KAMASI WASHINGTON – The Epic: Sweeney Kovar interview


L.A. born and bred saxophonist Kamasi Washington has just sent shockwaves around the globe in the form of a 3CD album ‘The Epic’ which was released in the USA on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label and here on Ninja Tune. While Kamasi and label-mate/bassist Thundercat also contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s much discussed and globally acclaimed 2015 album, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, he is clearly an heir to the Leimert Park jazz radicalism of Tribe records and musicians and poets like Phil Ranelin, Horace Tapscott, Dwight Trible and Kamau Daaood. As the man is due to bring ‘The Epic’ to the Barbican on December 9th I thought I’d go on-line in search of interviews that give us an insight into the world Kamasi Washington. By far and away the deepest piece was in the L.A. Record and penned by Sweeney Kovar – a former contributing editor to Shook magazine. I caught up with Sweeney on his return from an exhausting week-long camp in Northern California organised for “almost 100 teen men of color to develop leadership, organizing principles, healthy notions of masculinity and cultural acknowledgement” and he was vibed and energized by my request to run the interview here. Take it away Sweeny…

Sweeney fxdfnD9URAISED IN A POCKET OF BLACK L.A. that carved out a place for forefathers and history, Kamasi Washington was able to channel his universal teenage restlessness into laser-like focus on his instrument. He honed his craft with childhood friends like the Bruner brothers and Terrance Martin and while studying in UCLA was already touring, using his powerful horn to back up Snoop Dogg on his way to performing with Chaka Khan. He has various projects and innumerable live shows to his credit already, but for many his most recent release—the 3-LP The Epic—is an introduction. Large in frame and soft in voice, Washington looks the part of a burgeoning jazz master, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. His jazz acknowledges the rise of hip-hop without catering to it. Washington is religious but his music doesn’t clash with the secular like traditional gospel might. It’s spiritual music, in the purest sense. When I spoke with Washington about the vibrancy in Black L.A. jazz, his own journey in music and the impetus behind his Brainfeeder debut, I’m reminded that masters transcend their instrument. We’re living a moment of transcendence in American music and that gift is irreplaceable.


Kamasi – Photo by Asato Iida

You’ve always been keenly aware of your place and—now that you’ve come into your own—of your role in the history of L.A. jazz. Do you spend time thinking about being a part of something bigger?

KW small Definitely I’m aware of it—there’s a movement that’s been blooming and cultivating for years. I always knew that one day—I didn’t know when it would happen, or if it would even happen in our time—that the world would recognize. This was back before me, like my dad. I grew up around my dad and his friends. They were all musicians. And it dates back even to what they were doing. It started cultivating before they were even born. I knew how good these musicians were and how amazing and dedicated they were, and how powerful that music was—how beneficial it could be to the world—and I always wondered why why nobody was playing them. As I got a little older and started meeting musicians from around the country, and I realized they didn’t know at all who these people were, I used to wonder, ‘How do you not know?’ Then I realized that in a way it’s a gift. Because the world has overlooked this, no one’s been pushing me one way or the other. The directions I’ve gone in my life and in my music have all been so good. I feel blessed because this has allowed all of us to develop what we’re doing. It was a long learning curve for Miles Mosely to get from that pedal steel to that upright bass, and he needed time and support and kind of a little bit of—a little lack of attention to get it right. And now he has it. It’s like with my work — you have a plan, and then you have the reality of what happens in your life. Musicians mostly start early, and you have to plan for what you want your life to be, but in the end, what happens is what is supposed to happen. You might think that Thundercat came out of nowhere, but he didn’t. He was living with that sound for decades. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to get that sound on your music when you play. So it’s cool to see that people are now — it’s the perfect time. The rest of the world is getting it at its height.

So you must be aware that there is a little bit of building momentum from outside the jazz world.

KW small Oh absolutely. My first West Coast tour was with Snoop Dogg. The second one was with Raphael Saadiq, and I think my third was with Lauryn Hill. So that relationship, and what we do—L.A. is just like that. It’s not a land of specialists. Everyone here, they’re really great and they do everything. You don’t really find too many people that just do one thing. The opportunity is not there to just do that. You’ve got to branch out. Growing up in high school, I was practicing ten hours a day to be this jazz saxophone player and I come out of high school and the first tour I get is with Snoop Dogg. I toured with Snoop for like three years. I learned a lot, actually. That was important. The way I look at music, I look at it with a detail that a lot of jazz musicians—they look at jazz from so wide, so deep, so high, and so far, it’s like sometimes you lose your sense of detail. With hip-hop, it’s like—that detail is what it is. It’s not real hard to play. But you’ve got to play it in an absolutely perfect way and find that groove and feel and all these little nuances have to be there to make it sound exactly right. Like my record—I finished my album last year. And for whatever reason it kept getting pushed back because there were other albums that I was meant to work on first before my album came out. And I was mad at the stars and yelling at the moon, like, ‘Hey man! Why is my album being pushed back?’ But everything happens for a reason. Part of that whole thing of people noticing jazz is because of hip hop. You put these labels on music because it helps organize it, but the reality is that if Jellyroll Morton and John Coltrane are both jazz, then you can say that John Coltrane and James Brown are both jazz. And if John Coltrane and James Brown are both jazz, then James Brown and Snoop Dogg are both jazz, and all this African-American music is related. And we put these dividers up as if they’re not, but they are. And so groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Kendrick and Outkast made super real hip-hop records, and like most of the other super real hip-hop records in history, if you listen to them, there’s a lot of jazz in them. Jazz is an integral part of the African American experience. So of course, if jazz is having a resurgence, it might be related to hip-hop.

Kamasi Washington Live  Photography: Asato Iida

Kamasi Washington Live Photography: Asato Iida

I’m glad you said it was part of the African-American musical experience. Something that’s really interesting about this jazz resurgence in L.A. is that it’s young Black musicians. Do you think about your music as an African-American thing? As a Black experience? Or do you not really see labels on art like that?

