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2004-08-24 - 7:42 a.m.

Just as well I got my thoughts on the Tanworth event down immediately after the event. I have tidied them up a bit and they are at the end of this entry.

I managed to dig deeper on the subject of expressionism in folk-blues derived music. As part of the preparation for the Lullabies concert – 27 November 2004 at St Martins in the Fields – I am looking at the history of the venues in the area that played the types of music will feature on the programme.

Charlie Alexander reminded me about the Little Theatre Club which ran for some years in St Martin’s Lane offering experimental jazz. I have found a section in the Derek Bailey biography where he remembers playing there and yesterday I found an interview with Evan Parker. Parker and Bailey are the two of the players from that first generation of free players who have achieved a major reputation but the founder of the LTC was a drummer called John Stevens – more about him later.

The surprising discovery was that Stevens spent some time working with John Martyn in the mid 1970s – around the time of Inside Out and One World – and apparently he is very prominent on Live at Leeds – an album I don’t have. Stevens and Danny Thompson must have made an amazing rhythm section. (I must get Andrew to say more about the Tumbler which he has just bought.)

I was reminded of John Martyn’s first album – London Conversation – by some of the contributions at Tanworth. Andrew and I spent some of the time in the “One World” zone with our contribution. And we at least glanced at the experimental jazz tradition.

I think there is a story to be told about the way that the collocation of clubs like LTC and Cousins – and Ronnie Scott’s which was more the establishment mainstream of UK jazz – helped musicians from the folk and jazz traditions to play together and influence each other’s musical development. Sometimes – as in the case of Pentangle – you can argue that the jazz dimension pulled the music in a mainstream dimension – but the Stevens/Martyn link shows how explosive the free jazz cross fertilisation. I think that John may have started to move in this direction when he heard Pharoah Sanders – the other saxophone player in John Coltrane’s most radical bands.

Gilbert Isbin has carried forward that approach – the idea that folk-blues derived “Cousins” music can stretch as far as radical free improvisation.

There is something equally radical about the music of Winnebago Deal – the guitar duo which Laurence’s son Ben is in. There is no doubt that it is a form of expressionism – but at the same time there are elements of the music which show great care and discrimination.

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE TANWORTH TRIBUTE GATHERING 2004

Laurence mailed about the concert – how much he had enjoyed it – and the unique character of the event. He said he had particularly enjoyed Mark Pavey’s version of Black Eyed Dog which he thought had got to the meat of the matter. I mentioned the BEDs when I wrote Robin F to thank her for the use of her Smokin Too Long loop and to give an impression of how Angel Cover Me had gone.

Claudio from the German TV company had asked me why it was that young people today fastened onto the ND oeuvre. I said it wasn’t an easy question to answer but it got me thinking and I tried some of the thoughts out on Robin. Andrew and I had noted that the programme was heavily weighted towards early and late songs – indeed I asked Robin where she thought the “middle” of the oeuvre might lie.

The first reason for this weighting away from the middle is that these songs are the ones which were originally played with just guitar accompaniment – so they obvious targets for people who want to get into the guitar proficiency and beyond. This aspect of the work is very rich and young guitarists can dig down into it – the way that my generation tried to get our fingers round Jansch and Renbourn. Even Paul Simon mastered the Davy Graham classic Angie.

But I also thought there was another angle. As far as the late songs are concerned – where Nick veered towards expressionism – then – as Mark and Otto showed – this is an aspect which matches people’s experience of “things today”. In culture generally there is a lot of background expressionism – one could start with the popularity of Van Gogh and take it on from there. There are various points where expressionism surfaces in music eg the songs Stravinsky wrote during the First World War which are quite easy to link through to Nick’s work. Some of Pink Moon sounds like it comes after those Stravinsky songs – whether he heard them or not.

Arguably “things today” show similarity with the experience that drove expressionism particularly in Germany in the 1900s where there was an explicit programme linked to “modernism”. The theory of the movement was that there was inner truth in experience which tended to isolate the artist from society. The pressure and discontinuity in lived experience today gets channelled to some degree into expressionist models. And so the late songs get played – and indeed the MDK version songs and the Steve Wilkinson treatment of HJ1 showed an expressionist aesthetic working its way back earlier material – reminding me of how the expressionist Cale/Reed aesthetic attacked song – within a locale that put high value on abstract expressionism.

