Walter Becker and Donald Fagen may have been two against nature, but even Becker's lancet wit and Tele skills couldn't sidestep the Grim Reaper and he has passed away leaving behind a Cadillac-sized musical legacy and two sons. At the time of writing the cause of death is unspecified, but maybe we should have picked up the hint when gigs in July went ahead without him. Either way, in an age of loss, the passing of Becker remains oddly unbelievable: the great survivor who came through the death by drugs of his partner Kim Stanley, who struggled with and largely overcame his own drug demons, who fought off Stanley's would be litigious mother, who himself survived a serious car smash, and divorce from his wife Elinor; Becker the man behind Aja and Pretzel Logic and Gaucho has gone. Surely not, surely it's one of Becker's slick cynical jokes, he's gas-lighting us, driving us a little mad, taking his renowned reclusiveness – he made a home for himself for years off Hawaii when he and Fagen first parted ways – just one step further. He'll be back won't he?

If that sounds irreverent, well, Becker would probably approve: his was the ultimate über cool, never the sentimentalist, always the gimlet-eyed outsider that underwrote Steely Dan's panache. Some, Fagen among them, attributed this acerbic but precise as the surgeon's scalpel worldview to Becker's apparently tough, often distressing childhood. Getting attached to anyone was too risky, better to go for the wisecrack, the hyper-polished lyric and lithe melody. And if you can't control relationships, and age does wither you, then look for control through the studio: and this in a way was Becker's gift to music, to use the studio to nail down the most perfect sonic experience possible (whatever the cost in dollars and burnt out synapses).

In taking ultimate control of the sound he sought, Becker left many a guitarist on the cutting room floor (how's it hanging, Mr Knopfler?), so it's no surprise that the soul and proficiency of jazz artists appealed to Becker. Fagen once shared with this correspondent how they'd wanted more 'old school' jazz artists on board, recording sessions with the likes of Al Cohn, which Fagen described dryly as a 'learning curve' for all involved. It's interesting that Becker as a producer, once the Dan split, worked with the likes of Michael Franks and Ricky Lee Jones who also lived and worked in that hinterland between jazz and the singer-songwriter, artists who likewise employed a wry rhyme to hide the hurt.

The house of jazz has many rooms and it would be a parlous view of the jazz tradition that it couldn't include Steely Dan, especially in the golden years between 1972 to 1980. This isn't just because Becker and Fagen were lucky enough to meet at college in the heady days of the late 1960s when the boundaries between rock, jazz and folk came tumbling down; nor was it because they insisted on using the best of musicians, many of whom had impeccable jazz credentials, like Joe Sample, Victor Feldman (a Steely stalwart) and Wayne Shorter. The Steely jazz thing was that they loved the great traditions – the insight and wit of the Great American Songbook, the passion and prowess of bop (Horace Silver is embedded in the first song on their third album) – but never let them be their masters: Becker took all that material, Tin Pan Alley, rock's 'stick it to the man' attitude, jazz's cool and love of the unique and used it to express his own and our own humanity.

In a decade, the 1970s, which produced so many ground-breaking records, Becker helped craft albums and songs that were themselves, unforgettable; at once simple, yet complex, Becker's paradox was that he was deeply affectionate of a world that seemed limitlessly cruel, whose sanity he questioned even as he barely hung on to his own.

– Andy Robson

– Photo by Tim Dickeson

LJF-Oct-Banner

This year's momentous 25th EFG London Jazz Festival, which runs from 10 to 19 November at over 50 venues across the capital has announced a final flurry of last minute additions to its already bulging set of headliners. These include festival favourite, US hip hop influenced pianist Robert Glasper (above left), who returns to the Barbican (16 Nov) for a special concert to mark the festival's birthday year. Also added is a compelling Norwegian double bill of progressive jazz overlords Jaga Jazzist (previously announced in Jazzwise and on-sale 8 September), who roll up to the Royal Festival Hall (19 Nov) with their sprawling audio-visual extravaganza, with support from emerging ECM-signed singer Sinikka Langeland and her stellar band of Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Trio Mediaeval.

Further additions include a twin-header of blues-soul-jazz trio Joon Moon, who feature vocalist Krystle Warren, plus support from progessive neo-classical pianist James Heather (Rich Mix, 16 Nov); forward-thinking Blue Note-signed pianist/composer Aron Ottignon – who combines beats and classical flourishes with his own nuanced piano playing – appearing at Archspace London (19 Nov); while dexterous experimentalists Black Top (Pat Thomas/Orphy Robinson) pay sonic tribute to the mercurial graffiti art of Jean Michel Basquiat with guest guitarist Jean Paul Bourelly, spoken word artist Anthony Joseph, and trumpeter Byron Wallen at LSO St Luke's (10 Nov).

