Thursday 30 April 2020

Tony Allen

Wakeful, and heard the news about Tony Allen's death. Pioneer of the Afrobeat sound, and surely one of the most joyous, uplifting drummers of all time. The last hour or two have been spent hurtling giddily through YouTube, reminding myself of some classics and making new discoveries. Here are some of the results. (Please feel free to comment or get in touch on Twitter with any recommended tracks or albums.)



'Wolf Eats Wolf' (from 'The Source')

'Afrodisco Beat' (from 'Progress')

'Herculean' (from The Good, The Bad and The Queen: 'The Good, The Bad and The Queen')

'Stalemate' (from Fela Kuti: 'Stalemate')

'Cella's Walk' (from 'Inspiration Information', with Jimi Tenor)

'Boat Journey' (from 'Film of Life')

'Losun' (from 'Lagos No Shaking')

'Sounding Line 1' (from Moritz Von Oswald Trio: 'Sounding Lines')

'Politely' (from 'A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers')

'The Same Blood' (from 'Black Voices')

'Roforofo Fight' (from Fela Kuti: 'Roforofo Fight')

'Obama Shuffle Street Blues' (from 'Rejoice', with Hugh Masekela)

Saturday 18 April 2020

Music in store

As I type this on 18 April 2020, today would have been Record Store Day - the annual event which sees loads of enthusiasts, collectors, boffins and insomniacs start queuing from break of day at independent record shops across the land to get their hands on exclusive, limited-edition releases. It might attract criticism for all sorts of reasons - 'you should support your favourite businesses all year round'; 'why limit the releases' availability? - unscrupulous buyers get in quick and sell them on'; 'the prices are way too high'... and so on.

But on the positive side, it seems to have helped re-awaken some love for cherishing - and therefore buying - albums as physical products, particularly in the resurgence of vinyl sales; re-establish community among record collectors; but most importantly, give the shops an absolutely massive boost on their busiest day of the year. I know we can never truly go back to the days before digital and streaming changed the music industry as we knew it, but this gives one hope that we can all keep buying our music in the format we want, all available and co-existing.

Currently, for obvious reasons, Record Store Day itself is postponed until 20 June. Hopefully, it will still happen - but in the meantime, the records shops are not only missing out on their regular April shot-in-the-arm, but also gamely pressing on during lockdown to keep customers supplied through mail order.

With that in mind, the Record Store Day organiser have created a Twitter campaign, with the hashtag #RSDFillTheGap. (Or, 'Fill the Gap', for people who still prefer to read normally.) The hook is that if everyone who would have gone out today to buy records - and more folk welcome, obviously - orders an album they've always wanted, or had their eye on, from an independent retailer, it will still send some much-needed revenue the shops' way.

While classical music still seems to barely edge its way into Record Store Day, it hasn't been totally absent. One year, Teldec put out a USB stick of the Bach complete works: while the format seems a tad random, perhaps, it's an attractive proposition compared to the CD version, which is obviously so vast it looks a little like a plank you might expect two workmen to carry between them. The Halle once packaged together a multiple-disc compilation of self-released recordings. Handsome vinyl re-issues also crop up: this June, you might be able to pick up a 4LP 'Essential Philip Glass', or a 10" of Walton's 'Facade' with Edith Sitwell reading her own poems.

Until then, why not 'Fill the Gap' in your classical collection?

I have a few suggestions below, but in order to impose some kind of structure / word limit, I've stuck to my favourite area of classical music: art song and vocal recitals. 2020 has got off to a cracking start in this genre, so I offer a few releases that have turned my head - plus an idea or two to 'fill the gap' for those artists if you've heard or bought the latest titles. (Apologies for the slightly makeshift appearance of the table - attempts at anything more technical than this mostly resulted in complete user meltdown.)

Some of these - along with a whole host of other recordings - appear on 'Support Action', my other blog which has links to purchase discs by musicians affected by cancellations this spring/summer.

While there are a lot of options for you to buy discs - including from the labels directly - today is really about the shops. With that in mind, I feel happy to recommend Presto, an independent classical music specialist I often see mentioned by music websites, and who have always provided me with brilliant service. Happy hunting!

Saturday 11 April 2020

Space invasion: the dreaded clearout

It couldn't be put off any longer. Next year - and I realise, given the extreme abnormality of this year, very little is likely to be running to schedule - we are still hoping to have some fairly major work done to the house. First-world problem ensues. Mrs Specs and I are both collectors (she: books, me: records), so the question arises... what are we going to do with all our stuff before succumbing to total upheaval?

Answer: some of it has to go. I buy too many CDs - I know that - but I've been doing so for about 35 years, from all my pocket money, Christmas & birthday vouchers back in the day, to a chunk of my disposable income now. I've made laughable attempts at weeding out before (although Mrs Specs wasn't laughing) without making the merest scratch, let alone dent, in the collection. This time, it has to be different. I need to be ruthless, unfeeling, possibly even villainous. Bordering on brutal.