The other vector is jejeune lyricism for want of a better expression which is in the early songs – I think some people call them the Princess songs. Pamela Wyn Shannon mentioned this when I tackled her on Magic (I think she felt tackled). Magic is simply a song of lost innocence – of negative realisation – and its probably the first point at which major/minor polarisation surfaces in Nick’s work. PWS said a few more things that I heard as a reflection of something I call “creation spirituality” – a term I learned from Regan von Schweitzer with whom I did a fair amount of Tanworth like musical endeavour in the last decade. Some people might call it new age or neo-paganism. PWS juxtaposed Magic with a song of her own about seasonal transition which is a classic neop perspective – and indeed you could see the major/minor transition as underlying the lyric thrust of that piece.

The area that really interests me – and PWS mentioned this – is that as far as things today are concerned there is a juxtaposition between lyric/magic/neo paganism – often but not exclusively rooted in childhood (cf H Potter) and the whole expressionist bundle of “modern life” – Jackson Pollock writ small. This helps explain why you get interpretations of Magic which (for example) focus on child abuse which is a very direct fracturing of magic wholeness trust etc.

Ashley Hutchings opened the 2nd half with a specially written song about that episode at the Round House – during which it occurred to me that he and I have been playing on the same bill for thirty seven years on and off. It’s like Round the Horn isn’t it – and it is more than thirty five years that I’ve been bumping into Robert Kirby at peculiar gigs. My Dear Killer did Milk and Honey – I was tempted to say to them the last time I played that song was at the Albert Hall in 1968 where it was part of the emerging folk rock movement with Al Stewart and other Cousins luminaries on the bill. But I thought that was too pretentious even by my standards.

The MDK version wasn’t folk-rock but I can hear now that it related quite strongly to episodes in New York a couple of years earlier. Theirs was a Cale-Reed derived approach to the music which you can piece together from listening to the Ludlow St demos and Chelsea Girls.

Talking of Cale, Peter Michaels played the piano part to Northern Sky a long while Tom McNevin sang and played guitar, I have never heard that piano part before but he had it down very well – even though it was played on the “found” upright in St Mary Magdalene and it very well. In fact I am not sure I have heard ND played on guitar and piano as a duo.

Peter accompanied Denise on the Robin Frederick song – Angel Cover Me – which I have only heard on disc performed by the writer. This was the penultimate song of the evening. Peter had done a fine job in transferring Robin’s synth part to guitar. He has a small Guild which everyone agreed sounded such that it must have been the same model that ND used on a lot of recordings. Denise’s reading was about 80% pretty faithful to the original and then at the climax of the verse went her own way.

Andrew and I last did one of these celebrations in Leyland five years ago and we were thinking about the differences . One similarity is that at that even someone had gone to the trouble of transcribing the Cale viola line off Fly – which was fascinating to both listen to and read – and like Peter’s piano part on Northern Sky made you hear the original in a new way.

Peter also gave her heroic versions of Cello Song and Road. I never really like the former on the record. But as when Ken Nichol played it with Keeling ensemble at Leyland, Peter went at the opening passage furiously and the song took on a much more muscular demeanour.

Cameron Devlin like Peter chose a fairly forensic approach to the original guitar parts – in this case on River Man and Voice from the Mountain – but both played in such a way that you could hear voicings or transitions that aren’t easily evident in the original.

I talked to Tom McN and it turned out that he is a GP who studied at Manchester in the late 1980s – he said that he had first come across ND there, when he had a folkband. Apparently there was a thriving folk scene in the middle of Madchester. We talked about tunings and I explained that the whole tuning business had been invented by Davy Graham as he explored Indian and Turkish music and began to integrate it with traditional English music.

Mark Atherton played Blossom and I chatted to Robert K about the mysterious episode with Beth Orton at the Skin Too Few premier in Amsterdam. Robert had an arrangement and it was rehearsed in the afternoon with BO, but when it came to the evening all the parts had disappeared so it couldn’t be performed. This led onto a conversation about her writing and performing method and the degree to which it may have been influenced by the Chemical Brothers. Mark played one of his songs and as was the case with several performances you could hear how their interpretation of the ND song and their own music were part of a stylistic unity.

