My Pop Life #151 : Mood Indigo – Charles Mingus

Mood Indigo   –   Charles Mingus

I have been writing this occasional musical memoir now for almost two years. This is the 151st entry, the 151st song. Am I halfway-through? One third? Just started? Almost finished?  Who knows.  If only it had been the 150th…

I am pressing the great pause button in the sky after this entry though, because, so far at least, I have not been paid for my writings here. So for the time being I will transfer my attention and energy to the commercial sphere, and look to create some drama, whether it be theatre, TV or film. I am sure occasional entries will insist on being registered, songs will trigger memories, memories will trigger songs. The blog’s not dead, just resting.

Charles Mingus entered my world in the late 1970s. I was studying law at LSE. I’d spent the first two years in University accomodation around Fitzroy St W1, beneath the Post Office tower, a short walk down Charlotte St to Soho and the West End. I’d torn tickets at The Other Cinema on Scala Street, soon to become The Scala Cinema. I’d seen the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Clash live onstage.  Now in 1978 I moved out of Central London and dared to relocate south of the river, where fellow student Mike Stubbs rented an entire house on Canonbie Road in Honor Oak.  SE23 for fuck’s sake.  I had a bedroom (with a piano in it!), and shared the facilities – bathroom, kitchen, living room, garden – with Mike and his girlfriend Hilary, and her friend Rosie, who were both nurses. It was massively civilized, and very comfortable – by far the most well-appointed place I’d ever lived in, reminding me of the Korner’s Lewes house, or the Ryle’s place on St Anne’s Cresecent. Or come to think of it, our beautiful semi-detached place in Selmeston where I grew up.  Honor Oak is a hill just to the south of Peckham Rye, and I caught the number 63 bus into the LSE every day, rather than walk through Bloomsbury down to the Aldwych as I had for the two previous years. It was all very grown up and rather shocking.  I recall that at least some of the time I would stay in town with my girlfriend Mumtaz in William Goodenough House, Mecklenburgh Square WC1.  Bloomsbury.

I was musically curious even then. Not content with punk and new wave I was exploring the deeper realms of Pop with the encouragement of Mike. He made me a tape – a C90 cassette – called Gotta Have Pop, which contained songs by solo Jay Ferguson (from Spirit), the later period Kinks (Celluloid Heroes), Supertramp, 10cc and Colin Blunstone. My classmate Lewis MacLeod and I were deep underground in the soul mine digging out ‘unknown classics’ from the record shops of Soho – Major Lance, Garnet Mimms, Lorraine Ellison, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland (see My Pop Life #28 ) or Millie Jackson.

But my inner explorer was going further – I’d bought a Duke Ellington LP, a Billie Holiday LP, a Stan Getz LP, and next : a Charlie Mingus LP. I cannot remember why or how this album caught my attention, but I bought it without listening to it, I liked the cover, maybe someone I admired had mentioned it, maybe a random choice.

It was called Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and it was and still is completely amazing.  I am eternally grateful that I found this album and this artist at such a young age – or at any age really.  Hours of joy and passion.  There are many jazz artists that I have simply not heard in any context, and I am sure that many of them are absolutely brilliant, just undiscovered by my ears just yet.  But here was a bullseye.  Mingus played double bass and ran a large band for this LP which was made in 1963 in New York.  Among the players : Eric Dolphy on saxophone, Eddie Preston & Richard Williams on trumpets and Jaki Byard on the piano.  The album collects different versions of some of Mingus’ best-known compositions often with different titles.  The classic Goodbye Pork Pie Hat becomes Theme For Lester Young, while Haitian Fight Song becomes II B.S.   The LP was a kind of full stop in Mingus’career to that date, a summation of a brilliant run of albums that culminated in The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady in 1963.   He was a superb arranger and big-band leader, second only to the great Duke Ellington in the history of jazz.  On this record he pulled in Bob Hammer to help orchestrate, arrange and score the eleven-piece band.

None of which I knew in 1978.  It was just a great noise.  Jazz.  Squelchy, fat, fluid, wild and hot.  The notes stretch against each other, pulling in different directions, the result is terrifically exciting music.  It operates like a kind of collective improvisation at times, and although the elements of free jazz might be suggested, everything is pinned down, but loose.  It’s a great trick if you can pull it off.

