Michael Franks: free spirit

David Pearson looks at the career of Michael Franks, a songwriter who has always followed his own path

If ever an artist deserved to be far better known in Britain, it is surely American jazz singer/songwriter Michael Franks. In a career spanning over 46 years he has released around 18 albums of self-penned material, not including compilations and Best Ofs. Yet he remains largely unknown to many British music fans.

Growing up in southern California, his parents were not especially musical. But he grew a liking for swing music. Aged 14 he bought a cheap guitar and a handful of private lessons, which turned out to be the only musical education he would have. He studied English at university and developed a love of poetry. And it was during a spell of part-time teaching work that he started writing songs, creating an anti-war musical as well as composing music for various movies.

I asked Michael what triggered his songwriting. "I wrote poetry at university and published a few in little literary mags. I turned to songwriting as my interest in music intensified. I played in a few different bands. At UCLA I met a pianist who was a real jazzhead and he literally taught me how to play standards. I had always admired the great American songwriters: the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, etc. So, all through my undergraduate years I worked at little clubs singing standards."

"If you listen to the earliest versions of some of the great standards, sometimes you wonder how they survived the test of time"

And these songwriters were major influences for Michael - "If you listen to the earliest versions of some of the great standards, sometimes you wonder how they survived the test of time. And I think the reason is that over the years they were lovingly embraced by jazz musicians, who continued to reharmonize and reinterpret them".

He began his recording career on the small Brut label before signing with Warner Brothers, with whom he would have a long relationship. His debut for the label was The Art of Tea (1976) and would yield a minor hit with the catchy "Popsicle Toes". His love of Brazilian music and rhythms, a strong element throughout his recordings, was evident in 1977's Sleeping Gipsy, with songs like "The Lady Wants To Know" and "Down In Brazil".

"At the same time I was working in this jazz duo, the early Jobim tunes were overwhelming the airwaves. So my partner and I included some of the obvious ones in our set. When I first heard Brazilian music I felt I had discovered a new land. The rhythm was so appealing and the melodies seemed to meander along, then make unexpected changes."

Franks relocated to the east coast and continued his recording and performing activities, often playing the cabasa when not on guitar. A minor chart hit came in 1983 with "When Sly Calls (Don't Touch That Phone)" from his Passionfruit album.

A major influence was Antonio Carlos Jobim, with whom he collaborated for a spell. He penned "Antonio's Song" and others in tribute to the Brazilian composer. Franks recalled the genesis of his love for the bossa giant and Brazilian music in an interview with Lee Mergner for Jazz Times:

"As soon as I heard that Getz/Gilberto album I couldn't get enough of it…I went to Jobim's apartment with Bill Evans. Jobim was incredibly nice."

And Michael treasures the memory of working with Jobim in his apartment, of the great man getting up to get coffee or something and humming "Popsicle Toes" from that first album - "And that was the ultimate compliment! To hear somebody like that walking down the hallway and humming a tune that he had just heard."

And Jobim's death in 1994 resulted in the Abandoned Garden album the following year, which he dedicated to the Brazilian composer. But there were other Brazilian artists Michael admired: "I recently had the pleasure of meeting and spending some time with Ahmad Jamal. He was a huge influence on me, like an education almost. Also, the Dave Brubeck records, Time Out and Time Further Out. Thanks to his sons, Dave got to hear the song of admiration I wrote about him and the quartet, "Hearing Take Five".

Over the years he has used some of the finest session musicians, arrangers and jazz players, including Joe Sample, Chuck Loeb, Larry Carlton, Michael Brecker, Wilton Felder and Steve Gadd, as well as singers such as Astrud Gilberto, Peggy Lee and Veronica Nunn.

His songs have been covered by many artists, including Diana Krall, The Carpenters, Natalie Cole and Manhattan Transfer. And in 2004 the English singer/songwriter Gordon Haskell released a whole album of Franks songs under the title The Lady Wants To Know.

