Gatefold Club: The Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson

The Gatefold Club is a small group of people gathered together under Twitter to listen to an album and then comment on it. It’s like a book club for records. Every week, one “member” gets to choose an album from any genre for the listening enjoyment of the rest of the group. We then go away and listen to the album in its entirety, in silence, no shuffle. Rather selfishly, I’ve started with my own choice, but I promise to catch up! Actually, I did listen to the first ever Gatefold Club suggestion, Edwyn Collins’ KLosing Sleep, but I have lost my notes.

Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, from 1961, is one of those “classic” jazz albums that might pass you by, if you weren’t careful. It’s one of my favourites, and not least for the laid-back opener, Stolen Moments.

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Oddly enough f or a Zappa fan like me, I got to know this Stolen Moments before the Zappa cover on Broadway the Hard Way. I love the contrast in solo-ing styles with Eric Dolphy’s outside flute fitting perfectly into the blues structure and making Nelson’s following tenor solo sound even more seductive and sonorous. It seems something of a surprise that Zappa’s band would know this; it’s a rather cool tune connected to 50’s jazz, but perhaps the discomfiting presence of Dolphy is what elevates it for Uncle Frank.

Hoedown’s melody starts off sounding folky, but it’s slightly off-kilter rhythm means it doesn’t sound hokey. Here, Dolphy has an alto solo is that gives the edginess..

The sound of this recording is wonderful and there is some beautiful stereo sound-stage effects that put you right in the front of the big (ish) band. Would that Steven Wilson could be persuaded to do a 5.1 surround sound mix. Love the echo of Stolen Moments in the outtro.

Side 2 starts (yes, I’m listening on vinyl) with a very laid back theme played by Bill Evans. The most overtly blues so far. Still, the form is stretched, which is the point of this whole album. Dolphy on alto again prevents any easy-listening thoughts you might have. Freddie Hubbard has solos on all but the final track. Nelson writes that he is like a Coltrane on trumpet, and you can see what he means.

The tune for Butch and Butch reminds me of an Ornette theme. Nelson claims it is boppish, but to me it is bop as heard post-Ornette Coleman. Only the rhythm nails it a bop feel. Roy Haynes’ drumming seems to be chasing it along like a butcher with a fly swat. Which he does on most of these numbers.

The final track opens with Paul Chambers bass theme, as he had opened So What some 5 or 6 years previously. the ensemble comes in with the real theme, which is like something from an avant-noir thriller. Another astonishing and unpredictable alto solo from Dolphy, that still somehow fits in with the comped chords from Bill Evans. Nelson’s tenor draws it all back under control, playing across the bar lines with held notes. Chambers takes a solo to mirror his opening of the song and then the ensemble simple restates the theme and do a sort of live fade to bring the album to an end.

Zappa’s version of Stolen Moments is bisected by a guest spot by Sting as the band shift seamlessly into one of his own compositions, Murder By Numbers. I’ve often wondered how that brilliant Zappa band came to play Stolen Moments in this way. The part of the story we do hear goes: Zappa meets Sting and invites him to play with the band. The conversation I assume must have swiftly moved to “What shall we play?” Did Sting offer up Murder… because it has a chord structure very similar to …Moments? If it does, Mr Sting would guess the seasoned jazzers in the Zappa troupe would surely have the chord structure at their fingertips and could seamlessly slip into the Police song (and back). They clearly did.

But whereas the Zappa band is driven by Scott Thunes rumbling, punchy bass, Stolen Moments and the rest of Blues and the Abstract Truth are driven by Roy Haynes’ drumming. This, I think is crucial to why the album sounds so good.

There is a seriousness with which Oliver Nelson teases apart the blues structure in these songs in search of a new angle with a familiar idiom. But Haynes keeps the whole thing swinging and playful. And that playfulness clearly rubs off on the soloists. It still sounds great.

Cask Jousts with Keg at Hampton Court Beer and Jazz Festival

It was Ron’s idea, another beer festival to nicely wrap up August, neatly closing the bracket opened by the Great British Beer Festival in the first week. It was the bank holiday weekend, there would be jazz, a decent range of beers, and it was his birthday. Nothing earth-shattering on the jazz line-up, but we decided we liked the idea, even if we didn’t really know what we were in for.

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The Hampton Court Beer & Jazz Festival would be a different bushel of malt from the Great British Beer Festival, which is run by CAMRA. I couldn’t really see who ran HCB&JF. I had visions of Tudor-style hog roasts in the garden of the Palace, crumhorns brimming with foaming ale. Somewhat disappointingly, the actual venue turned out to be a field across the road from Henry’s pile. A big field, nevertheless, and a sizeable queue to get in, even at 3.30 in the afternoon. A decent-size stage and PA too.