People seem to prefer Mingus Ah Um from 1959 (a stunning LP) or The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady LP, but my ears prefer this album which for me is simply wall-to-wall genius.  On it there is one cover – a song which appeared on my Duke Ellington LP (1929-1930) – a very famous slow blues ballad called Mood Indigo.  Written in 1930 by Ellington and Barney Bigard, with occasional lyrics by Irving Mills, although often played as an instrumental.  Ellington’s genius was to take the three lead instruments : Bigard on the clarinet (normally the top line) Arthur Whetsol on trumpet (in the middle) Joe Nanton on trombone (bottom line) and reverse them, so that Nanton was playing at the very top of his range, and Bigard at the very bottom of his.  The result was astounding.  Mingus takes the elements of this gentle lyrical tune, strips them out and reconfigures them – with respect, always with respect for Duke – and then proceeds to play a double bass solo which is the final word in bass playing I believe.

Charles Mingus died in 1979.  His widow, Sue Mingus, runs several bands who play his enormous legacy of works.  There is the seven-piece Mingus Dynasty.  There is a Mingus Big Band who perform at the Jazz Standard on E 27th St every Monday night, a 14-piece playing the well-known and undiscovered compositions of the master.  Jenny and I went last year with Doraly & Kristine and had a terrific night in the company of five-star players – occasionally Randy Brecker, Wayne Escoffery or Vincent Herring sit in, but they’re all top top players.  The school of jazz that Mingus started back in 1956 is still running it’s collective improvisation classes, play loose, stay tight, listen to each other.  Although the work now is scored, the feel has to still be there.   One of the very best nights out you can have in Manhattan.

At the interval I went upstairs for a cigarette and had a chat to the bass player Boris Kozlov who was doing the same.  Well- he was being Mingus, I was just smoking a cigarette.  I asked him if he was going to play Mood Indigo.  “No,” he said,  “Mingus didn’t write that.”

“I know” I said.  “But it’s one of his greatest moments for me”.

“You’re right” he said.

I base my opinion on a small collection of Mingus LPs which I have collected over the years – and my ears.  Last year I read his pungent and scandal-laden autobiography which is nothing if not honest, entitled “Beneath The Underdog“.  It describes his early years and adventures in Los Angeles and New York in the underbelly of the jazz scene with startling clarity and eye-opening salacious detail.  I recommend it to all.

Mood Indigo has become one of my theme songs over the ensuing years.  Never far from a top 20 list or a mixtape, it conjures something ineffable and pure which seems to come from my very bones.  It’s all in the bass.  The horns wail the familiar tune which appears to express pure sorrow, while the piano adds splashes of colour.  But the double bass expresses the soul of the piece and takes the solo into inner space, while always being aware of the song’s essential shape.   Mingus adored and admired Ellington, and so do I, (see My Pop Life #34) and this song, like many of the Duke’s, became a standard – a tune to play for the punters then improvise around, stretch out on.  It is the definition of beauty.

It also seems to express an inner sadness that is an essential part of me.  I am unable to rest or relax without feeling it.  Only when busy or when filled with purpose does this feeling retreat.  When I am writing, playing music, acting, shopping, sweeping the floor or folding clothes in the corner laundrette then I feel fine.  But when everything is done and the great void offers to swallow me up once more, the horror vacuii emerges from within and I feel in my essence a profound depression which I have had for over 50 years.  Mingus suffered from depression too, and fits of rage with famous examples of physical explosions and giant sulks.  He was a musical perfectionist and demanded the very best from his team, from his band.  He hated the clink of ice in a glass when he was playing live in nightclubs, and often stopped to berate the audience.  He was driven, unhappy and had to express himself to survive, and I totally understand that.  It’s not a matter of choice, it’s a compulsion to create or drown in your own mood indigo.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog, it will continue but not on a regular basis.  There is a Follow button to the right beneath this post, if you click it, any new posts will come direct to your inbox.   Stay well.  Be kind.  Bye.

 

My Pop Life #150 : Love Ain’t Just A Word – Rudimental

Love Ain’t Just A Word   –   Rudimental

And just like the air, you can’t see it there
But we know we need it

In the week that George Martin died it’s right to be talking about love.   As the expert hand that guided The Beatles to express their musical fantasies, memories and experiments over a nine-year period, he was in effect the fifth Beatle.  You only need to listen to Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, Strawberry Fields Forever or Something to hear George’s graceful contributions.  And famously, Paul McCartney, when looking back at his own legacy as a Beatle, said :

“I’m really glad that most of our songs were about love, peace and understanding”

It has been suggested that Lennon’s “Nowhere Man” (1965) was the first Beatles song which wasn’t about love, but some of them were about dancing…and of course George Martin also produced many other great pieces, and was also a giant of the comedy song (see My Pop Life #35).