Over the past 15 years or so Michael has adopted a more leisurely pace and has spaced out his albums, just 4 in that period, the last being 2018's The Music In My Head, which features Michael on piano as well as guitar:

"I think it just takes longer to be content with what you do. I enjoy it just as much - more - than I ever did. But I think maybe it's just a natural evolution. I know people think that I repeat myself, and I probably do, but I try hard not to."

The Music In My Head has 10 tracks with 5 different producers, including Gil Goldstein and Jimmy Haslip. This practice can sometimes create an inconsistency across an album but not here, and that's largely down to the sensitivity these guys bring to Michael's voice and style.

The opening track is “As Long As We’re Both Together” which Chuck Loeb arranged and produced, as well as playing guitar and keys on. His gorgeous guitar backing is a wonderful tribute to a musician who was to die soon after from cancer. In another song he recalls his early jazz club days ("Bebop Headshop"). And his deep love of the natural world is evident in "The Idea Of A Tree".

Reviewing the album for London Jazz Times Peter Bacon declared "It’s all here: the simply put, perfectly natural sentences, uttered in a gentle, matter-of-fact conversational style, a sort of speak-singing, as if the mood is too relaxed, the breeze too balmy, the sun too warm to go to the effort of really stretching those vocal cords; the rhythms are variations on bossa nova, the piano given the soft pedal, the guitar solo honeyed in both tone and phrasing, the saxophone tastefully sensual, the signature sound is the cabasa."

And Michael regards this album as "maybe the most autobiogaphical one I've ever written. It describes where I live, how I write, what inspires me."

Michael's music is often categorised as smooth jazz, a label he doesn't especially like, referring to it as a "euphemism". He doesn’t really have a favourite album, but I asked him about a favourite song? "Maybe that would be "Antonio's Song." (from the Sleeping Gipsy album) After all these years it still casts a kind of spell on audiences."

Always very modest and unassuming Michael Franks recalled a gig in New Orleans, during which he overheard an exchange outside the theatre between the venue steward and a passerby who asked who was playing that night - 'I don’t know,' said the steward. 'Some old jazz guy'. That appealed to Michael: "That was so great! My wife made that as a logo and hat for my birthday."

And in a web message to his fans some years ago he acknowledged the place of music in his life: "Music propels me toward the future. In a wonderful and miraculous way, it’s always whispering to me and circulating inside my head. I suppose, in that sense, I’m always writing."

Eric Dolphy: Five Essential Albums

Eric Dolphy's death, aged 36 on 29 June 1964, cut short a rare and highly original talent that, in less than four years, had seen him record a number of definitive jazz albums. Stuart Nicholson recommends five of Dolphy's finest moments on record

Out to lunchOut to Lunch!

Blue Note (1964)

Dolphy’s magnum opus, and one of the great Blue Note recordings, suggests as much as it delivers. Dolphy’s compositions, testament to his rising powers as a composer, exist only as melodies, leaving the musicians to provide each tune’s rhythmic character and harmonies, so posing the question where this direction might go. We’ll never know, but he contributes perhaps his finest flute solo on ‘Gazzeloni’ and with Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis and Tony Williams they created a classic.

 

at the five spotEric Dolphy at the Five Spot

Prestige (1961)

Eric Dolphy liked plenty of solo space to express himself, and this live date at New York’s Five Spot, with a pick-up group that included Booker Little, Mal Waldron, Richard Davis and Ed Blackwell, gave him precisely that. His fiercely vocalised alto solo on ‘Fire Waltz’ is the stuff of legend, for many his most memorable, diverging from the linear logic and techniques of variation employed by most post-war jazz musicians. The perfect partner for Little, who like Dolphy, would have his career cut short far too early. 

 

outward boundOutward Bound

Prestige (1960)

Dolphy’s recording debut under his own name recorded just months after settling in New York from the West Coast. At the time he had a far from impressive C.V., yet he presents a fully-formed style that is unique in jazz from the beginning – rich in harmonic and rhythmic detail, punctuated by intervallic leaps uncommon in jazz (then, as now) yet underpinned by harmonic logic, this album still has the capacity to surprise.

