Hidden treasures

Things have gone a little quiet here recently, and may continue in this vein for a while longer. I am currently working on a fictional rather than a factual piece, which is diverting my attentions. But in the spirit of not letting the blog fade away just yet, here’s another thing about musical memories.

Anyone who has a collection of recordings of any respectable size is likely to have favourites, which may include arcane and obscure items. Looking through my shelves recently, I picked out the following five as having particular meaning for me, while being outside the mainstream.

Magic Holidays / Roman Pokorný Quartet (1996)
When I started listening to jazz as a teenager, I sometimes found it difficult to know where to start. All we had in the house was an LP of Fats Waller, which I had known from my infancy. I discovered musicians I responded to like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and bought cheap CDs of them, and borrowed things from the library, but I found Radio 3 a particularly rich source of inspiration. On Saturday nights they would broadcast recordings of live jazz concerts from trendy European venues, and one night in 1998 they relayed the whole of this album, uninterrupted. I recorded it and listened to it repeatedly, absorbing the music.

Roman Pokorný is a Czech guitarist. He’s not a big name in jazz, and his quartet is not a pioneering group like the much missed Esbjörn Svensson Trio, but they excited me and continue to do so. There’s something I can’t quite identify that makes Eastern European jazz special. Perhaps it is simply that in post-war years the music has continued to thrive amid a climate of political oppression. This idea inevitably brings to mind Josef Škvorecký’s novel The Cowards, which I read last summer.

I probably first heard Eastern European jazz in Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Polanski’s Knife in the Water (still his best film for me, maybe after Chinatown), and there is some continuity between Komeda and living jazz players like Pokorný. I later explored further afield and fell in love with musicians like Tomasz Stańko. Pokorný’s music sometimes sounds like the kind of thing you hear played over Pages from Ceefax during nights of insomnia (which is not meant to be a damning observation, though it may be taken as such), but I think his own compositions show imagination and originality.

Superstar / Superstar (1998)
At the time I was teaching myself about the obscure byways of jazz, I was doing pretty much the same with pop music, thanks to publications like NME, Melody Maker, Q and Record Collector. Scouring lists of new releases at the back, my eye would occasionally alight on something interesting. Browsing the CD racks of Bath’s HMV was also a frequent source of new inspiration. My purchases could be foolish. I’m still not sure why I ever bought singles on vinyl, as we had no functioning record player. I have a 7″ picture disc of ‘Supercharged’ by Elcka (no, me neither) which I bought 14 years ago and still have no idea (or interest, now) what it sounds like.

But one CD I bought on a whim – simply on the basis of its design and name, I think – which repaid the investment many times over, was the single ‘Superstar’ by the Glaswegian band of that name (now defunct). Superstar were a melodic guitar group in the tradition of their compatriots Del Amitri and Teenage Fanclub, and led by the great Joe McAlinden, a man with a voice I might describe as almost criminally gorgeous, especially in its upper register. Nowadays, though one may choose to buy a CD sound unheard, as it were, one rarely has to, what with online clips and streaming and everything. Then, you had to wait for something to come on the radio, which wasn’t very likely with Superstar. This was their biggest hit; it got to number 49. So I took the plunge and shelled out my £1.99 or however much it was.

It ought not to be shocking that a band that never quite made the big time should be so good – success, after all, is no guarantee of quality – but perhaps it is at least a little remarkable that the B-sides on this single are of such a high standard. They are quite superior to most of the album tracks I have heard. ‘Hey Montana San’ is a burst of sunshine, the perfect accompaniment to the unanticipated sunny weather we are enjoying at the moment; but the more muted ‘Waiting Room’ is the really special thing about the single. It’s an achingly beautiful love song, with a soaring vocal from McAlinden.

In this digital age, albums remain the thing rock musicians aspire to create, the canvases for their most profound utterances, but I could make several CDs consisting solely of the non-album tracks from around that time which I couldn’t do without – ‘Tendresse’ by the Longpigs (i.e. Richard Hawley), ‘Little Acts Of Kindness’ by the Divine Comedy, ‘Vice President Fruitley’ by Eels. The list goes on.