Pint glasses bought, hands stamped for re-entry (club-style), amusing beer sign photographed, the first job was to size the beer up. There was a whole tent devoted to Greenwich’s Meantime Brewery, a Belgian bottled beer tent, a marquee with a line of casks, and the first sign that this was not a CAMRA do; some flavoured bottled ciders. And all the Meantime draught beers were… keg. Definitely not CAMRA friendly. Interesting.

Unlike yer average CAMRA member, the champions of so-called “real” ale, I am not an exclusive cask-conditioned beer person. I’m a card-carrying CAMRA member, but I don’t frown and spit on anything that doesn’t come out of a cask. I’ve had so many great keg beers from American craft brewers like Flying Dog, Sierra Nevada and Great Divide. Scottish enfants terribles BrewDog even sent out a blog saying that keg was the future of beer in the UK. Although I think that was designed to give Great British beer writer Roger Protz apoplexy (again), rather than a pure mission statement.

Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter and BrewDog Hardcore definitely ain’t Guinness Extra Cold nor John Smith’s Smooth. And once you’ve got over years of your own cask conditioning: that these beers, ought to be served from a hand pump to be worth anything, you can start entertaining the idea that maybe some beer styles could actually be more suited to filtration and delivery under pressure. This was perhaps what Meantime’s game plan was; to showcase a range of beer styles from London Stout to Oktoberfest lager to London Pale Ale.

Deciding to save the Meantimes for later, we went to the more conventional (for Britain) cask ale tent. There were 30 beers on offer, rather than the 100 or so on the list. This turned out to be a logistical problem of not enough hand pumps, however, there were enough interesting local micros, like Twickenham Fine Ales, and some from outside the South East, for it not to be too much of a disappointment.

On closer inspection, and indeed sampling, most of the beers turned out to be low to mid-strength golden ales. Too many variations on a safe theme. Sure, this had a wheaty tang, another a citrusy aroma, but it was like a stream of Katie Melua and Jamie Cullum – nothing wrong, but it left me wanting a bit of Acoustic Ladyland or Led Bib to spice things up.

And so to the Meantime tent to supply variation if not improvisation. London Stout was deeply bitter choclatey, the Kölsch malty and slightly nutty. The Oktoberfest was refreshing, if a bit bland, and I preferred the cask Oakland India Pale Ale to Meantime’s keg London Pale Ale, but it was served very cold.

Ron was duly celebrated. A cracking set from Ruby Turner, enhanced by savouring the earthy hoppiness of  the Oakland, couldn’t be dampened as the expected Bank Holiday shower passed. There was enough for us to consider giving Hampton Court another go next birthday. But today, Hampton Court felt like an unsettled score between cask and keg. Nothing that Henry would send anybody down the river to The Tower for, but next time, bolder champoins from both sides to the challenge, please.

Hampton Court Beer & Jazz Festival
BrewDog Blog about keg
My posts about The Great British Beer Festival

Three Friends: All Saints Centre, Lewes. Why do they put themselves through this?

Having written a preview to tonight's gig, I can hardly not do a review of the gig itself. It's billed as Three Friends playing the music of Gentle Giant. It's hard to write this, though. Not because I can't be objective, but who am I writing for? Everyone interested in music has a band they feel is theirs, and Gentle Giant is (one of) mine. And as I am part of the online Gentle Giant community of fans, it would be natural for me to write for them. "Great to see 3F live again in an intimate venue… Gary on great form… They played "Proclamation/Valedictory" for the first time…" All true, but not what I am about here. I'll save that for the On Reflection gang.

I find myself thinking, "What would Sid Smith do?" Sid is the music writer who wrote an acclaimed bio of King Crimson. But even that doesn't work for me. I am not Sid. When I let all those thoughts pass, what I am left with is wonder, if not downright astonishment. Why on earth do Three Friends do this? It's a thought that occurred to me midway through the concert. But as I took my seat, in what used to be a church; formerly All Saints, Lewes, I suppose, I made a small connection with the guy next to me.

"Is this Steve Reich?" I say, commenting out loud on the before-gig music. My fellow audient says, "It's Terry Riley." I immediately turn to my friend Chris and say, "I just said that, you did hear me, didn't you?" My excuses don't matter, we have made contact and start talking about Gentle Giant. It's a conversation familiar to me; "When did you first hear them?", "Did you ever see them live?", "How come you are here tonight?" And that's the one that interests me. Why are a couple of hundred souls gathered here together to see what might be called a tribute band. The objects of their musical offering a cult progressive rock group that finished playing in 1980?