 

far cryFar Cry

Prestige (1961)

Eric Dolphy’s playing seemed to bring the best out in Booker Little, and vice versa, so this album is a natural for a list like this. By now Dolphy had been thrust into the ‘New Thing’ controversy then raging in jazz by his highly individual approach, but as this album shows, his highly sophisticated style evolved out of bebop and Charlie Parker and was not devised in opposition to it, as many critics at the time thought. His solo on ‘Tenderly’, for example, is a minor masterpiece, anticipating virtually every technical and structural device on Anthony Braxton’s ‘For Alto’.

 

oliver nelsonOliver Nelson: Blues and the Abstract Truth

Impulse! (1961)

If you’re not familiar with Dolphy’s work, then this classic by Nelson and his cast of top jazz musicians, including Freddie Hubbard, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Roy Haynes, is the perfect intro. Working off the chord sequences of a 12-bar blues and the ‘I Got Rhythm' changes, saxophonist, composer and arranger Nelson’s album features Dolphy on flute on ‘Stolen Moments’, alto sax on ‘Hoe-Down’, ‘Tennie’s Blues’ and ‘Yearnin’’ – listen to his dramatic entry and the unusual intervals he uses – while his alto solo on ‘Butch and Butch’ effects a laughter-like effect during the opening bars. Stuart Nicholson

 

Jan Garbarek: Five Essential ECM Albums

Garbarek

Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek has come to epitomise what’s become known to many as the ‘Nordic tone’ – a crystalline sound with a direct, poetic earthiness. Stuart Nicholson recommends five key albums

Afric PepperbirdAfric Pepperbird

When the final notes of Afric Pepperbird were committed to tape in Arne Bendiksen’s recording studio in Oslo, producer Manfred Eicher and recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug knew they had captured something special. Music empowered by Ornette Coleman’s ‘freedom principal’, yes, but something more, something that sounded closer to home. Now regarded as a European jazz classic, it marked the beginning of Garbarek’s remarkable career, documented every step of the way by ECM.

 

triptykonTriptykon

The stylistic evolution of Garbarek’s music could never be depicted as a straight line on a graph. Of all the twists and turns it took, none was more radical than 1973’s Triptykon, perfectly summed up by Brian Olewnick on AllMusic as, “drawing on both free improvisation and Scandinavian folk tunes, roaring, stumbling, and reeling, evoking an aural equivalent of an Edvard Munch painting, Garbarek’s work on all his reeds is assured and imaginative, even as the context is often dark and bleak. Highly recommended”. Yup, that covers it.

 

Witchi-Tai-toWitchi-Tai-To

Garbarek rarely listens to his own work on record, but this is a favourite. The mutual empathy this group shared, and the sheer joy of making music together is perfectly captured on this disc. Garbarek even revisited the title-track on his 1992 album 12 Moons. Polycultural, often pentatonic in conception, often eliding into rubato ruminations, Witchi-Tai-To is a nailed on favourite of many a European jazz fan.

 

Nude AntsNude Ants

Here’s Jarrett’s European Quartet in full-flight with Garbarek imperious on the title-track. Jarrett’s biographer, the late Ian Carr, said the recordings of this ensemble ranked with the finest in jazz and this album gives you no reason to doubt him. Elegant, yet raw. Subtle, yet explicit. Garbarek says this album didn’t catch them at their best. OK, but until something better does turn up, we’ll happily settle for this.

 

wayfarerWayfarer

Guitarist Bill Frisell provided Garbarek with inspiration and energy at a crucial period of his career. In the saxophonist’s own words, he said that he was lost when Frisell decided to return to the States. Together they produced a creative synergy that is both inspired and inspiring. From a key period in Garbarek’s evolution as an artist (the early 1980s), this album is an overlooked classic.

 

Mister Misterioso: Thelonious Monk, the man and the myth

Thelonious Monk was an artist regarded by many as something of an outsider during his lifetime, but he was a man whose bold musical birthright now remains undeniable. Brian Priestley speaks with Thelonious’ son, drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk, to chart the legend’s legacy and uncover the roots of his masterful musical innovations

Looking at music in historical terms, there’s nothing like a centenary for focusing our attention. If someone like Thelonious Monk is still being talked about more than 100 years after his birth (10 October 1917), he must have been doing something right. Even if, at the time of his emergence, lots of seemingly knowledgeable observers thought he was doing it all wrong. That’s one of the themes that has been a constant in discussions about Monk, along with the theory that he was elusive, monosyllabic, difficult to work with and – in many people’s eyes – weird.