KW small I think music is a form of communication. Jazz is Black music in the way that English is a white language. It has origins in the culture, but the spirit behind it—the feel, the groove— originates from the experiences that we’ve had. Anyone who wants to really play this music has to be aware of that, and be aware of those experiences because that’s the language of the music. That’s what it speaks from. It speaks from the blues and the pain the came from slavery. That’s where this music originates. The whole African American experience is so rooted in slavery. Not only slavery, but the reason why there are African-Americans is because of slavery. So if you’re talking about African-American music, you’re talking about music that comes from this really dark history, and the music is the light that allowed us to make it through the darkness. That’s what the real point of it was. We’re further out of that darkness—we’re not out of it, by any stretch of the imagination—but we’re further out of that darkness. But just like anything else, there are other people who are involved in the darkness and in the light. There are white people who are involved in shining a light to help us get out of the dark, and there are white people involved in trying to keep us in the dark. So that energy, that communication that this music has, it has all over different types of cultures—not just white and Black. Historically, slavery wasn’t just a Black thing—it was a world thing. There were other people involved in slavery, not just white people and Black people. I don’t look at jazz like a music that’s only for African Americans, but I do look at it as a music that represents the experiences that African Americans had. And I love it and I think it’s great for everyone. I don’t deny its origins or the history that it represents and that it speaks to. I also don’t think that I should somehow not be included and partaking of this art—or speaking this language or being involved in this music—because I’m not a part of that history. The origins don’t come from that culture, you know what I mean? So in a sense … I don’t think it excludes anyone, but I definitely think if you’re going to play this music you have to understand the origins. Just like if you’re going to play Cuban music, you have to understand the origins. Or you could just play it and have fun with it. Music is also light—it could be just for fun. So if you really want to play it, you have to understand the origins—the culture—or you could say, ‘I’m really not playing that; I’m playing something else.’ Which is fine. The term ‘jazz’ to me speaks to that. But jazz has styled off into so many different places that sure, you could play improvised music with saxophone and bass and drums and call it jazz and it could be great. And you could say, ‘I have no connection to the African American experience but I’m playing this music,’ and you can. There’s nothing wrong with it. But to me, the history of the music comes from that place. That’s the origin.

Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is that in the last several years we’ve also seen a resurgence of Black and brown activism on a large scale. The other night I was thinking of the parallel between the two and how we’re seeing a resurgence of the kind of improvised music that was more popular in the mainstream in the 60s and 70s—and we’re also seeing the same kind of social consciousness and action, more importantly, that was also around in that time. That’s kind of a long way of asking … when you compose and you write, do you feel like you’re responding to the present times? Or is it an internal conversation?

KW small My take on that is that music—people may disagree—but music comes from a place outside of us. When I’m writing a song, I’m reaching for something. I don’t really know what I’m reaching on, but in my reaching, over the years, I learned where to go with my subconscious mind to get to it. And it comes to me, and then it’s pretty ambiguous and it’s pretty unformed, and then I form it into what I want it to be. So when I write music and the form is in the inception phase, I can’t really control the inception of the music that I write. It is what it is. Sometimes it just comes. I can try to direct it, I can say ‘I want to write something dark’, and maybe I will or I won’t, and maybe something bright and happy is going to come out, and that’s just what it is. So then other times, once I have it in me, then I direct it into the direction I want to go. And then yeah — there are things that I want to speak to and music is almost like an attempt to make it this one thing, but that doesn’t meant that’s what it’s going to be. If you’re talking to someone … you have ideas in your head that you’re trying to convey, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to hear or believe it. If I want to communicate to someone, I may or may not have a choice as to how they’re going to hear it. Once I get the music inside me, that’s when I make something that I put out to the world. A lot of the songs are actually from 2011. A different time period, actually. And a lot of my current music is definitely much more influenced by what’s happening in the world. Even the music I hear now—it’s not like these things that are happening now are new. They were happening back then as well. People weren’t as conscious of them or speaking about them as much, but we all knew it and we all felt it. So it’s in there as well. But music is pure in and of itself—it’s something that you just give to people and you don’t get to control what it is. You can just add what you want to add to it. So to answer that question … what I add to it is always something going on in my life, either because of the society I’m living in or … if I’m going through a tribulation with my family, my history, different parts of myself—sometimes the song itself will inspire what I put into the song, if that makes sense. Like take ‘Change of the Guard.’ I heard these chord changes and it just felt — it felt moving. That song is really a tribute to my dad and his generation. I always felt like they didn’t get the chance to be the guard. They were ready, but somehow the torch passed over them.

Why do you think that happened?

KW small I wish I could tell you. I don’t know. From a social-historical perspective, Los Angeles has always been known as a film town. But it’s also a big city and you can make a living. It’s not like living in a little small town, where if you want to play music at all, you have to leave. You don’t have to leave L.A.. And so for whatever reason, people just overlooked it. And that overlooking process is what caused them to not necessarily take their right places as musicians who could have an impact on the world. There’s a lot of music that was lost between the ‘70s and now. Not lost… but it just wasn’t experienced by people that could have been able to help them. Because music changed my life — my cousin giving me an Art Blakey tape in sixth grade was life changing. Art Blakey changed my life. He didn’t mean to do it, but because his music was so powerful, and he did what he did, it changed my life. Whereas my dad gave me John Coltrane, but before I heard Art Blakey, I couldn’t relate to the jazz my dad tried to play me. But when my cousin gave me that tape, I was able to understand and hear that other jazz. You never know what power or what change happens from one album or one song. So it’s a shame that so much brilliant brilliant music has been passed over because it could have had an effect on the world.

Art Blakey flanked by Wayne shorter & Lee Morgan

Art Blakey flanked by Wayne shorter & Lee Morgan

You have a very specific presence on stage, with the clothes that you choose to wear and how you present yourself. Is there an intention behind besides aesthetics? That long flowing tunic with the top piece at the release party—is that a little bit of a throwback, or is that just you?

