Posts Tagged ‘Richard Williams’

The Liberation Music Orchestra in London

26 November 2016

Obviously the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra isn’t quite the same without Charlie Haden, who died two years ago. But equally, as Alan Shipton of Radio 3 noted before the start of their concert at Cadogan Hall last weekend, right now we need it more than ever.

The Orchestra was created in 1969, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, as a vehicle for Haden’s politics and music, and has toured and recorded off and on ever since, notably in the 2000s as a protest against the invasion of Iraq. The current band, under the leadership of Haden’s long-term collaborator Carla Bley, has just released a record on ecological themes, Time | Life, which was a work in progress when Haden died. The concert included material from this and from their 2004 recording Not In Our Name.

I love big bands, and the Liberation Music Orchestra is a big band: bass, drums, guitar, tuba, French horn, trombone, two trumpets, alto sax and two tenor saxes. Most of the musicians have been playing with the Orchestra for years. And then there’s the elfin figure of Bley, now 80, perched at the piano, standing from time to time to bring a song to a tidy close, or transition into a new one.

They are Carla Bley’s arrangements—Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, who introduced the band, said that Charlie could never imagine anyone else arranging the Liberation Music Orchestra’s work—and she has an unmatched ear for the timbres and textures of the jazz orchestra, in the same league as Gil Evans.

Some of the material on Time | Life goes back to the ’60s—Haden’s Song for the Whales and the Bley composition, Silent Spring, a response to Rachel Carson’s path-breaking polemic, both of which were part of the set at Cadogan Hall. There’s also a fine version of Miles’ Blue in Green, which the band opened with.

It wasn’t just me who found the material from Not In Our Name the most compelling on the night, with the scars of the recent Presidential election still fresh (Richard Williams’ review is here). The title track shares with Mingus’ Fables of Faubus the notion that protest should have a spring in its step and a smile on its face. Bley’s arrangement of Amazing Grace restores the simple power of the original. And the high point of the evening, without doubt, was the long medley of America The Beautiful/Life Every Heart And Sing/Skies of America, with drummer Matt Wilson shifting into a military mode in a long solo before the band returned to cacophonous discord. If it was designed to convey the idea that America has lost its way, it worked.

The band: Carla Bley, piano, conductor; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Chris Cheek, tenor saxophone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Seneca Black, trumpet; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Earl McIntyre, tuba; Steve Cardenas, guitar; Darek Oles, bass; Matt Wilson, drums.

The concert was recorded for transmission on Radio 3 during December. 


Earning your enemies

1 February 2014

Pete_Seeger2_-_6-16-07_Photo_by_Anthony_PepitoneIt was heartening this week to see Pete Seeger, who’s died at the age of 94, get the obituaries that he deserved after a life of radicalism. I’m not going to repeat them here, but commend Richard Williams’ towering piece in the Guardian, which underlines his influence on our music culture, Dave Marsh’s long appreciation, Billy Bragg’s short memoir, and David Corn’s note in Mother Jones, along with another video-embedded piece there.

It wouldn’t necessarily have turned out this way. Blessed is the man or woman who is lucky enough to outlive their enemies; had Seeger died in the 1950s he would have been vilified, or ignored. But his persecutors then – J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn – are now both dead and discredited.

Williams quotes the British DJ Laura Laverne as saying that it was Seeger’s destiny to be “loved and hated by precisely the right people.” But you have to earn your enemies, and Seeger understood the cost of this. He had been a member of the Communist Party, and associated with a whole range of leftist organisations, although (as The New American pointed out) it would have been easy to miss this in the media tributes. Seeger confronted the House UnAmerican Activities Committee instead of pleading either the First or Fifth Amendments, and was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of Congress (the conviction was later quashed), and he lived from hand to mouth after being blacklisted. “He was hounded”, says David Corn. It’s worth quoting what he said to the Committee, from a profile in the New Yorker:

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs,” he said. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.”

They didn’t. What the committee members wanted was to have him say that he had been a Communist and to give them names of others who had been, and he wouldn’t. Again and again, he said, “My answer is the same as before.”

To 21st century ears a song like “If I Had A Hammer“, co-written by Seeger with Lee Hays, sounds like a cheerful and mildly progressive singalong. But in the 1940s it was incendiary, as he explained:

In 1949 only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’. … The message was that we have got tools and that we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say. We will overcome. I have a hammer.

Seeger was phlegmatic about the UnAmerican Activities Committee, though with hindsight he could afford to be. As he told NPR in an interview in 1985,

It feels, as I felt, that these people didn’t love America so much as their own particular version of America, which was somewhat limited, shall we say. And so those who cooperated with the committee wish they could forget it all. Those who stood up to the committee, as Lee says, if it wasn’t for the honor, he’d just as soon not been blacklisted. It was an honor.

Billy Bragg writes that,

Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he’d only be making music.

His music was inseparable from his activism, and as an activist, he never quit. I’ve blogged here before about his campaign to clean up the Hudson River, and at the age of  92 he was recording Dylan’s “Forever Young” with a group of kids he’d mentored. And in many ways the America of today is unrecogniseable from that of the 1950s.

People today can’t realize, though, how much America has changed as a result of the civil rights movement and one thing after another, the women’s movement. We didn’t win all the victories we hoped we would win, but we won some victories, and maybe that’s the way the world moves forward.

Bruce Springsteen takes some credit for helping Seeger regain the reputation he deserved, both in his high profile recording of Seeger’s songs, and also his part in ensuring that Seeger played at Obama’s inauguration, where they sang together the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land”, Seeger as ever engaging the audience in the politics of the song by getting them to sing along.

By chance I once heard Seeger talk about “This Land Is Your Land” on the radio (and I won’t be able to find this). When Guthrie first played it to him, Seeger told him the song didn’t work because it was too simple. It was only later that he realised that he was wrong; its simplicity was exactly the reason it worked.


The photo of Pete Seeger at the top of the post was taken by Anthony Pepitone in 2007. It is published on Wikimedia Commons under a  Creative Commons licence.

Mick Farren and ‘The End’

4 August 2013

I’ve been meaning to write briefly about Mick Farren since I read of his death at the start of the week. Farren was something of a counter-cultural polymath; he was a music journalist, provocateur, novelist, and from time to time a performer as well. (His 60s band, the Deviants, spawned the Pink Fairies, who were as influential as they have been under-regarded). But you can read all of this in Richard Williams’ generous obituary

I wanted to mention something from his first novel, Texts of Festival, which I read some time after it came out in 1973. My copy has long vanished, but it’s set in a post-apocalyptic depopulated world in which infrastructure has been destroyed and energy is scarce. I’d describe it as a “Mad Max” novel except that it predates the movie by six years. 

Anyway, the settlement has a creaking music system held together now by string and sealing wax, and so old and close to breakdown that it can be played only in one circumstance – if they get attacked. In this eventuality they must put on the Doors’ sing “The End” and play it at maximum volume, all the way up to eleven, while hoping the sound system doesn’t collapse under the strain. 

Spoiler alert: and so it comes to pass. 

The image has stuck with me for more than thirty years. And how many novels can you say that of?

There’s also a fine obituary by Ian Fraser at Terracope.