As for the renewed attention now, of course it helps that newly discovered archive material has been released, in the form of his soundtrack recording for the French film Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Despite having contributed some commentary to the booklet, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised at the ecstatic review coverage it’s received everywhere, including in Jazzwise last month. But, after all, this is Monk and his then-new quartet with Charlie Rouse at their best – and it’s the first new Monk discovery since 2005 when the recording, Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, suddenly surfaced – so it may eventually be seen as one of his essential albums.

Monk’s son, the drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk, who says “I never get tired of talking about my father”, is clearly gratified too. Though he was only nine-years-old at the time of the recording, he was aware of the special event of Monk doing a film soundtrack. But seeing it resurface after some 55 years was still a surprise. “Well, it wasn’t on our radar, but we kinda knew it was sitting there somewhere, because after all it was used in that movie.” One of the minor revelations of this rediscovery is the participation in part of Monk’s session by French-American saxophonist Barney Wilen, doubtless thanks to the involvement of music director Marcel Romano who had previously used Wilen in Miles Davis’s recording for Lift To The Scaffold.

“I remember guys would look at his music and say: ‘We can’t play this’, but by the end of the rehearsal everybody was playing it anyway.” – Sonny Rollins

So, what comes to mind when you see the names of Miles and Monk in close proximity? Is it Miles’ classic Christmas Eve 1954 Bags’ Groove record session, where he complained about Monk’s backings and allegedly threatened to throw a punch (a story that persists despite the fact that both Monk, who stood several inches taller, and Miles himself later rubbished the notion)? Or do you recall that they were happily working together the following summer at Newport, where Miles made his famous ‘comeback’ by playing ‘’Round Midnight’ (and ‘Hackensack’)? And do you take on board that Miles’ 1956 recording of ‘’Round Midnight’ and his versions of ‘Well You Needn’t’ (1954) and ‘Straight No Chaser’ (1958) contributed substantially to their popularity as jazz standards?

More importantly, do you look beyond the rumour mill and the potted histories, and realise that ‘modal jazz’ was not invented in 1959 with Kind of Blue or even the previous year’s Milestones? It would be easy enough to indulge in similar oversimplification and say it was invented in May 1952 when Miles, out of nowhere, suddenly suspended the chord sequence of ‘Dear Old Stockholm’ by adding interludes based on pedal points (and turning a 28-bar song into a 42-bar song). Or had he been listening to Monk, whose ‘Well You Needn’t’ (first recorded in 1947) and ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ (recorded later in 1952) have harmonically static A-sections, as is the B-section of ‘Monk’s Dream’ (1952). And ‘Bemsha Swing’ from the same year has a sequence as restricted as Miles’ ‘So What’, so it’s no surprise that Miles and Monk together had a ball with it in 1954.

Photos: courtesy of Alain Tercinet (private collection) - this and the photos below

“I watched him tutoring John Coltrane, I watched him tutoring Miles Davis, watched him tutoring Bud Powell,” says T.S., who was sufficiently into music as a child to be given a pair of drumsticks by Max Roach at the final recording session of Brilliant Corners. According to the pianist himself, Davis already used to sit in during the mid-1940s when Monk was working for the legendary Coleman Hawkins, one of the few big names to espouse the work of Thelonious. It’s long been known that Hawkins recorded three early tunes later copyrighted by Monk, namely ‘Hackensack’ (Hawk’s version is titled ‘Rifftide’), ‘Stuffy Turkey’ (or just ‘Stuffy’) and ‘I Mean You’. But author Lewis Porter recently revealed that Hawkins’ first-ever totally unaccompanied saxophone session included a one-chorus improvised version of ‘’Round Midnight’ (the obscure ‘Hawk’s Variations Part 2’, now available on Mosaic and even on YouTube). Which makes Hawkins only the second person to record the tune, after Cootie Williams but before Dizzy Gillespie.