Since Jenny and I have chosen to live in New York City, any feelings of homesickness are entirely self-imposed.  But I have realised that there is a simple cure for the isolation of living in another continent with new friends.  Go home for a week.   When Charles Randolph-Wright (see My Pop Life #134) announced that Motown The Musical was opening in London on March 8th 2016 I promised that I would be there to support him.  That is for another blog.  But I built a week of love around that date – an Uncle returns, and catches up with all the next generation that he missed because he didn’t spend Christmas in England.  I saw my mum and my sister and her three before Christmas.  So this time it was the turn of the other side of the family.  And on the day I landed at Heathrow on Thursday March 3rd, Rudimental are playing at the O2.

RUDIMENTAL : Piers Aggers, Amir Amor, Leon Rolle, Kesi Dryden

Rudimental are three-quarters Hackney, and one-quarter Camden Town.  Piers Aggett, Kesi Dryden and Leon Rolle all grew up on the same street and went to the same school in Hackney.  Arsenal fans to a man.  Amir Amor came to the UK from Iran as a youngster and after winning a Princes Trust songwriting competition his musical proclivities led him to Tribal Tree, a community-based studio in Chalk Farm Road where he hooked up with Plan B for a beats LP Paint It Blacker : The Bootleg Album.  Next he convinces Nick Worthington to back a studio called Major Toms where Amor produces the likes of Sam Smith, MNEK, Charlie XCX and Angel Haze, and joins forces with Black Butter Records, which includes a band called Rudimental on their roster.  A track called Feel The Love is heard and signed by Asylum Records, produced by Amor and the two forces became Rudimental the band as we know them today.  Four men with a strong London identity who write, produce, run the label, and use guest vocalists and session singers for their records and live tour.  Their first LP Home was released in 2012 and they have gone on to conquer the world.

Rudimental’s 1st album ‘Home’

Feel The Love featured John Newman on lead vocals and gave Asylum their first number one hit single ever.  It was so successful that Newman was signed as a solo artist, as was Ella Eyre, another Rudimental album guest vocalist.  My nephew Thomas Jules, who has been around the grime scene for over a decade and the music scene for 20 years was asked to front the band’s live shows, a job he has been fulfilling for the last two plus years.  As a result I have seen Rudimental live a number of times, at Finsbury Park supporting a reformed Stone Roses, in New York City at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve 2014, and now at the O2.

I got there early at Thomas’ suggestion.  Dear Scarlett, his partner, had a terrific throat and chest lurgy and didn’t accompany me.  I parked outside at 6pm.  The place was already buzzing, but guest list wouldn’t open until 6.30pm I was told.  they eventually opened, on a cold night, at 7pm.  And nothing happened.  Tom was in text contact and after a further 20 minutes of not a single person being sorted he came to get me, accompanied by his brother Jordan, now in dance college in Essex, for many years Jenny and my summer son, now 20 years old.  Tom walked us back to the Rudimental dressing room where Piers and Leon greeted us – I’d met them before.  I’m Uncle Ralph around these parts.   I met old friends and new from the team including trumpet player Mark Crown, drummer Beanie Bhebhe and saxophonist Taurean Antoine-Chagar, and Anne-Marie who until very recently sang back-up with Tom  in the band.  Now she’s on the bill as support and her and Tom have spent 18 months writing songs together for Anne Marie is signed to Black Butter, and an LP is imminent.   The tour manager is notable by his absence and only he can give me a pass, so in effect I am now trapped in the dressing room – I can’t even get into the auditorium to see Anne-Marie’s set.

Jordan, Unx, Tom, Dee, Piers

Tom opens his case – Rudimental are in Nottingham the following night, but driving straight down to Bournemouth after the O2 for a DJ slot in a club down there.  His big case is going to Notts, his small case to the south coast. The rigours of touring.  On the top of the large case is a Tottenham Hotspur shirt.  “I’ll wear this tonight”  Tom announces to the assembly, attracting jeers and threats, bantz and actual instruction from Leon that No, he will not.   It’s the North London derby on Saturday lunchtime, Spurs are 2nd, Arsenal 3rd, behind Leicester City (!)  Then Dee, Jenny’s older sister and Tom’s Mum gets in.  She looks great and we poses for pictures.  Tom is still trying to get me a pass.  Other friends & family are coming and going all the time – I am introduced to Leon’s mum, technicians and DJ Max.  Brother Jamie is outside getting tickets – and now he’s got them.  But not mine.   I’m Uncle Ralph and I’m already in after all…  At this point the tour manager arrives and I’m finally given a triple A pass to come and go as I please, although now I’m just going to go out to find Jamie and the rest, and come back and see the show.  After the show Tom and gang are riding straight to Bournemouth so there’s no after-gig activity.