This was very true of Bruno D who is a very powerful performer – I talked to him a bit about the country element in his approach and how his take on that seemed to have common elements with Leonard Cohen’s. He did Time and Has Told Me with very very powerful punctuation. Andrew and I agreed that it reminded us of the Mike Chapman version at Leyland. For his second song he performed with Martin B who lives in Amsterdam near Denise. I have to say that the one song of his own that Martin performed struck me as the most original bit of non-ND writing performed on the programme. To find equivalents and linkages I had to go back to Song To A Seagull especially in an approach to the guitar that is truly orchestral in its range.

Towards the end of the evening – the event started at 5pm and didn’t finish until nearly 9pm – I was reminded of Cousins – a sequence of different performers – strong but not exclusive emphasis on guitar picking and a lot of different approaches to tradition. In that sense it was also like the Knitting Factory in NYC which is an odd think to say about an Early English church in South Warwickshire. In fact I told BBC Birmingham as much – don’t imagine this stuff is just about sort of English pastoralness!

Bruno’s manager is organising a tribute tour in Holland and Belgium which begins shortly and which I believe Gilbert Isbin is playing. We talked quite about Gilbert’s Group’s new CD and what a fantastic thing it is. Apparently it was only force of circumstances that prevented Gilbert from showing up.

I took Gilbert’s name in vane by using in him in a rhetorical link I put into a letter which Denise let me insert into the programme. The letter said:

“I hope you enjoy this evening’s concert in St Mary Magdalene – it’s a fantastic venue for an event of this kind with its own unique atmosphere.I would like to invite you to a related concert in another marvellous venue – St Martins in the Fields in Trafalgar Square - a concert of Lullabies on 27 November 2004 - to mark World AIDS Day 2004.

You may have heard of some of the performers. Gilbert Isbin, the Belgian guitar virtuoso and celebrated interpreter of Nick Drake’s songs, will be performing a specially written lullaby as will Paul Wheeler, a close friend of Nick’s. I hope that Andrew Keeling will be writing something as well. Robin Frederick and I have each written lullabies which will be appearing on the CD linked to this event.

Other performers include Simon Prager, one of the original UK blues pioneers from the Streatham scene which hosted the first bluesmen to tour the UK like Leadbelly and Sonny Boy Williamson in the late 50s/early 60s. Simon’s style is based on Reverend Gary Davis – the blues guitar virtuoso who influenced a whole generation of British acoustic players. His friend, Charlie Alexander, founder of Jazzwise, is also performing a specially written lullaby - Charlie wrote and presented the Radio 3 series on the history of the jazz guitar a few years back and was a close associate of Steve Pheasant founder of HORN.

Cathy Bell who has just finished her studies at Caius College with the poetic visionary J H Prynne will be singing Lullabies by Schubert and Barber. (Wheeler, Pheasant and Kirby were all members of Caius).

I am also looking forward to the lullaby from Meridian which includes Richard Jones (Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, Climax Blues Band) and features the fabulous vocals of Anna Tabbush – very remiscent of Sandy Denny.

I think the Lullabies concert will be an outstanding event in a wonderful location. You can find out more about it at: http://www.kwase-kwaza.org/lullabies.htm/. While you are have a look around – you can download Paul Wheeler’s new CD Red Blues and hear some of the strange things Gilbert and I have got up to. Sooner or later we will be putting up the recording of Gilbert Isbin’s radio concert of Nick’s tunes. You can also find out how the projects fit together with the South African scene particularly the Highveld area to the east of Johannesburg – also at http://www.bstrust.org./

I hope to see you at St Martins in the Fields on the evening of 27 November.”

Andrew and I enjoyed performing the opening stuff so much that I think we are going be doing a Lullaby together.

Obviously I wrote this before the event – but I was on target about the building. Next Sunday I am going to be doing something at St Mary’s Guildford which has Saxon parts and where Lewis Carroll preached . Last Summer someone put on a concert where I did Debussy’s En Bateau and the building showed this amazing power to encompass and enhance the various contributions. It was the same when I did Blink Music Beyond Belief there earlier this year. St Mary Magdalene had the same power . I talked to Peter who is married to the Church Warden at MM about this – he said his son worked just round the corner from St Martins. Peter and his wife had worked amazingly hard to get the show on the road – just for its own sake.

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