Given that Monk became a teenager in 1930, it’s hardly surprising he was steeped in the swing era, which is clearly evident from riffs such as ‘Hackensack’, ‘Stuffy Turkey’ or ‘I Mean You’ – it’s even been suggested that the last-named is based on the chords of a lesser-known Ellington song, the 1938 ‘Lost In Meditation’. This is, of course, why he was ripe for encouragement from the great pianist-arranger Mary Lou Williams when he encountered her in Kansas City, where she was already the queen of its nationally influential jazz scene and its wide-open nightlife. (The shout-chorus of her ‘Walkin’ And Swingin’’ for the Andy Kirk band is the first use on record of the opening phrase from ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’, which probably didn’t originate with Monk himself.)

It’s intriguing to see that three of Monk’s key mentors were all female. First, the stride pianist Alberta Simmons, who lived near the Monk family when Thelonious was growing up in the San Juan Hill area of NYC (where the Lincoln Centre stands today) – interestingly, T.S. quotes his father as saying that he “took out the oompah from stride piano”, with the implication there’s a lot of that style left in his playing. Then there was the unnamed evangelist for whom Monk played the new swinging gospel-music, touring the country in his first professional job in the mid-1930s. And Mary Lou. It’s worth recalling too that his strongest supporters were his mother Barbara (who subsequently allowed him to live at home through his twenties, working out his music rather than bringing in regular money) and, after 1947, his wife Nellie.

Thanks to Mary Lou and Hawkins, we have informed comments about the evolution of Monk’s playing. Williams, interviewed in 1954 by Melody Maker, said that, “When he was in [Kansas City] he jammed every night, really used to blow on piano, employing a lot more technique than he does now… He felt that musicians should play something new, and started doing it. Most of us admire him for this.” That was during the mid-1930s but, by the time he was in the house band at the subsequently famous Minton’s (1940-41), he was already recognisable – if not very audible on some of the informal recordings made there. By the time he was with Hawkins (between 1944 and 1946), he was beginning to arouse opposition from some listeners and Hawkins, interviewed a dozen years later, recalled them berating him with remarks like “Why don’t you get yourself a piano player? What is that guy trying to do?”

It seems clear then that, as well as producing sounds that were startling to listeners in the mid-1940s, he had deliberately pared back his technique – which he claimed had, in childhood, been capable of executing the works of Chopin, Rachmaninoff and others. And that he did so in order to perfect a personal language at odds with the norm, involving angular single-note lines played with a heavy touch, which also enabled sparsely voiced chords to sound a lot richer than they look on paper. So it’s understandable, if not forgivable, that someone like Oscar Peterson said, in effect, that Monk was an interesting composer but, as a pianist, not so good. This led to journalist Leonard Feather asking Monk to comment on a Peterson track, to which Monk’s famous response was “Which way is it to the toilet?”

By the way, I’ve no wish to undermine Feather’s copyright, but I have to report that the only time I approached Thelonious backstage he took one look at my bulky portable tape-recorder loaned by the BBC, and said “Which way is it to the toilet?” I didn’t mention my claim to fame when speaking to T.S., but he did observe that, “Monk came from a family of jokers and, when he was around the home, he was full of games and jokes. With us, he was a very happy, fun type of guy. He became a more reserved person in his later years, which were marked by emotional issues. When the light of fame finally fell on him later, he became unhappy at how the critics had dealt with him. But I would never ascribe to the austere personality that some people attributed to him.”

It was actually T.S. who, in the valuable 1988 documentary Straight, No Chaser, drew attention to his father’s serious emotional problems that became more prevalent from the 1960s onwards, although there were clear clues much earlier. Monk’s masterly biographer, Robin D.G. Kelley, wrote that in the 1940s: “Very few psychiatrists, let alone lay people, understood the causes and nature of bipolar disorder at the time, so it is not surprising that musicians, fans, and especially journalists, interpreted Monk’s behaviours as quirky personality traits or evidence of eccentricity.” These behaviours include going several days without sleep while focusing on some musical problem, followed by sleeping for a couple of days without rising, as well as more gossip-evoking habits as getting up from the piano and shuffling in time to the band, or his obliquely humorous comments.