The festival also presents its first event at the British Library (13 Nov) with a special jazz edition of the Classic Album Sundays, with its founder and vinyl aficionado Colleen 'Cosmo' Murphy introducing John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (which will be played on high-end audiophile hi-fi) with special guest Denys Baptiste talking about the music ahead of his own Coltrane tribute concert at the Barbican (18 Nov).

– Mike Flynn

For full details on all these shows and tickets visit www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk

 Morganl

September can be a quiet month for music fans, after the summer festival season is over but before the autumn touring schedules kick in. Of course, expectations can be sustained by the promise of the EFG London Jazz Festival, coming our way in November, and there is heartening news from the wonderful South Coast Jazz Festival, set to return for a third triumphant time in January 2018. In addition, Brighton's The Verdict is attempting to plug the gap single-handedly by programming more jazz than at any other time in it's history, and there's the continuing series of lunchtime concerts at All Saint's church in Hove that shouldn't be overlooked. Chasing Trane is currently on limited release in selected cinemas, but I Called Him Morgan is available on Netflix – well worth the minimal bother of signing up for a month's free trial as currently on offer from the service, if you're not already a subscriber.

Coltrane is such a titan of modern music that it's almost a surprise that it's taken so long for a theatrically released documentary. Morgan's name may be less universally recognised outside the circles of jazz aficionados, but it's possible that the general public might actually be as familiar with his music – or at least with his seminal tune 'The Sidewinder'. The eponymous LP was released in 1964, when Morgan was 26, with seven Blue Note albums as a leader under his belt but still developing his career, and Coltrane was 38, already established as a major musical force, but with only three years of music making ahead of him. 'The Sidewinder''s driving boogaloo beat and powerful, bluesy soloing turned the tune into a surprise hit, breaking all previous Blue Note sales by a factor of 10 (including those for Blue Trane, the 1957 Coltrane recording on which Morgan was featured), and it's been a constant feature on soundtracks, adverts and compilations whenever anyone wants to evoke the grooving 1960s. Such was the commercial success of the record that it set a template for Blue Note for the rest of the decade – small-group records with the leading track in a driving straight-eight feel, followed by a swinging mix of original blowing heads, blues or rhythm changes, and perhaps a standard to round things off. The album marked a high point in the integration of the intricacies of bop with the earthy roots of jazz in blues and gospel, and must have seemed to some to indicate a commercial salvation for jazz; but it also marked the beginning of the end. Rock'n'roll was poised to take over as the music of young America and by 1965 the baton of musically hip standard bearing had passed to Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Byrds or James Brown.

'The Sidewinder' is a truly terrific record, without a single wasted note or empty gesture, full of virtuosity lightly worn, by players so utterly immersed in the culture of their music that it seemed they could turn out this material effortlessly – Morgan later claimed that he'd conceived of the title smash as a last-minute filler to complete the session. Yet it's very facility contained the germs of it's own redundancy – audiences at the time were looking for something deeper, more unexpected and less formulaic, that would make grander gestures – the wave of artistic neophilia that had swept the post-war world was breaking into the mainstream. Morgan's hip, polished, harmonically aware funk suddenly seemed to be approaching the corny. Blue Note tried to ride both horses by signing artists like Grachan Moncur, Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers, but their most successful record also heralded a long period of decline into both the commercial and the cultural margins.

Anyone looking for depth, unexpectedness, or grand gestures in the jazz world of 1964 would probably have turned to John Coltrane.Two of his superlative statements. Live At Birdland and Crescent were released that year – the former in particular saw him chafing against the constrictions of harmonic tonality which he had already explored with a thoroughness unmatched by his contemporaries. So titanically, monolithically freighted with significance are Coltrane's later recordings that they can overpower some of the other aspects of this supremely rounded musician – an important composer (Giant Steps is full of memorable tunes sometimes overshadowed by its titular etude), a gifted, velvet-toned interpreter of ballads, an impeccably swinging blues player, and someone who matched Morgan's jukebox 45 hit with one of his own – an instrumental cover of a hit song originally performed by Julie Andrews in the guise of a singing nun. Coltrane gave Morgan a break on Blue Trane but moved much faster than the younger man, and by the end was recording and playing music that some didn't recognise as jazz at all.

