to Georgia to record ‘Duelling Banjos’ for John Boorman’s Deliverance. Others not so much, like the endless stream of directors who rang me up two months before their film had to be ready for release begging me to get them ‘John Williams or someone like him’.

I eventually persuaded the studio to let me make the Jimi Hendrix documentary and slowly morphed from being a bureaucrat into what I was deluded enough to think would be my new career – filmmaker! But before that happened, in December of 1971, Atlantic Records (which was then part of the same corporation) told us they were coming to LA to make a gospel album with Aretha Franklin. It would be done live over two evenings at James Cleveland’s church in Watts. Might we be interested in filming it?

Might we?? I jumped at it and told studio boss Ted Ashley I would find an experienced team of 16mm cameramen to shoot the two nights. Once we’d shot it, there would be time to consider whether it was a TV special, a documentary or simply an elongated promo for the album. But before I could finalize a deal with the crew, I got a call from Ashley. He had mentioned the project to the famous director Sydney Pollack, who turned out to be a huge Aretha fan and wanted to film it himself. I remember saying, ‘do you think that’s wise? Filming live music is a very specialized skill.’ But to no avail; in came Team Pollack and I sat on the sidelines, digesting my lesson in Hollywood studio politics. On the first evening at the church, I asked one of the cameramen how they were going to synch picture to sound; they told me they ‘had it under control’.

Reader, they didn’t. The editor called me a few days later to say he couldn’t do anything as there were no synch marks. Pollack moved on to his next feature and the footage was consigned to the Burbank Studio vaults. Over the years, I occasionally wondered if anyone would try and resurrect it. The answer came in 2010 when I arrived at the LA stop on my ‘Chinese White Bicycles’ tour with Robyn Hitchcock (there’s a six-camera shoot of one of those shows sitting in a vault in Chicago in case anyone’s interested….). Into my Inbox popped an email from one Alan Elliott; he had the Amazing Grace footage – did I want to have lunch?

Alan is a producer/composer/a&r man who once worked at Atlantic, where Jerry Wexler (who had produced the album) told him about the lost film project. Warner Brothers proved willing to let Alan have a go and delivered the film stock and a copy of the audio tapes to his Hollywood garage: no notes, no labels, no instructions. After a few head-scratching weeks, Alan met a woman named Beverly Wood at a party who revealed that she a) had grown up listening to Amazing Grace and b) worked at Deluxe Lab restoring films. She sent a truck to pick up the film and brought it back a few weeks later all synched up. Alan then proceeded to assemble a brilliant and deceptively straightforward 90-minute film. I had the impression from a few 1972 conversations that Pollack was planning to interview all the principles and build an interview-filled music documentary around the footage of those two evenings. Alan turned in the opposite direction: no talking heads, no analysis, no one leading the audience by the hand, no alerts about what you’re about to see. The viewer is simply immersed in the events and music of the two nights at Cleveland’s church.

In some ways, watching the film now is even more astounding than being there. (see photo below of me and my moustache talking to Sydney Pollack on the first night) For one thing, we had to wait after every take while Aretha, Wexler, Cleveland and Arif Mardin walkie-talkied about whether the last take was a keeper, then we’d often hear the same song over again. But perhaps even more important is that we now have a perspective lacking in 1972. I was thrilled to be there, awed by the musicianship, the virtuosity and by the surprise co-star, choirmaster Alexander Hamilton. But with the arrogant optimism of youth (as well as that of the only recently deceased Sixties), I fully expected my life would continue to be full of such musical high points and thrills – bring ‘em on! I’m ready!

Me and my moustache talking to Sydney Pollack, January 1972, Watts

 

What I had no idea of at the time was how, only a few years later, disco would sweep across the world, someone would invent the drum machine, Aretha would start making pop records with Teddy Pendergrass and the gospel ‘warriors’ would all stop touring. I now see the film as the final bow of a way of making music perfected by an extraordinary generation of music-makers with the skills and influences that bounced back and forth between African-American secular and religious music. Think about it as you watch Amazing Grace (and you will watch Amazing Grace) how no one makes music like this any more, to say nothing of on this timetable: a double album in two nights, live.

If Alan Elliott were a well-organized, linear, cautious, lawyered-up filmmaker, you would never have been able to see Amazing Grace. He charged ahead, heedless of Aretha’s demand for a huge amount of money, heedless of lawyers who said he had to take care of this company or that person before cutting a single frame. Amazing Grace is the ultimate ‘facts-on-the-ground’, a document so magical and irresistible that a team of producers – myself and my lawyer brother included – have just shrugged and set about picking up the contractual pieces.