Of course, the terse humour is also deeply embedded in Monk’s actual music. I don’t just mean the clanging bell-like sounds incorporated into ‘Little Rootie Tootie’, the childhood nickname of T.S. (still known to his intimates as ‘Toot’). It’s also written all over the supra-bebop tunes such as ‘Skippy’, ‘Trinkle Tinkle’ and ‘Four In One’. Even the simpler tunes, when you study them, have those surprising but ultimately logical turns of phrase that rely on the unexpected to make their memorable point. T.S. feels strongly that Thelonious had already gone beyond bebop by the early 1950s: “I feel that bebop actually confined Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, so I don’t go along with this idea of [Monk as] ‘the High Priest of Bebop’. I feel that Thelonious was more like ‘the father of modern jazz’.”

As well as being a possible play on his family name, the ‘High Priest’ publicity must have seemed a good idea to Blue Note who, coming late to the new style, recorded Monk in depth just as he turned 30. He was already being mentioned as the grey eminence behind bebop, but the idea was nailed down in the DownBeat piece by photographer-journalist Bill Gottlieb (set up by Mary Lou and published before Monk signed with the label) that dwelt on his seemingly modest and reserved personality. Gottlieb, who actually called him “the George Washington of bebop”, also quoted ex-bandleader Teddy Hill apparently taking aim at his own ex-sideman, the relatively well-publicised Dizzy Gillespie, and stating, “I think [Monk] feels he got a bum break in not getting some of the glory that went to others.” But Hill also went on to anticipate the later comments of Mary Lou Williams, and indeed T.S. Monk: “I believe he hoped one day to come out with something as far ahead of bop as bop is ahead of the music that went before it.”

This might have been a hope too far, since nearly all of Monk’s most individual tunes, with a few dramatic exceptions, are in traditional AABA form and mostly in 8-bar sections. But it’s revealing that he chose in 1957 to work with Coltrane, who had already made advances in his stints with Gillespie and then Davis. Trane’s reaction is well-known: “I felt I learned from him in every way – through the senses, theoretically, technically.” And don’t forget, before that Monk had worked for some years with Sonny Rollins, who was rehearsing with the pianist while still in high-school. As well as acknowledging his debt, Rollins also referred to Monk’s aural teaching methods: “I remember guys would look at his music [charts] and say: ‘We can’t play this’, but by the end of the rehearsal everybody was playing it anyway.”

As far as I recall, Monk never commented publicly about either Coltrane or Rollins, apart from a possible oblique reference to the latter in a more revealing 1965 DownBeat piece by Val Wilmer. “I haven’t done one of those ‘freedom’ suites, and I don’t intend to. I mean, I don’t see the point. I’m not thinking that race thing now; it’s not on my mind. Everybody’s trying to get me to think it, though, but it doesn’t bother me.” He did, however, say, “I have to take care of my family. But I’ll help a lot people, and I have…” As Robin Kelley noted, Monk played a number of benefit concerts in the early 1960s for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and, in fact, the 1957 all-star bill at Carnegie Hall was a benefit for a community centre in West Harlem.

Summing up Monk’s contribution to the world of jazz, his son points out that not only is ‘’Round Midnight’ by far the most covered jazz song (with 1,750 versions, according to one recent count), but he is by now the second most recorded jazz composer ever. The unspoken winner in these stakes is of course Ellington, and it’s worth a moment’s thought that Monk’s distinctive playing style owes quite a lot to the earlier master’s pianistics, as noted recently on the books page of Jazzwise 223. If you want a practical demonstration, try and hear the 1938 Johnny Hodges track ‘Dancing On The Stars’ and Duke’s improvised solo therein (but not the YouTube audio of someone playing the sheet-music, absolutely straight!). And, as with Ellington’s piano, Monk is impossible to imitate directly – “People try”, says T.S., “but, after three notes, you know: ‘That’s not Thelonious’.”