KW small It’s both! I’m a big fan of African culture. The clothes that I wear, I just like the way they look. I enjoy my culture, and I enjoy African culture as well—and I like those clothes, yeah! I do feel a sense of responsibility because I understand that there’s pressure on African-Americans to not like their culture and be ashamed of being Black—to be ashamed of being connected to Africa, and to feel like it’s at very best a sad story, that these kings and philosophers who invented all these amazing technologies, who did a lot for the world … we don’t really get taught to be proud of that. If I can be an example, hey—I’m proud of it. I’m very honestly proud of it, and actually I do honestly really like the way the clothes look! I just think they look cool. It saddens me when I see my niece or like my little cousins and they’re ashamed of their hair. They think that their culture is ugly or stupid or inferior or primitive and the clothes are weird. And it’s like, ‘Why do you think about it like that? They’re cool!’ And when I wear them, people look at me and are like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know it’s cool!’ So it’s more that. It’s not like I’m trying to make a statement with it. I think it’s cool! And why shouldn’t I wear it, and you’ll think it’s cool too. Nothing wrong with a suit or jeans. I wear all kind of clothes. Clothes are just clothes. But there is a sensation of … if I can be a bit of a force against that mentality that somehow there’s something wrong with what we do, then well … I hate the way that if African-American people do something, it’s immediately turned ‘ghetto.’ Like this or that thing is ‘ghetto.’ You’ll never hear me say that in my life. It’s like — what does that mean? If we do something in our neighborhood, it’s somehow bad, you know? And it’s like no — the clothes we wear and the clothes people wore in Africa or what they wear now, or even what I’m wearing, it’s coming from a different place. And I think it’s cool and I like it and that’s why I wear it.

Kamasi & crew....

Kamasi & crew….

What’s your vision for the future of yourself as a musician? What ambitions do you hold?

KW small It’s been so beautiful, the response that I’m having to the album. There’s such an excitement for it. I’ve always felt like people have been needing this music and it has the power to change people and blow people’s minds because there’s so much beautiful music out there. When I heard that Art Blakey record, that’s what opened my mind to John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy — Art Blakey. And if my record can somehow open people’s minds to that, that would be dope. I want my music to do something like that, and that’s always what I wanted. Even when I was young I was always going to my friends, like ‘Check this out!’ and giving them tapes of this person or that person. They’d look at me crazy when I gave them avant-garde records, but it opened their mind. Music is powerful like that — you can’t help it, but when you hear music, it’s going to communicate with you and whether or not you decide to act on that information is up to you. So I think that’s important, and I think people are looking for music to do that too, and I want to do it, and I want to express it. Music isn’t something that I want to horde or keep secret or buried somewhere — I want to get it out for everyone.

Based on the way that you were mentored and encouraged, do you feel a sense of responsibility to encourage that for the next generation?

KW small Absolutely. I know what it means to have someone to look up to for encouragement and support and I know what it means to look up and not have encouragement and support. I never want to do that. And I think that—not that I’m old, but I’m not young, and there’s a whole younger generation of musicians who have a perspective that I don’t have. They were born with it and I didn’t get it til I was older. Everyone has an obligation to help those that come after them. And that will make the world a better place. The only way to do that is to help people.

This interview was first published in the LA RECORD – L.A.’S BIGGEST MUSIC PUBLICATION SINCE 2005

Sweeney fxdfnD9UCheck Sweeney Kovar at:

Check ‘The Epic’ Live at the Barbican on December 9th 2015. Hosted by Gilles Peterson

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TRIBAL WAR, CIA, DONS & DRUGS – Marlon James’ ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings

London 1977: Claudie Massop, Tony Welsh, Bob Marley, Tek Liife

Peace Truce Runnings / London 1977: Claudie Massop, Tony Welsh, Bob Marley, Tek Life

The Book!

The Book!

One evening, as I left the home of friend and fellow scribbler, Neil Spencer, he thrust a weighty tome into my hands and said, “You need read this but I want it back after.” The book was A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James. I’d read James’ first novel John Crow’s Devil – a deranged and dark tale of spiritual combat in a remote Jamaican hamlet – and had recently toyed with reading his award winning second book, The Book Of Night Women – “a devastating epic of savage history, relentless oppression, and souls that refuse to be shackled”. As I weighed A Brief History Of Seven Killings in my hand I knew I was about to be immersed no holds barred account of the most violent era in Jamaica’s post slavery history.

Over 686 pages Jamaican novelist, Marlon James, gives voice to a cast of players who were at the dark heart of the murderous political division and ‘Tribal War’ that punished Jamaica during the Seventies and led to the cocaine fuelled “Yardie” incursion into America’s drug trade in the Eighties.

Marlon James - The Author

Marlon James – The Author

The book is split into 5 sections – Original Rockers, Ambush In The Night, Shadow Dancin’, White Lines / Kids In America and Sound Boy Killing. It opens with a cast of characters and then it’s down to the ghost of a murdered politician to set the scene, it’s “a story of boys who meant nothing to the world still spinning, but each time they pass carry the sweet stink scent of the man who killed me.

We drop into this brief history in December 1976. It’s election time and Jamaica is under Heavy Manners and Discipline and as I’m reading the book I cant help but match the timeline of my own visits to Jamaica with the events that unfold in the book. My partner at that time had grown up in Kingston. She was a leftist who supported Trevor Munroe’s Workers Party. Her parents were ex Communist Party members who had left England in the 50s traveling in the opposite direction to the Windrush generation. Her father had designed Marcus Garvey’s tomb and her mother was a doctor based in the clinic just down the road from Studio 1. Her patients came from the “garrisons” of Central and West Kingston. She passed away just last week aged 98 and lived face to face, on a daily basis, with the impact of the violence – political and other wise – that leaps from the pages of this book. I also was an active leftist but one obsessed with Jamaican music… the vision of the Rastafari, the cultural militancy, the history, the journalist lyrics… the word sound and power. People had got tired me talking about the music and had pressured me to start writing. So, upon arriving in Kingston during the Xmas holiday 1976, post the election which the PNP had won, that’s what I did.