Aretha was on record saying she ‘loved the film’, but she wanted the sort of fee that would give any documentary distributor a heart attack. She never had much time for contracts and lawyers and bridled at the bureaucratic complexity of the film industry. When Alan showed her family the film last autumn, they immediately offered to work with us to bring it to out. The process has been hugely complicated; for months, it’s kept me away from my book, from my wife and from my friends. But even now, having seen it again and again, whenever I introduce it at a screening or a festival and tell myself that I’ll leave as soon as I’m sure the sound is loud enough, I find it impossible to tear myself away and end up staying for the whole 87 minutes.

Amazing Grace represents artistry on a level we’re unlikely ever again to see at such close range. It’s an homage to a form born in 1932 when blues singer Georgia Tom’s wife died in childbirth and he turned his back on saucy lyrics, became Thomas A Dorsey again, and wrote ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’, the first modern gospel song (which Aretha performs in a brilliant arrangement in the film.) Gospel music lives on, preserved by talented choirs and singers, but the Golden Era ended that second night in Watts in January 1972. I was lucky to have heard Mavis Staples sing with her family in a Roxbury high school auditorium when she was 16, to see Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones destroy the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre one Sunday afternoon in 1963 and watch Dorothy Love ‘fall out’ after an astounding performance at a store-front church in Newark, New Jersey. I am not religious, but I am happy to gaze in wonder at Italian religious paintings from the 15th century and I remain convinced that between 1932 and 1972, American gospel produced some of the greatest and most influential music ever made. It entered the mainstream via Ray Charles and Aretha and other stars of rock ‘n’ roll and r&b and changed the way the world listened.

Over those two nights, Aretha summed it all up, bringing it, as her father proclaims in the film, ‘into a SYNthesis’ and providing a document for the ages.

Joe

If you want to read more about Aretha and the film, check out Josh Jelly-Shapiro’s piece in the NYRB:
https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/02/02/arethas-grace/

and/or Mikal Gilmore’s obituary, which includes a link to a brilliant podcast about her life.
https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/aretha-franklin-tribute-cover-story-queen-729053/

If those two aren’t enough, then get ahold of Anthony Heilbut’s book “The Fan Who Knew Too Much” with its fascinating long chapter on Franklin.

 

Geoff Muldaur

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Hey! I’m still alive. No particularly good reason for the long silence, but I can assure you I’ve been working on the book each and every day – the end is in sight! And of course, I’ve been on a few little tours with our Albanian group, Saz’iso (standing beside the sound man and kibitzing, mostly). I have a couple of other newsletters up my sleeve but they’re a bit ambitious and I haven’t had the time to finish either of them.

This one is short and sweet: Geoff Muldaur is touring the UK starting at the Green Note in Camden Town (London) Friday June 1. I have always resisted plugging gigs other than my own since I want this to remain a simple, unambitious newsletter and don’t want it to become a bulletin board. But this is different. Geoff and I grew up in the ’50s (!) listening to records together. I can still hear Lonnie Johnson, Don Redman, Claude Jeter and Skip James in his singing and he just keeps getting better with age. Last week he was invited to sing ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ in NYC’s Town Hall at the Dylan anniversary concert and a lot of younger people are starting to realize what a remarkable musician he is. The rest of the tour looks like this – if you’re in the vicinity, you won’t regret going – promise!

3rd June Whitstable, UK Whitstable Sessions (whitstablesessions.co.uk)

5th June Menai Bridge, UK Victoria Hotel (www.vicmenai.com

6th June Hebden Bridge, UK Trades Club (thetradesclub.com)

7th June Milton Keynes The Stables (stables.org)

Saturday Knowledge in East London

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Do you any of you live east of Camden Town in London? You can enjoy a hearty Dalston breakfast this coming Saturday (Nov 18th) at an event I’m taking part in called “Porridge and Knowledge”. I’m going to talk there, probably about Nick Drake and how I like to produce records. There’s also music from a cello/violin duo plus Hackney organic farmer and local food pioneer Sarah Bentley. It’s organized by Sam Lee and the wonderful Nest Collective so how bad could it be? thenestcollective.co.uk/shows/porridge-knowledge

We’ve just finished two weeks touring the UK with Saz’iso – it was a great experience and a great success – good crowds and wonderful performances. While we were on the road, the cd – “At Least Wave Your Handkerchief At Me” was included in the year’s top 10 by both fRoots and Songlines. Now life returns to normal and I go back to finishing my book. I will, however, take some time out to write a long-ish newsletter I’ve been pondering over the course of the past year while attending one fascinating performance after another, from festivals to small rooms, leaving me with a few ideas about music in 2017 that I will consider out loud, or at least on the page.

Until soon – as they say in Germany – bis bald!