And while I'm lucky enough to keep working from home full-time during this lockdown, I know I would be mad not to use a fair few of the leisure hours I've been unceremoniously handed back (when I'd normally be out hearing live music, dagnammit) to try and break the back of this heroic task.

Burying myself deep in the spare room, I began trying to determine what I could do without. Predictably, sifting through my albums is like sifting through my past, but I wasn't fully prepared for the headlong journey I'd be taking into the recesses of my mind...

I might have been a weirder teenager than I thought I was.
Before starting the Sifting, my memory of my 'young' listening seemed perfectly in tandem with what all of my mates were playing as well. We all had our favourite chart bands as kids (mine was Ultravox), we all started listening to John Peel and earning our indie stripes at around the same time, then broadened our horizons at university or during early adulthood and beyond.

My old CDs, though, are telling a somewhat different story. Genesis. So much Genesis. In fact, my first gig was when I won tickets to see them at Wembley Stadium. I realise they had become, in essence, a pop band by then, but I had the old stuff as well.

I absolutely love prog now - I listen to loads of prog, I buy 'Prog' magazine and if I could, I'd wear prog socks - but I had no coherent recollection of quite how long it had been my companion. Marillion. Sky. Pink Floyd. And sometimes, beware children, proggers come in disguise. Supertramp. XTC.

I very much belong to the 'there are no guilty pleasures' camp, and I find no shame in listening to anything I want to listen to - then or now. Prog rock has its detractors, people who still think it's all about capes and goblins (as if that would be a bad thing). But in fact, it's a thriving, vital scene at the moment and its current appeal to me seems obvious: now I've been a serious devotee of classical music for around a decade, it stands to reason I would also like rock or folk music that stretches out, aims for virtuosity and intricacy, insists on holding the attention.

But the discs nestling at the back of my shelves reveal that this type of music exerted a pull on me from the outset. Ironically, when I became totally hooked on classical (without actually owning any Hooked On Classics), the genre that instantly connected with me was art song, where the composer often conveys their intention in a mere two or three minutes, rather more the length of a pop hit.

So I have a deep-seated love for rock music that strives to feel classical, and classical music that has the same effect on me as rock. It's sheer good fortune I've turned out as well as I have.

I'm definitely artist-led.
This must also be a legacy of my pop and rock years. I am much more likely to go where a certain artist takes me, than home in on a genre, type or period of music... or even a particular composer. I do have a favourite composer - Schubert (see below) - but I still don't obsessively collect his entire body of work in its own right.

I have some historical, famous recordings of great works - versions you are 'supposed' to own - but as a rule, I don't play them very often. I know that some of them will become casualties of the Sifting. The ones I always go back to are mostly current: made by musicians who I can still go out and hear live - their interpretations feel more immediate to me, more 'present'. And if an artist is on a particular musical journey that makes sense to me, I will follow.

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know I'm a huge fan of the soprano Carolyn Sampson. I think I properly realised how much I loved her voice when she gave her first voice/piano recital at the Wigmore Hall - and from that point, you could explore backwards through a career that already encompassed (among other things) a range of Baroque/chamber/orchestral vocal music, and then since expanding into brilliantly programmed CDs of art song with Joseph Middleton, perhaps an increase in focus on contemporary, and so on. While the range of timbres, colours and styles in her voice is extraordinarily versatile, its essential sound and character are through-lines through all these different kinds of repertoire. She might actually need her own section in the post-Sifting record den, as I wouldn't give up a note of these:

Going through the maze of discs brings to light other classical musicians that have clearly had a similar double-effect on me: not only delighting me with the sound they make but also shining their torches to show me the way to more and more great music. The pianist Stephen Hough, who mixes complete recordings of selected works with brilliant recital albums that almost work like playlists - again, uniting a really disparate discography with his sure, but sensitive touch. The incredibly soulful, moving work of cellist Steven Isserlis (a collaborator and label-mate of Hough). The choral ensemble Stile Antico, collating themed works of unnerving beauty, performed with their habitual, conductor-free, vibrancy. The harpsichord champion Mahan Esfahani, promoting his instrument with a missionary zeal, and using his albums and concerts to place it in a firmly modern context.

To me, this feels exciting: you become invested in their development, and their choices; you give your trust; you want to find out what they will all record or perform next, and how they will interpret it. And while classical musicians mostly work with material that's already there (rather than write new stuff), this process gives me the same buzz as I felt following, say, Brian Eno or Paul Simon move ceaselessly through innovative styles and techniques, or perhaps a bit later and more within my normal sphere, allowing bands like Radiohead or Dead Can Dance to place you in a new universe with each album. Obviously, there are cosmetic and circumstantial differences, but to me, this experience, this investment is the same at its root in the rock and classical worlds. Exactly the same.

You can't have too many versions of 'Winterreise'.
Clearly this is unarguable. But consider - this is the crowning art song masterpiece by my favourite composer. Add to that the fact that it's a famously enigmatic, inscrutable work, allowing everyone who records it to add to its stature - illuminating aspects of it while it still remains somehow unknowable. I haven't carried out a formal count (*embarrassed cough*) but it's possible I have enough versions to create a mad playlist with every song in the cycle performed by a different duo. Don't try this at home, kids.