BobPivotal to A Brief History… is the attempted assassination of Bob Marley on Dec 3rd 1976, two days prior to the Smile Jamaica concert. In the book he is simply called The Singer. While you can read this book simply as a novel which is rooted in actual events, the more you know about the actual politics and the real characters involved the more shocking it becomes. Basically, Jamaica, not unlike Greece today was being held to ransom by the IMF and trapped in a cycle of debt. Armed with the Rod Of Correction, the charismatic leader of the People National Party was talking Socialism and building ties with Cuba. The CIA didn’t like that and backed Edward Seaga (CIA-aga), the leader of the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). The enforcers and their soldiers were armed and the ghettos blazed

Marlon James takes inside the minds of the political party enforcers – the soon to be “dons” – and it’s not pretty. As cocaine and free-basing enters the frame he paints a brutal picture of crazed Tony Montana style psycho-violence. As readers we are transported into PNP and JLP garrisons like Arnett Gardens aka  ‘Jungle’ and Tivoli Gardens. We are taken into a warren of zinc fence lined streets and  swept up in the dialogue and the intrigue. Following the failed assassination attempt of The Singer and two years of exile, we want to know why The Singer is back and there’s a Peace Truce in the making. What’s driven the leading enforcers from across the Party Political divide to sit and reason over a chalice while others in their ranks are plotting other wise.

Back In Hope Road: Tek Life, Bob Marley, Claudie Massop

Back In Hope Road: Tek Life, Bob Marley, Claudie Massop

Bob Peace ConcertI never made it to the Peace Concert in April ’78 but Neil Spencer – as editor of the NME- did. It was an event where Peter Tosh berated both Manley and Seaga and it earned him a brutal beating at the hands of the police. I watched the concert on video. Marley was a man possessed and flanked by the baddest gun men in Jamaica he forced Manley and Seaga to join hands. Lightning flashed and thunder roared. Ironically, or maybe predictably, 85 years old CIA-aga is one the few people on that stage still alive.

Peace Concert: Politicians, Rankings and Bob

Peace Concert: Politicians, Rankings and Bob

As these events evolve in the book I became fixated on who was who. Who in this book was Bucky Marshall, who was Claudie Massop, who was Tony Welch, who was Tek Life? Is Nina Burgesss real or is she a character in the novel who represents fear? She looked into the eyes of the man who orchestrated the raid on Hope Road and wisely fled. I have to believe, in real life, that man was Lester Coke aka Jim Brown  – “Don Of Dons” and father of the infamous Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. I always thought he was the same Jim Brown that appeared on the odd 7″ Studio 1 single but apparently it’s not – he’s just another fan of the movie star and NFL legend.

James’ characters live and breathe in the pages of A Brief History… but they are caught in a cycle of mutual and self destruction. Another pivotal event in the book is the Green Bay Killings when a group of youth are tricked into picking up a shipment of weapons only to be mown down in an ambush by the army. The tide turns. The Gun Court is not enough. The police are turned loose like an avenging posse and the freedoms the “dons” enjoyed through their political allegiances all but expired. But in the end, why be a soldier for a politician when you’ve now got links to the Cartels through the ganja you’ve shipped to America. You can buy your own politicians and become a real life ‘Scarface’. And that leads us to the final chapters of this story as it end up on the frozen streets of Brooklyn and beyond, where the youth have swapped their string vests for duck down puffer jackets

I have my own memories of these times. Fear and suspicion was everywhere. We once went to deliver a sack of leather footballs to a group of youth in a small ghetto community near the University campus at Mona. The balls had been bought with money raised at the youth club I ran in North London and the plan was to deliver them to where the local youth hung out – “Style Corner”. Our enquiries amongst the locals as to the whereabouts of “Style Corner” were greeted with a mix of frosty suspicion and open hostility. Two white people delivering gifts to the local youth – couldn’t be good. It had to be payment for some kind of badness. Time had to invested in explaining how it had all come about. Eventually, we made our delivery to a bunch of grateful, football loving teenagers.

PB: Outside the Gun Court

PB: Looking shifty & nervous outside the Gun Court

Michael Smith: The NME Article

Michael Smith: The NME Article

It’s not one of the killings in this book but, for me, one of the most painful experiences of loss during the early Eighties was the killing of the poet Michael Smith. Mikey was stoned to death by a gang of JLP supporters on a government work detail. I’d spent time with Mikey interviewing him up in Red Hills for an NME piece on dub poetry. After the interview we were sat in the shade quietly enjoying a smoke and sipping on a Red Stripe.The sound of Count Ossie came up on one side of the mountain and Light Of Saba on the other. It was a deep moment. His death was a huge loss to the culture of Jamaica but despite demands for a statement from Prime Minister Seaga, a man who claims to have a deep passion and knowledge of Jamaican culture, there was nothing but silence.

That final chapters of A Short History… shadowed my own withdrawal from the local sound system and reggae scene. I was deeply involved but I was clearly wandering through that life with blinkers on. I’d met Dennis Brown a few times and his physical demise was truly shocking. Initially I could believe it when one of the girls from the youth club said, ” I just saw Dennis Brown in Ridley Road market and he looked like a tramp!” I thought, ” No. He’s an international star! Women love him. How could that be? ” Cocaine was the answer. Another story, which involved a fellow writer, took place in Errol Dunkley’s shop when a fierce looking beaver hat sporting gent asked where he might get “a teeth removed.” When the name of a dentist was proffered the gent shook his head and indicated that it was a bullet, not a tooth that needed removing.

Around that time I was an avid follower of Coxsone OuternationalSound System. Lloydie Coxsone was one of the first people I interviewed. He’s a fantastic spokesman for sound system and has genuine gravitas. But as a Sound Man he has lived his life in that subterranean world and it’s not all “life, love and unity”. One day, I quietly and somewhat naively asked him why he had Ranking Dread on the sound. Basically, I’d never enjoyed his delivery on the mic – especially in a clash. Lloyd just said, “You have to encourage the youth.” I wasn’t convinced but in reality it wasn’t any of my business. Not long after that Ranking Dread made the headlines and it wasn’t related to his toasting. He made it onto the front page of the Daily Mirror and into the Guardian as “the most dangerous man in Britain and the Number One Yardie Godfather”. Apart from his dark and illegal runnings in Hackney he was wanted by Jamaican police in connection with over thirty murders! He was a friend of the late JLP enforcer Claudie Massop. The circle was squared and I needed to come up for fresh air.