My new concert buddy admits to knowing the bass player: Roger Carey, having accidentally met in a pub where Roger had been playing recently. He admitted to being knocked sideways during innocent enjoyment of a quiet pint when he recognised a Gentle Giant number the pub band was playing. The previous song had been a Van Morrison song, nice to hear, but not unusual. He was totally unprepared for this: Gentle Giant?! He had to investigate and saw it was his old friend Roger, who revealed that he was in a Gentle Giant tribute band who were playing next week in Lewes. And now he was chatting to me. Gentle Giant fans connecting in the UK is a bit like recognising a fellow mason.

In the second set, I catch myself with that thought, questioning the very existence of Three Friends, "Why are they doing this?" Well, on the face of it, it is an interesting gig; to play for an audience of locals and friends, but to then see it grow into a few gigs in Europe, Japan, North America. But jeez, you've got to really want to do this. This is hard, hard music to master, and on top of that, Gentle Giant fans are very picky. As they finish Schooldays, and on receiving genuinely rapturous applause, the faces of the band betray triumph and delight. Gary Green admits to us that it had been "crap" in rehearsal. Their reward is their satisfaction in their accomplishment, partly. But also they get the acknowledgement that they nailed it in front of this audience. From that moment, Three Friends flew. What had up to then been very enjoyable – accomplished, even, became something extra.

And maybe that's getting near the why; It's the love of the music, no doubt, but that's not the whole story, I'm sure. I wonder, if perhaps Gary Green and Malcolm Mortimore – the only two Giant alumni in this band – along with the other superbly accomplished musicians (themselves Giant fans) get a sense of Three Friends putting right some of the injustice that the music of Gentle Giant didn't quite get the appreciation it deserved in the band's lifetime. Three Friends becomes bigger than the band members. If that's anywhere near what's driving them to learn the almost absurdly complex rhythms, the bonkers melodies (and their counterpoint), then isn't that the real tribute? Otherwise, why do it? Sticking to Van Morrison covers or jazz standards, or whatever they all do in the rest of their musical lives, is surely a much more sensible choice. Not merely a cover band, but a band on a mission.??

Three Friends Preview: Tonight Sussex, tomorrow the World!

Tonight, June 8 2010, a small town close to England’s South Coast becomes the centre of my musical world. Lewes in East Sussex might well be home of one of the finest of Englands traditional small breweries, but even for a beer lover like me, this malty fact is insignficant compared to the knowledge that the music of the mighty Gentle Giant will be played live at the unlikely venue of of the All Saints Centre. And I wouldn’t miss it for all the mild in Harveys.

OK, Three Friends are not Gentle Giant re-united, but they do boast actual former members in guitarist Gary Green and drummer Malcolm Mortimore. The Lewes gig is the only one in the UK before the band heads off for a couple of dates in Canada and a couple more in America, including the progressive rock festival NEARfest. The final date listed on the band’s website is another progressive rock festival date in Germany. (I do hate the term “prog”.)

So if only two band members are ex-GG, even if keyboard main-man Kerry Minnear was in the band (more of that later) does that make 3F a tribute band, and if so, why get so excited about them?

Now, I don’t have a problem with tribute bands. I don’t even have a problem with bands trading on an ancient famous name, with only one original member left (not the case with 3F). As long as the music is true to the spirit of the band they are covering, it’s fine by me. I find it odd that some tribute bands want to dress up and look like their heroes, as seen on the very dodgy “I’m in a Rock n Roll Band, Live” on BBC2 last Saturday.

Three Friends play the music of Gentle Giant, and more than do it right. And, if any further reason were required to gain my approval, they play songs that the original band never played live. So I don’t have a problem with them; fine musicians serving the music. In fact I rejoice in their very existence. Thankfully, the white jumpsuit and satin Robin Hood gear are nowhere to be seen. However, if I, and a huge part (if not all) of the remaining fans of Gentle Giant don’t have a problem with Three Friends, Ray Shulman, clearly DOES have a problem with Three Friends’ existence.

Ray Shulman was not only the bass player and multi-instrumentalist, he was one of the main composers of Gentle Giant’s revered cannon, along with Kerry Minnear. He maybe feels affronted by Three Friends making money off his work, I don’t know. What I DO know is this music deserves to be heard live. See for yourself, and if you can’t make one of the live dates, there are some cracking vids on YouTube taken both from concerts and live in the studio.

Three Freinds website

Gentle Giant official website

Just the Same Three Friends Live at the Ropetackle Shoreham, with Kerry Minnear in October 2009

School Days Three Friends in the Studio

Buy the newly-released 180 gm direct metal vinyl versions of two classic Gentle Giant albums: The Power and the Glory, and In a Glass House, direct from the band.