The legacy of both men continues to be influential, but in vastly different ways. Most general music fans, when they think of jazz, imagine something like one of the cuts off The Sidewinder – the Blue Note hard-bop sound and house design style have become a sort of benchmark of authentically hip jazz, regaining the popularity that drained away in the late 1960s, so that the name 'Blue Note' is hardly ever divorced from the word 'iconic' in cultural journalism. If Coltrane sought to move beyond the bop idiom he had mastered so fully, Morgan and his cohort preserved it by presenting it's harmonic intricacies in a digestible form that you could even dance to, and it's appeal has endured among audiences even if the artistic standard bearers have moved on. Coltrane, of course would be avowed as by far the greater artist by most musicians, and his multifarous legacy continues to dominate, to the extent that aspects of that dominance are being called into question. Ben Ratliff's book on Coltrane explores how the legacy of his late period masterpieces was interpreted as a cult of sheer volume married to spiritual sincerity among free players that overlooked the way that he himself was steeped in every aspect of the tradition, from blues to bop.

Coltrane's influence reached beyond jazz – the aforementioned Byrds were big fans – and he could be credited with unwittingly promulgating the idea that it's acceptable to solo for 15 minutes over a single chord – an idea seized upon by a generation of rock guitarists – and that meaningful jazz can be effectively approximated by whizzing up and down the dorian mode over a moody minor-key vamp. Pianist Ethan Iverson recently published a fascinating article comparing two 1967 performances of Ellington's 'In A Sentimental Mood' by Bill Evans and Ellington himself (Coltrane recorded a definitive version with the composer in 1963). In it he decried the influence of the scalar approach to jazz on the introductory level, stating: "Bach and Parker built structures based on internal counterpoint, where the melodic impulse was true in every dimension, while Beethoven and Coltrane offered fast-scale passagework over varied textures. The music of Bach and Parker is essentially at one volume and one affect, while Beethoven and Coltrane are able to go from quiet to thunder and back. While it would be foolish to proclaim that Bach and Parker are greater than Beethoven and Coltrane, it is true that Beethoven and Coltrane are easier to imitate (not to mention teach), simply because acquiring the essentially untheatrical craft of Bach and Parker is harder than that of the later, more theatrical masters"

Would it be pushing the analogy too far to compare the music of Morgan to that of Mozart – standing between the rigourous austerity of harmonic counterpoint exploration and the theatrical thunder of passagework and texture, to offer a version dominated by melody and a determination to make music that is rigourously ordered but also pleasing and accessible? Like Mozart, his detractors may accuse his music of being lightweight compared to the intensity of Coltrane, yet part of its lasting appeal lies precisely because it doesn't place such heavy demands upon the listener.

As with all artists whose careers were cut off in their prime, the temptation remains to speculate where their muse would have led them had they lived their full span, and how they might have changed the music we hear today. Morgan combined his bebop sophistication with an earthy, blues-drenched sensibility, which lent his music an easy populist appeal, as the crossover commercial success of The Sidewinder testified. The values that made him a superlative interpreter of what used to be called 'funk' in the 1950s – as in Horace Silver's 'Opus De Funk' – could probably have translated seamlessly into funk as it was understood in the back-beat heavy, Rhodes-drenched 1970s, and he might have challenged Donald Byrd as contender for the R&B groove heavyweight title. Or perhaps the wilder leanings that were hinted at in the Live At The Lighthouse sets would have prevailed, and he might have explored along the boundaries of free and fusion, jazz and rock, that were touched on by frontline partner Bennie Maupin and by Maupin's employer Herbie Hancock during his Columbia tenure, and which found it's deepest and darkest expression in Miles Davies' increasingly opaque series of recordings that started with the release of Bitches Brew two years before Morgan's death. Where Coltrane might have gone next is far harder to guess; such was the lightning speed at which he reset the frontiers of his art that it's hard to imagine him settling into any of the set pathways that jazz followed as the 70s progressed. Afro-haired funkateer, dashiki-clad free blower, bombastic fusion technician, staunch traditionalist – all these roles seem too small to contain him. Perhaps as the end approached he was nearing to his goal, progressing beyond all sound into the silence that surrounds every note and that waits behind every piece of music, and into which all music returns.

– Eddie Myer

 

Charlie Mingus famously encouraged musicians to play without charts, creating big-band scores with rare spontaneity and energy, so what he would have made of the Metropole Orkest's lush orchestrations in the rarefied atmosphere of the Royal Albert Hall is open to question. By the end though of this triumph, however, I suspect he'd have been out of his seat, charging towards the stage to congratulate all the players and Metropole conductor Jules Buckley (below).

He would have undoubtedly appreciated the superb musicianship of the Dutch-oriented orchestra, set up in 1945 and now plying its trade without much in the way of state funding. And he would have surely happily raised an eyebrow as the arrangements stretched his harmonies, adding new layers of colourful complexity to the chords with some gorgeous voicings, much in evidence on ballads like 'Celia' and 'I x Love'.