As I sit here writing this, almost four decades have elapsed since the raid on Hope Road, at my side is my old Goldring Lenco turntable and a constantly changing stack of much treasured pre-release 7″ singles that provide a lyrical soundtrack to Marlon’s book. Reading A Brief History Of Seven Killings was a deeply troubling but essentially cathartic experience. I found it difficult to put it down and straight after I’d finished felt compelled to cross reference by re-reading Laurie Gunst’s classic Born Fi Dead. I have a huge respect for Marlon James for the way he tackled this book – which has just been released in paperback by Oneworld. So, my friends, if you are in any way interested in the music driven culture of Jamaica and the deadly politics of its recent history you have to  read this book.

Bucky Marshall & Claudie Massop

Aston ‘Bucky Marshall’ Thompson & Claudius Massop

Tivoli Gardens

CIA-aga’s former constituency – Tivoli Gardens

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FREEDOM! The Festival… Tony Kofi conjures Ornette, Xenicibis arrives & Black Top mash it up!

Next Monday – July 13th – will see the first FREEDOM! – The Art of Improvisation jam since the highly enlightening two day FREEDOM! Festival held at The Vortex in Dalston’s Gillett Square over the weekend of June 27/28th.

The FREEDOM!Festival was inaugurated by Warriors International. The roots of this collective are in the original Jazz Warriors – an ensemble who transmitted the cultural experiences of the Caribbean community and others from the former British Empire into this thing called Jazz. In 2015 these master musicians have succeeded in uniting with a new generation of players, all eager to shatter boundaries, and a fascinating array of virtuoso fellow travelers from the world of new classical and pure “improv”. Each day began with workshops. Cleveland Watkiss led a voice workshop, Claude Deppa and Ray Carless tackled music from the original Jazz Warriors LP and Steve Beresford dealt with approaches to advanced improvisation. As with the rest of FREEDOM!Festival it was all about exchange and the art of listening.

Tony Kofi - Homage To Ornette Pic: Nadjib Lefleurier

Tony Kofi – Homage To Ornette


The day kicked off with Amplifier – an impressionistic spoken word piece with an accompanying film by spoken word artist  HBK Finn and fellow American poetess Nubluz Aesthete. Britain’s most innovative trumpet player Byron Wallen added his own unique array of sounds and melody and yours truly was roped in towards the end of the piece to add some impressionistic rhythms and sounds from my vinyl collection… Amina Myers’ ‘Have No Fear’ felt wonderfully apt.

The Saturday session coincided with the funeral of a Master of the Art Of Improvisation – Ornette Coleman in NYC and it was down to alto saxophonist Tony Kofi’s Spinx Trio – which was supplemented by the vocals of Cleveland Watkiss and the vibes of Orphy Robinson – to offer up a transatlantic musical libation that plumbed the depths of Ornette’s music. Intermittent taped interviews, done by Jazz On 3’s Jez Nelson, with Ornette, Don Cherry et al added to the ethereal dimension of the event. The synchronicity of events combined with Kofi’s passion for Ornette’s compositions and skill on alto produced a stream of muscular music underpinned by the composer’s “harmolodic” concepts. The set was bright,  angular, soulful and challenging. Kofi’s spirit possessed horn opened the pathways and filled the room with a reflective celebratory energy that touched all present.

The stunning Xenicibis Ensemble made their debut mid afternoon and blew us all away. Playing together for the first time. they harnessed the combined talents of five women and three guys. Everyone onstage was outstanding. This young ensemble provided a unique listening experience, a shifting soundscape laced with the element of surprise. Two horn players, piano, harp, harmonica, percussion, electric bass. Beibei Wang aired a splendid red thunder drum emblazoned with dragons and Philip Achille on Harmonica never failed to dazzle. The communication between Freedom regulars Renell Shaw (bass) and Tori Handsley (harp) helped ground the compositions while pianist Zuri Jarrett-Boswell delivered urgent, intermittent shards of sound. The vocalist, Sahra Gure, introduced a range of middle eastern echoes that sat well with her fellow musicians, especially Nubya Garcia on tenor sax and Cath Roberts on baritone sax.

Xinicibis Ensemble - Pic: 'Big Mike' Edwards / UK Vibe

Xinicibis Ensemble – Pic: ‘Big Mike’ Edwards / UK Vibe

Saturday ended downstairs at the Vortex with Orphy and Cleveland – Two Bad DJs – on their laptops mixing vintage Duke Ellington era swing with dub before they went off on a classic set of ska and reggae tunes that drew on their youth-days in their local manor of Hackney.

SUNDAY continued the vibe and I’m going list a few quotes from other scribblers who were in the house to paint the picture. First up came, a mesmerising strings set built around Kate Shortt and Alison Blunt:

Thomas Rees – Artsdesk : “Tt was down to the Freeform Improv Strings to start the final afternoon. A short improvisation from violinist Alison Blunt and cellist Kate Shortt incorporated beguiling snatches of dialogue along with scampering pizzicato lines and trembling melodies. James O’Sullivan prepared his guitar with spanners and plastic rods, producing sudden pops and gargling distortion, and Theo Sinarkis reached for a broken bow, wrapping the limp horsehair around the strings of his bass to delicate, percussive effect. The session ended with a collective improvisation from all the strings on stage that opened with palm slaps and yelping guitar before settling into something softer and more mysterious, with special guest Steve Beresford’s piano lines insinuating themselves into the music like white-hot nerve fibres.”

Though he hadn’t planned it Guillaume Viltard was recruited to the Freeform strings and delivered some stunning bass. It more than prepared him for the epic Rowland Sutherland Quartet set which incorporated the pulsating modal music of McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson and Alice Coltrane that was to come next.