T.S. himself has played an honourable part in keeping his father’s name in the limelight, thanks to the famous Thelonious Monk Institute founded in 1987, though he points out that its role is to publicise jazz in general. “It’s all inclusive, celebrating Ornette Coleman as much as Duke Ellington. But Thelonious himself was the quintessential prototype for what a musician wants to be. The great Ron Carter said to me, ‘Your father is a triple threat. He had a style that’s unique, he wrote tunes that musicians want to play, and he pushed the music forward’.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe to Jazzwise

Life-changing albums: Talk Talk's 'Spirit of Eden'

Vocalist and songwriter Julia Biel talks about the album that changed her life, Spirit Of Eden, by Talk Talk. Interview by Brian Glasser

I heard this album during my first year at university. It was, shall we say, a difficult time for me. I’d been continually listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; then a friend at my college, who I often talked to about music, introduced me to this record – and I had it on loop for months! I enjoyed how it luxuriated in space and time. I found it extremely comforting, and urge everybody to seek it out. I was living on the ground floor in a quad and I had my window open, so the whole quad heard this album – a lot!

I didn’t know then that the album had been recorded in darkness over a year. They got in a load of different people who were asked to play stuff in a dark studio – they must have been given a tempo and a key, I suppose – and then, Mark Hollis, the founding member of Talk Talk, and his producer [Tim Friese-Greene] pieced the album together from everything. Apparently, they tried every possible permutation of what they’d recorded. Mark then wrote lyrics over the top.

It was a bold move because they’d had a big hit with their previous album, The Colour of Spring, which was much more commercial. In the intervening period – and again, I found this out subsequently – Mark’s brother had committed suicide. So you can imagine, it goes quite deep, as he is trying to work through all of his feelings. Actually, he’s denied it has anything to do with his brother; but it certainly has a profoundly spiritual quality to it. This music seems to come from a subconscious place. I think part of what drew me to it was that it had this sort of religious ambience. Not that I’m a religious person, but the way music can be so spiritually moving is contained in that album. I don’t know whether it had such a big connection with me also because I was coming from having heard and performed a lot of choral music in my adolescence – Fauré’s ‘Requiem’, Handel’s ‘Messiah’, things like that.

There are lots of things on the album that you wouldn’t usually put next to one another – the marriage of driving rock guitars with overlaid oboe arrangements is quite odd! It was criticised for sounding like a free jazz album, because it’s got that element to it as well. There are long stretches where there’s just one instrument moving slowly and wistfully through its melody before it comes to a groove. But everything is very precisely placed, as you would expect from something that took so long to assemble. So when the grooves come, they’re extremely meaningful – every instrument, every sound is drenched in meaning – and at the same time, there’s a lot of restraint in it. It’s driven by an urge to go as deeply as possible into the realm of rock music, trying to make music with all kinds of instruments. It’s quite trippy – I’m drawn to things that are quite out there and take you on a journey.

 

‘It’s got such innate wisdom and a purity that cuts through to the essence of whatever state of mind I might be in’

 

I love the way it has space and also extreme dynamic shifts. That’s a real success of how the record was mixed. It’s difficult to handle extreme dynamics and it was done amazingly – the sound of this record is incredible. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t dated at all, and also probably because they were using real instruments. It sounds like a contemporary classical piece.

I should talk about his singing too. It’s clearly untrained, but very heartfelt, and emotive, and powerful. You mostly can’t hear what he’s saying, but you catch odd words like ‘salvation’ or ‘ascension’ or ‘flesh’ that reinforce the spiritual thing. I still listen to it now and it still speaks to me – not just nostalgically. It’s got such innate wisdom and a purity that cuts through to the essence of whatever state of mind I might be in.

I wasn’t making or performing music at that time; but I think it awoke in me the urge. It revealed to me that music could be very potent; and I think that attracted me subconsciously to music as a thing to pursue. I think the direct influence on my musical practice is through things like dynamics, which I’m very interested in; and also space in music – I try to bring that to my work. Plus, the attitude: the music isn’t afraid to tackle big subjects, to paint them using sound. For me, at least, this record set the bar very high!

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Jazzwize magazine. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe

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