What this has done is crystallise in my mind my personal favourite three versions of 'Winterreise'. (Although I'm a bloke of a certain age who typically thinks in musical lists as a matter of course, there is a reason for this: not long ago, a Twitter friend put this conundrum to me, and I haven't been able to arrive at just three contenders. Until now.) Today, my personal top trio are...
  • Desert island version: Alice Coote and Julius Drake, recorded live at Wigmore Hall. For the sheer searing intensity, AC taking on the protagonist with all the heartfelt conviction of a fully-realised 'trouser' role.
  • Stone-cold classic version: Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier. A measured, sympathetic interpretation given extra chills from the sound of Staier's fortepiano.
  • 'Didn't see THAT coming' version: Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès, also recorded live at Wigmore Hall. Bostridge - a veteran of the piece - arguably at his most commanding, spurred on by the brilliant Adès finding and drawing out elements of the accompaniment I was only noticing for the first time.
But I'm not just keeping three. I'm keeping them all. (Sorry, Mrs Specs.)

And no wonder I need Specs.
As a collector, I prize neatness, conformity, uniformity. I like things to look good on the shelves, trivial though this perhaps might be to many 'true' listeners. I love a band that (a) has a logo, then (b) keeps it throughout their whole career. I love record labels that make a visual aesthetic as much of their 'brand' as the music, whether that's Deutsche Grammophon, ECM, Blue Note or Earache.

However, I'm now wondering if this is wise. The tidy, almost scholarly approach to typefaces by some record companies can produce these squint-inducing results. This is one of those rare crossover areas between the not-often-twinned genres of classical music and black metal... who knew?

Aargh, my eyes!

If any more insights, or assuming I don't go blind, mere sights present themselves as the Sifting continues, I will of course let you know...

Friday 10 April 2020

Specs speaks!

Before it becomes a distant memory - and while, I suspect, many people may have a little more time than usual to tune in... I wanted to post a thank you, with a warm recommendation on the side, to the Thoroughly Good blog.

The mind behind Thoroughly Good is Jon Jacob, a highly-skilled and brilliantly incisive writer, trainer and development coach, specialising in the arts / classical music sector. So I 'met' him first - recommended by a mutual friend, Fran Wilson (aka the Cross-Eyed Pianist) - through his writing, on the TG blog.

I found Jon's approach a real eye-opener, because I immediately felt a sense of urgency in his prose - not a vibe you'd necessarily associate with arts content, particularly classical music. Without actually sounding like anyone else at an individual level, it reminded me almost of the finest film and - perhaps even more surprisingly - sports journalism that I'd read. A way of talking about music that insists it is as vital, present and important as anything else; more so. And add to that a talent to weave in his own thoughts and experiences (without slowing the pace or falling into a 'writing about writing' cliche trap), which, as we know, inform a performance as much as what's going on onstage. Take a read of this fantastic recent post about Jonathan Biss, as an example.

Having got to know Jon a little, mostly virtually but once 'IRL', I was thrilled when he asked me to take part in the Thoroughly Good podcast, in a subset of 'Emergency' episodes that he was creating to find out what his guests were listening to as succour during this time of lockdown or isolation. I was a bit nervous, having only taken part in a couple of rock music podcasts some time ago, but Jon put me at my ease instantly and - no wonder he is such a great coach - made me feel like I was having the most relaxed conversation imaginable with someone who knew and understood me really well.

I've listened back to the episode and I couldn't be happier with it. God knows that isn't because it's a 'performance', or some kind of exam I passed. This is true for everyone listening back to their own voice, I'm sure - but I can hear all my vocal tics, or moments where my mouth is going faster than my brain - it's clear I'm more of a written, rather than spoken, word person. But I think what does come through is that you can hear my enthusiasm, how delighted I am to be there: and if there is anything that ties together all my writing and communicating about music and the arts, that's it.

Here are a few handy links.

The world of Thoroughly Good:

  • To go straight to the podcast, I'm on (thank you, darlings, thank you) - go here.
  • Take note, however, that there are over 80 other episodes to lose yourself in - here's the browsing page for those.
  • Finally, the overall homepage with links to all of Jon's activities and services is here.

The artists I mention:

  • The Wigmore Hall live album of Schubert songs (first in a series of 4!) by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake is now a download only from the WH site.
  • Kate Arnold's 'Rota Fortunae I' EP is available from her Bandcamp page...
  • And likewise for Jo Quail's 'Exsolve'.
  • 'The Contrast' by Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton can be bought directly from BIS, or other online CD stores.

Finally, if you are in a position to buy some music, please consider a browse on my other blog, Support Action, which features links to purchase recordings from artists affected by cancellations during this summer - I'm trying to add to this as and when I can, so if you are a musician (or a fan), please feel free to send suggestions for inclusion. Thank you!