Rowland Sutherland Quartet Pic: Michhael Edwards / UK Vivbe

Rowland Sutherland Quartet Pic: Michhael Edwards / UK Vivbe

Kevin Legendre – Jazzwise : “A majestic set by Rowland Sutherland that took as its point of departure a series of landmark moments in the journey of jazz to the East, both culturally and musically above all, Alice Coltrane’s ‘Blue Nile.’ After recent studies in Japan with shakuhachi masters, Sutherland has enriched what was an already formidable technique, and the unique configuration of this ensemble – double bassist Guillaume Viltard and multi-instrumentalist Ansuman Biswas – only heightened the freshness. Indeed the moments where Biswas brought a fluttering low end into play by way of a bansuri flute dipping under Sutherland lead were beautiful, as were some of Beresford’s needlework electronics”.

Black Top's Orphy Robinson + Projections  Pic: Nadjib Lefeurier

Black Top’s Orphy Robinson + SDNA Projections

For me, Black Top provided the most radical set of the festival. Thrilling is the only way to desctibe their shape shifting sets and this is how Kevin Legendre, who was our host/compere for the day, heard it.

Kevin Legendre – Jazzwise : “Watkiss the jazz vocalist slips seamlessly into the guise of dancehall chatter, or perhaps toaster, to retain the temperature-raising metaphor, as horns and keys crackle and hiss into silence, and therein lies the beauty of Black Top. At face value it is an avant-garde adventure in sound: an unscripted session in the lineage of anybody from AEC and Lester Bowie to Sam Rivers and Rivbea. However, it is also a direct engagement with what passes for popular music but has a fiendishly advanced sonic science at its roots: dub, specifically, electronica, generally. In the process the ground between the aforementioned players and producers such as the Perrys and Bunnys is leveled while the audience is invited to rake over the idea that the cry of a saxophone belongs in the same emotional and musical space as the holler on a microphone that is held deep in the echo chamber.

Virtuosity with an instrument is deemed high art and ingenuity with word and sound a more lowbrow endeavour but these two strands deliciously intersect at a Black Top session. Following a couple of years of performances featuring anybody from Steve Williamson to Evan Parker via Jamaaladeen Tacuma the guests joining core navigators, Pat Thomas [piano, synths] and Orphy Robinson [vibes, laptop] are drummer Mark Mondesir, bass guitarist Otto Williams, trumpeter Roland Ramanan, tenor saxophonist Rachel Musson and the aforementioned Watkiss on vocals, spoken word and electronics.

Black Top PIc:  Big Mike

Black Top PIc: Big Mike

With Williams on board there is a resonantly funky undertow to proceedings with his sponge-like tone and wiry pentatonic lines laying down solid ostinatos over which Thomas and Robinson make merry with all manner of chordal twists and turns on their respective keyboards. Sketching out deliciously spiky harmonic territory, where snatches of distorted and filtered samples are thrown into the air, the ensemble locks into a groove that brings the rhythmic pummels of Musson and Ramanan well to the fore. And then the changes of direction come thick and fast as Thomas triggers a beat that enables Mondesir to show the percussive finesse of his tympani sticks and Watkiss to articulate a series of spooky, glassy melodies before the group sound splinters into pinball call and response amid a barrage of artisan audio.”

DEEP. That was how I’d describe Black Top. There is no other ensemble, in the world, quite like them. And finally, each afternoon finished in traditional FREEDOM! fashion whereby anyone in house with their instrument was invited to play… inspiration continued to flow and the spirit continues.

Final thought: During the weekend I played a lot of tunes between sets / compositions on my single turntable and had a constant flow of people asking what was what… Unfortunately, I’ve emptied my record bag but the weekend had a strong emphasis on AACM related projects… here’s a few tunes I recall created a vibe:

Muhal Abrams & Malachi Favors – Way Way Way Down Yonder
Amina Myers – Song For Mother E LP
Famadou Don Moye & Joseph Jarman – (dble LP)
Milford Graves & Andrew Cyrille LP
Henry Threadgill X75 Vol 1
Charlie Haden Closeness Duets LP
Eddie Gale – The Rain
Kenny Cox – Beyond The Dream
Congos – Congoman Chant – 12″
Ja Fumni – King Sunny Ade 12″
Ephat Majura LP
Glen Brown Dub LP
+ Reggae 7″ singles – ‘Midnight Organ’ – Jackie Taylor, ‘Yoruba Dub’ (DATC), Tower Of Power Rock (Clocktower), Freedom Dub (City Line), Callying Butt – Upsettter, Montego Rock – Lennie Hibbert, East Of The Rio Cobre – Junior Dan … nuff more.

Phillip Achille's Harmonica

Phillip Achille’s Harmonica

Full articles QUORED ABOVE ON ARTS DESK & JAZZWISE : Thomas Rees: http://www.theartsdesk.com/new-music/freedom-art-improvisation-festival-vortex-dalston
Kevin Legendrehttp://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/pages/live-jazz-music-reviews/13660-black-top-funk-up-freedom-the-art-of-improvisation-festival

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Ornette Coleman: Somethin’ Else!!!

Got a text yesterday… “Ornette has gone”. At the age of 85 years old Pulitzer Prize winning master musician and composer, Ornette Coleman passed away due to cardiac arrest. His heart could take any more. The curtain on an era of radical innovation in America that gave us musicians like Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Horace Tapscott, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon and Philip Cohran is gradually drawing to a close.



The LP

The LP

I first heard Ornette via my dad’s record player back in the Sixties. I think it would have been ‘The Shape Of Jazz To Come’ on Atlantic Records. As a teenager I didn’t really know what Ornette’s music was except it was out there! That LP combined the unique skills of Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell and I grew to love that quartet. It was slamming. Ornette was living in Los Angeles and married to the poet Jayne Cortez at that time – another extraordinary being. He was the man with a white plastic ‘Grafton’ saxophone. It was simply Ornette’s time and through that quartet he took things to a whole new level while crashing through a critical wall of skepticism and even derision within the jazz world.