Jordan, Kimberley, Louisa

Jordan, Dee and I walk out to Chiquitos and find Jamie and Claudette (his long-term partner), Jenny’s sister Mandy and Dipam and our niece Kimberley with her friend Louisa.  The others – Dominique and David and Courtnie are still en route and since Rudimental are due onstage in 15 minutes we abandon the concept of a full gang and go in .

Jamie and I

The O2 is a pretty giant venue.  The last time I was here was to see Stevie Wonder in 2008, we were in the 15th row and I was very very sick with a virus I’d caught in China.  I could scarcely stand up.  It was an amazing night.  Tonight the seats are only around the sides and up – the entire floor area is standing room only.  That means there are at least 16,000 people in here.  The stage is a football pitch away.   We decide to stay at the back rather than elbow through the sweaty mob.  Triple-A passes only get you so far – I could be onstage but I need to be with my family.  So Dee, Jamie, Claudette, Jordan, Kimberley, Louisa, Mandy, Dipam and I stood and watched Thomas, our uncle, son, brother, nephew, our FAM,  sing his heart out for the lads.

Tom, Anne-Marie, Bridgette

He swapped lead vocals with Will Heard and Bridgette Amofah, and they saved Feel The Love for the end, a song Tom has sung live now hundreds of times, a massive crowdpleaser where the call-and-response vocal gets the whole O2 singing along.   The visuals were still excellent even at the back.  The atmosphere was great.  The band are hot, honed from months and years on the road together.   Highlights were largely the first LP songs – Waiting All Night in particular, Spoons, Right Here, but some of the new songs from the new Rudimental LP We The Generation really stand out, in particular the Ed Sheeran collaboration Bloodstream and the songs Rumour MillLove Ain’t Just A Word, when Anne Marie comes onstage to join first Will, then Tom on vocals.

Love Ain’t Just A Word was written by Anne Marie and Tom for her new album, but the band liked it so much they put it on their new LP, and took a share of the publishing too.   I guess it’s ‘Drum & Bass’.   It’s a big step for Tom, and his publishing deal is up for grabs shortly, so it improves his negotiating position, especially if it’s a single.   The song is an admission of vulnerability and an acknowledgement of the power of love to heal, and it features a rap break by grime lord Dizzee Rascal.  The song’s visual component is backed with neon signs on the massive screens behind the band.  The pride that runs through our little gang of fam at the back is palpable.  Everyone is holding up the phone to take a picture of the stage.  And of each other.  Sixteen thousand people bopping to a song that Tom wrote.  Another song about love.  We can’t have too many of those can we ?

Chantelle, David, Unx, Dee, Dom, Courtnie, Dawn, Mandy, Dipam, Louisa, Kim

After the show we decamp back to Chiquitos and sit outside beneath the glowing heaters and umbrellas and the clan gathers.  Dominique and David hadn’t arrived with sister Courtnie until 40 minutes from the end of the show, and they’d sat upstairs.   Mollie’s kids.  Mollie’s friend Dawn was there with her daughter Chantelle and her son Corey in a serious disability chair.  Corey had a car accident about a month after Jenny and I flipped our Jeep outside Arundel but he wasn’t so lucky and had spinal and head injuries which have left him dependent on other people and his chair.  Tom had taken them round the O2 before the show, he was exhausted and was taken home before we’d all fully gathered, so he’s not in the picture.  All of Tom’s people were though – mum Dee, younger brothers Jamie (with Claudette) and Jordan.

some people bombing our picture

There’s a couple of pictures of the gang, swelled with pride at family achievement.  Lucy and Jenny are missing, Mollie and Pete too, but three of their kids are there : Dom, Kim and Courtnie.  Courtnie is next to me – second youngest, now at University studying criminology.  Next to her is Dom with David – they have two beautiful kids Tia and Kian who are bright as buttons and hugely entertaining.  Will they join the BIZ too ??  Stunning sister Kimberley is central in the pic above, but she is front right in the top pic – my god-daughter and an architecture graduate looking for a position.  A few days later I took her to the opening night of Motown The Musical in the West End – for another blog.   Youngest brother Robert (See My Pop Life #122) was working.  So was Jenny’s brother Jon.   Mandy – opposite me at the table – is Jenny’s sister, aka Natasha, Bad, Reggie or Ginelle.  She is my sister, and graduated in Law and now works in Compliance in the City of London.     Not everyone could manage the gig but it was a pretty good turnout.  Just happened to co-incide with my week in England.  Lucky me.  I miss all of these people and hadn’t seen some of them for well over two years.  And you know how kids shoot up.  I remember when they were born – suddenly they’re adults!!  They embody all our dreams.  And I love them all.  It’s unconditional love and it is reciprocated.  The best feeling in the world.

2nd LP ‘We The Generation’

live DJ set in Dubai (ie not live) :