Sortilèges de la Musique Roumaine / Paul Stinga et ses Musiciens (1987)
When I was 14 or 15 and doing GCSE Music, a copy of the Schott book Sound Matters by David Bowman and Bruce Cole came into my possession, along with the accompanying tapes. It’s an anthology of about 70 musical excerpts beginning with Western folk music and moving from the Renaissance up to the present day, focusing primarily on art music but also encompassing popular music, jazz and world music. Click to see the contents list and marvel. I doubt I could devise a better collection of music for students of that age if I tried. It wasn’t a book we used in class, but I loved it, as I did the now obsolete London Anthology when I did A-levels, for the gaps it filled in my knowledge, and particularly for the section on music from other cultures.

One of my favourite excerpts was the short piece of folk music from Romania, ‘Jelea din bosanci’, played by the Paul Stinga Orchestra. The album it comes from, which I tracked down and paid somewhat over the odds for, is full of folk melodies from different parts of the country (Moldavia, Muntenia, Transylvania), and its inlay card lists all of the instruments played, many of which I had never heard of before. It captures perfectly the infectious spirit of Eastern European traditional music – all of these strange modes and metres which inspired composers like Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi so much – and everything is played with great verve and virtuosity. As of last November the album is available for download from Amazon.co.uk for £6.99. An eminently sensible investment, I would say.

Glad Day / Steve Martland, feat. Sarah Jane Morris (1990)
Steve Martland’s ‘The World is in Heaven’ is also anthologised in Sound Matters. Martland is published by Schott, so he must have been an obvious choice for inclusion. I’d never heard anything quite like it before. It’s a synth-driven protest song of sorts with vocals by the unique Sarah Jane Morris, a singer probably best known for being part of the Communards. You can tell from the lyrics (‘These are the days Mammon anticipated’ and so on) that Martland is a socialist, and an angry one. That Morris’s tessitura is so similar to Mrs Thatcher’s adds something.

From what I can gather, the set of three songs on this EP (‘Festival of Britain’, ‘Fantasy Island’ and two versions of ‘The World is in Heaven’) were conceived around the time of Maggie’s third election victory in 1987, and first used in a short film, Albion, which Martland made for BBC Scotland shortly afterwards. It wasn’t until the month before she was ousted in 1990 that the CD was released by Factory Records. I can’t help responding naturally to Martland’s raging at the cultural legacy of the 1980s, especially when he presents it in such a vibrant and exciting manner. I suppose one could describe Glad Day as an example of a classical composer writing in a popular idiom, but these appellations are limiting and redundant. Just listen to the music, and feel the power. That’s all there is to it. And yet I suspect it may be more of an acquired taste than any other CD listed here.

College Band / Frome Community College Band (1997)
The rarest CD of all. You will not find a copy of this on eBay. And yet I can’t help feeling it’s the best of the bunch. OK, I’m on it. But it’s not just the trombones that are great. You can tell it’s an amateur band, but I think it would be possible for someone who had not been a member at the time to hear the enjoyment we felt when we made the CD. All the old favourites are there – The Liberty Bell, The Pink Panther, Tequila – along with selections from Disney films, Czech folk songs (those Eastern Europeans again) and, the crowning glory, a medley of Elton John songs arranged by the band’s own presiding genius, Steve Ayres. It was great to arrive at Frome College as a presumably nervous (I can’t quite remember) 13-year-old and to be reunited with the man who had first taught me the trombone four years earlier. It gave me a sense of security. (I’ve just tracked him down to Cornwall, where he is playing trumpet in the Various Assortments, a band described as ‘John Shuttleworth on acid’. Sounds cool.)

The Elton piece had the college choir, of which I was not yet a member, dubbed on afterwards to sing bits of ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’, and I can still pick out the voices of contemporaries and teachers in the mix. It sounds the tackiest CD imaginable (though production values were high, as the cover testifies), but I couldn’t be prouder of it. And to my joy I find it has the personnel listed inside. People whose very existence I’d forgotten are instantly resurrected. What a nice touch.

I’m reluctant to post any clips for fear of infringing copyright, but this is a band from Shropshire playing something from our repertoire, accompanied by an incongruous slideshow of Belgium. Actually, it’s where their performance was recorded, and the band members appear a bit at the end. Use your imagination and they might be from Somerset.

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