Ornette didn’t want his musicians to follow him. He wanted them to follow themselves but be with him. That approach inderpins all of his recordings which gradually evolved to embrace his theory of “harmolodics” – a contraction of harmony, movement and melody.

Ornette LPThe Sixties saw the ‘Free Jazz’ album with its wicked gatefold sleeve and a cut out window that revealed a Jackson Pollock painting. The album was truly radical in the sense that it featured a double quartet – one in each of the stereo channels. Check it out. Then there were the classic trio albums for Blue Note which fetaured Ornette on alto and violin and David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. The follow up album – ‘The Empty Foxhole’ – showcased his 10 year old son Denardo on drums!

I vividly recall reading a brilliant piece in 1972 by Val Wilmer, in the Melody Maker, about Ornette and the London Symphony Orchestra and how he dealt with the elitist and potentially racist attitudes of the classical musicians enlisted to play the score for ‘Skies Of America’. That was something a revelation.

In the mid Seventies Ornette had us ‘Dancing In Our Head’. Sidestepping the concert key system of Western tonality he transported us to the Rif mountains of Morocco where he united with the deep trance inducing reed players and percussionists of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. That LP also introduced Ornette’s first electric band, Prime Time, and paved the way for the saxophonist’s own record label Art House.

Prime Time - Saturday Night Live in 1979

Prime Time – Saturday Night Live in 1979

Prime Time made their first London appearance at a theatre in Victoria. It was most definitely the session to be at that week! It was post punk times. James Blood Ulmer was on Rough Trade. Expectations were high. I recall arriving in the theatre and seeing these weird round white speakers onstage and when Prime Time strolled onstage and plugged in this was definitely no straight ahead jazz gig. Two electric guitar players – Charles Ellerbee and Bern Nix, Jamaldeen Tacuma on electric bass and Shannon Jackson on drums… it was rockin’ and Ornette on alto was firing on all cylinders. People at the front were shouting that “It’s too loud”. Ornette’s response was something like “Maybe you should move back!” The Rip Rig and Panic crew… Neneh Cherry, Andi Oliver and co… were dancing wildly in the aisle. That was a night to remember and though I’ve consistently delved into his fresh, sometimes demanding, recordings and seen him play live several times, that’s how I want to remember Ornette – alive and attuned to the times, blazing a revolutionary pathway through the music of his comrades.

ABOVE: 1978 Germany. Ornette Coleman – sax, violin; Ben Nix – guitar; James Blood Ulmer – guitar; Fred Williams – bass; Shannon Jackson – drums; Denardo Coleman – drums

Ornette Coleman – March 1930 – June 2015. RIP.

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BRIAN CASE presents ON THE SNAP : Three Decades of Snapshots from the World of Jazz Film & Crime Fiction

BRIAN CASE presents ON THE SNAP: Three Decades of Snapshots from the World of Jazz Film & Crime Fiction courtesy of Caught By The River

The Book

The Book

It’s mid-week, mid-day and the sun is shining in Soho. Upon entering the customary gloom of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Frith Street I’m immediately welcomed by Jeff Barrett, a prime mover (along with James Oldham) behind the publication of journalist Brian Case’s On The Snap – the first book to be published by the Caught By The River crew. I make my way upstairs and into the room which I hadn’t been in since Dave Hucker was resident DJ there in the late Eighties. Back then we’d slip out onto the roof for a reefer while a side-long Fela or Franco tune held sway on the dancefloor – a most pleasant experience.

Scanning the room for familiar faces there was journalist Emma Warren, journo/author Paulo Hewitt, A&R/PR don Eugene Manzi, Rough Trade’s Jeff Travis, playwright Alex Webb, the legends that are John Jack and Val Wilmer, Glyn Callingham, Mike Gavin and Paul Pace from Ray’s Jazz Shop and our interview/host Richard Williams – former editor of the Melody Maker, retired sports writer and man behind the excellent http://thebluemoment.com/

Settling into a corner at the rear of the room perennial mod Glyn Callingham recalled how they used to organise “a hang” at Ray’s just so they could indulge in the diverse repertoire of yarns that Brian Case had to offer and what followed at Ronnie’s was definitely in the tradition and provided an excellent taster for On The Snap.

Brian Case - On The Snap

Brian Case – On The Snap Portait by Brian David Stevens

The son of Deptford copper, the teenage Brian Case dressed like a Ted but listened to Lee Konitz. He failed to escape National Service and went on to study history at Hull University where he inevitably clashed with an uptight and nasty Philip Larkin. On the suggestion of Charlie Gillett – who pointed out that he’d get free LPs if he took up reviewing music – Brian ended up writing for the Melody Maker, NME, Time Out and Uncut amongst a host of other publications.

As a jazz journo at the NME he inevitably became a soul mate for the paper’s “practical rabbit” – Roy Carr and during the Q&A he readily recalled them embarking upon a joint mission to communicate with the late Buddy Holly. A very funny story! At the NME Brian was cast in amongst a crew of inveterate rockers like Charlie Murray, Mick Farren and Nick Kent –“who always had two pairs of leather trousers on – one covered the holes in the other” – but clearly enjoyed the cameraderie of the post publication pub sessions. The picture he paints of the teenage Julie Burchill is scathingly funny.

As the Q&A gathered momentum he recalled being dispatched – along with Big Don, a beefy 6’3″ photographer clad in a damson coloured suit – by the Observer to Caerphilly where they were to report on the Sex Pistols Anarchy In The UK tour. In short, once past the Baptist Watch Committee picket line and into the fleapit cinema he finally got his interview. The Pistols were essentially a bunch of “cunts”. However, Case concedes that Malcolm McLaren was altogether something else – “a hustler of the highest order”.

His interviews have carried him far and wide and I’ve definitely picked up a few choice reads on the back of Brian’s Time Out book reviews. On The Snap reflect his diverse passions and this modest 63 page volume consists of short pieces/reminiscences – occasionally accompanied by the illustrations of Joseph Ciardiello – on a serious array of players from Art Blakey to Al Pacino to Duke Ellington to Ian Dury to James Ellroy to Dexter Gordon to Sam Fuller to Michael Caine to the Sex Pistols to Richard Harris to Johnny Griffin et al.