Mingus-Prom2

Great soloists were imported to punctuate the charts: soaring trumpeter Christian Scott (pictured top), the ubiquitous, supremely talented Shabaka Hutchings, here on bass clarinet ('Fables of Faubus', wow); golden-larynxed vocalist Kandace Springs (below); and YouTube all-dancing baritone sax star Leo Pellegrino.

But the Metropole members, some not even mentioned as soloists in the programme, were right up there with them – for one, Bart Van Lier (top) threatened to steal the show in the first half with his velvety trombone playing with effortless top end and Bird-esque Carmen quotes (I counted four). On soprano sax Marc Scholten lit up 'God Must Be a Boogie Man', his warm, round sound interplaying sensuously with Kandace Springs' lush vocal. This was a gorgeous version of the Joni Mitchell tune.

Prom-53 CR BBC-Mark-Allan 6

There were also exciting, lengthy solos from Metropole members Rik Mol on flugel – actually played on his neighbour Martijn de Laat's horn because his mouthpiece failed moments before – and Paul van der Feen on alto sax. The imaginative arranging was given full reign on 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat', where the lead was handed to guitarist Peter Tiehuis, whose Scofield-like touches gave the standard a new lease of life and an edge that most big-band versions lack. Joni Mitchell's seminal Mingus album received further exposure with a funky 'The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines', with Kandace Springs doing Joni's rapid-fire, interval-leaping scat full justice.

Prom-53 CR BBC-Mark-Allan 5

The orchestra were returning to the Proms after last year's prime-time TV Quincy Jones tribute triumph. That was a lively old night with stellar high-energy contributions, but even they paled by comparison with the finale here. 'Moanin'' is rip roaring off-the-cuff baritone sax feature. So who better than incredible showman Pellegrino (below), trading solos furiously with Scott, to push it possibly into even wilder territory than it has ever been before?

Prom-53 CR BBC-Mark-Allan 7

His dance moves, while simultaneously producing wicked blues-driven lines on his horn, owed something to Elvis, but also hip hop, and perhaps Lenny Pickett from Tower of Power, another hip-shaking saxist. Needless to say, Pellegrino brought the house down, his vivid pink hair remaining as immovable as his formidable technique. I asked my companion. "Did he overdo it?". The inevitable, smiling reply: "Naaaahhh, you think so?".

Surely the Proms have never seen anything like it. Now what would have Mingus made of that?

– Adam McCulloch 

– Photos by Mark Allan

Pub conversations can get you in a world of grief if you're not careful. Sometimes, however, they can be the start of something truly special. A year or so ago, Nick Duckett (pictured, above left), founder of the History of RnB Records label, was having a chat in The French House pub, a regular Soho haunt. One of the barmaids turned out to be Harry South's daughter and she mentioned that there were some old recordings of his knocking around the house.

"It took nearly six months of my life," Duckett explains over a sun-kissed lunchtime half at the French. "Harry wasn't one for documentation, so it meant a lot of listening, sending things off to different people, 'have a listen to this, who do you reckon is on this one?' There are few tracks where I couldn't find any info at all."

The result of all this diligent detective work is the recently released Harry South – The Songbook, a fine tribute to one of this country's greatest composers, bandleaders and arrangers. Duckett, like many of us, first became aware of South through Georgie Fame's 1966 Sound Venture album, recorded with the Harry South Big Band, and then via the Tubby Hayes connection. Both the Fame LP, finally issued on CD in 2015, and the Hayes documentary, A Man In A Hurry, from the same year, have done much to wave the flag for British jazz.

"There's a niche market of a few thousand fanatics that maybe wasn't there 10 years ago," Duckett says. "It's quite accessible for non-jazz nuts and it's a really good way into the wider culture." Like a British Quincy Jones, South continued to make a name for himself throughout the following decades working as an arranger and composer for television (and the occasional, ahem, adult film). But it's his work with Hayes, Joe Harriot, Dick Morrissey and other post-war Brit jazz heroes that's The Songbook's big pull.

Duckett's History of RnB Records has been busy making a name for itself with its wonderful Soho Scene series (currently up to 1963). Like all the best labels from times past, there's a real love of detail at work, from the stand-out cover designs to the extensive sleeve notes. The concept, one disc British, one disc American, provides a neat comparison of how the music was evolving on both sides of the Atlantic.

Future plans include a companion compilation to the BBC4 2008 documentary series Jazz Britannia, a Jazz Europa album and, possibly, a Jazz Japan release. Anything else? Duckett smiles and takes another sip of his beer. "I'm thinking about something on Johnny Birch. There's a tape knocking about..."

– Matt Barker

For more info visit www.rhythmandbluesrecords.co.uk

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