To cap off the Q&A Brian told us the story about a doctor enquiring of Robert Wyatt what he going to do, career-wise, after being confined to a wheelchair. Robert explained he could still play percussion and sing and write songs. The doctor then turned to another patient, a former cat burglar who was also confined to a wheel chair, and asked what career he now planned to follow. “Fraud” was the reply. OK, it was undoubtedly funnier when Brian dropped the punch line live… but you get the vibe. So, check the book… a nice addition to the bookshelf and/or a lovely little present for some lucky person.

To check the man himself reading from the book: https://soundcloud.com/caughtbytheriver/sets/on-the-snap

The book is on sale now from : https://caughtbytheriver.greedbag.com/buy/on-the-snap-by-brian-case/

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Bristol sound system culture  flyer

The Boxes!

The Boxes!

Let’s Go (Yorkshire) is proud to present Sound System Culture: Bristol, a new photographic exhibition celebrating the history of reggae sound systems in Bristol from the 1950s to now. Expect to visit The Bamboo Club, The Dugout, St Paul’s Festival…. and get a taste of the culture that provided the bass driven foundation of Portishead, Smith & Mighty, Appleblim, Shackleton, Pinch and, of course,  Massive Attack.

Sound System Culture: Bristol is a part of national tour documenting the history of the sound systems that provided the musical edutainment for the Afro Caribbean communities of Bristol, Birmingham and London. It’s curated by Al “Fingers” Newman – think Clarks in Jamaica, Greensleeves The First 100 Covers – and Mandeep Samra who developed this tour following the positive response to her 2013 project Sound System Culture: Huddersfield.  


Enterprise Imperial HiFi and friends, circa 1977

Enterprise Imperial HiFi and friends, circa 1977

Taking place in the Glass Room, Colston Hall from 8 June–17 July 2015,  visitors will have an opportunity to interact with Heritage HiFi, a vintage-
style sound system which comes complete old skool record deck, amps, speaker boxes and a stack of vinyl including a dub-plate special  featuring sound bites from foundation Bristol sound-men. The HiFi was custom-built for the project by Paul Huxtable.

Reaching out to the next generation of potential sound system lovers the project also includes a children’s picture book, The Sonar System by Ras Mykha.

After its stay in Bristol the exhibition moves on to document the history of sound systems in Birmingham (August) and London (February 2016).

Sound System Culture: Bristol exhibition and sound installation
8 June–17 July 2015
The Glass Room, Colston Hall, Bristol BS1 5AR
Opening times: Monday/Wednesday/Friday, 2pm–4pm
Free admission

Sound System Culture: Bristol exhibition launch event
Saturday 13 June 2015, 2pm–4pm
The Glass Room, Colston Hall, Bristol BS1 5AR
Free admission
For further info: http://www.facebook.com/events/629429537190641

Roots Revival Showcase with Bristol heavyweights Sir Bastian, Enterprise & Jah Lokko
Saturday 27 June 2015, 10pm–3am
Malcolm X Centre, 141 City Road, Bristol BS2 8YH
Ticketed event
For further info: http://www.facebook.com/events/690048074458126

THE  BOOK: Sound System Culture, Celebrating Huddersfield’s Sound Systems is available from: http://www.onelovebooks.com/Sound-System-Culture-1#.VWgyYVKqmYk

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Hustler’s Convention premieres @ the Sheffield Doc/Fest

Hustler’s Convention premieres @ the Sheffield Doc/Festival and the 90 minute film will be shown at the Molinare Library Theatre
Jun 7th @ 15.30.

Jalal: 2014  Pic by Carl Hyde

Jalal: 2014 Pic by Carl Hyde

Riverhorse have just announced that ‘Hustler’s Convention’ – the documentary that traces the impact of the 1973 long playing record of the same name and the journey of its creator Jalal Mansur Nuriddin aka Lightin’ Rod- is poised to hit the big screen at the prestigious Sheffield Doc/Festival in June.

Public Enemy’s Chuck D is on board as Executive Producer: “‘Hustlers Convention’ is a verbal bible to understand the streets” but maintains that, “Very rarely does ‘Hustlers Convention’ get mentioned in the annals of what emerged from it. Jalal’s legacy is important – both as a member of The Last Poets and as the creator of this profoundly influential work. This is a story that needs to be told.”

In early 2014, through the tireless efforts of Liverpool based poet, activist, Abdul Malik Alnasir, we were able to witness Jalal deliver a staggering performance of ‘Hustler’s Convention’ at the Jazz Cafe in Camden Town. We were all – including Mr George Clinton – blown away. Some of the footage from that night is included in ‘Hustlers Convention’ – the documentary – which also blends archive, photographic imagery, and interviews with unique animated sequences set to the album score. The film locates this hugely original album in its wider social context and explore Jalal’s personal mission as one of rap’s undisputed pioneers.

‘Hustlers Convention’ is in many respects a forgotten masterpiece. The scores were composed by Kool & The Gang, Brother Gene Dinwiddie and Eric Gale. The musicians recruited to play on the album included King Curtis, Billy Preston, Cornell Dupree, Philip Wilson and Julius Hemphill. It is a tale within a tale of ambition and greed, of culture and identity and of an ongoing struggle to get paid. Released in 1973 on Douglas Records this classic album tells the story of Sport and Spoon – two young hustlers who attend the eponymous convention, only to get tangled up in a financial disagreement that leads to a shootout, a police chase and finishes with Sport on Death Row weighing up what it all means:

It had cost me twelve years of my time,
to realize what a nickel and dime,
hustler I had really been,
while the real hustlers are ripping off billions,
from the unsuspecting millions,
who are programmed to think they can win. 



For the Premiere & Q&A with Jalal Nuriddin:

For more info check: facebook.com/HustlersConventionFilm.
Or follow on twitter: @HamhocksHall

The Jazz Cafe review : http://ancienttofuture.com/2014/02/12/jalaluddin-mansur-nuriddin-hustlers-convention-40th-anniversary/

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