Alt. takes 12/19

A man of his age riffles through the back catalogue of the art you can't skip through and shares his Christmas playlist, which included Mal Waldron, Roland Kirk, Oliver Lake and a nod to the Foo Fighters

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Been a bit out of action for the last umpty-um weeks with a condition that at first looked a bit hairy but has more recently been declared to be lifelong rather than life-threatening. Or as one of the medics said, “You’ll probably die with it, rather than of it”. Which is nice.

‘The hell of music, as well as its endless charm, is that it is a durational art form’

Concentrates the mind wonderfully, though, and has led to a quiet and unintended reorganisation of my personal jazz pantheon. Since I’ve been hearing the phrase “for a man of your age” quite a bit over the last couple of months, I’ve been forced to recognise that the effort to “keep up” with the flood of new jazz and related music, really is now beyond my capability, and probably beyond that of a much younger and fitter man. The hell of music, as well as its endless charm, is that it is a durational art form. You can run round an art gallery and claim that you’ve “seen” the Uffizi or the Prado. You can speed-read a book and even fast forward through the dull bits of a film, or if it’s an Eric Rohmer film, all of it. But you have to commit the time to music and not being able to do a lot physically FTTB, I’ve been doing more of that even than usual, but mostly stuff from the archive.

It was prompted by news that ECM are about to reissue their very first LP, Mal Waldron’s Free At Last, and for some dumb reason – not having exactly missed all the anniversary celebrations and label profiles this past year – that hit me quite strongly, as did the album itself way back then. It was signalled, by Waldron himself, that this was a new direction in his music, that instead of playing on chords, he was playing what might be called, by me this time, rhythm-changes instead. Though I’m hoping to get hold of the new issue, to replace a copy that has seen better days, I stuck it on the other morning early and tried to listen to it as I might have done in 1969, which is both impossible and worth the effort. I wasn’t that savvy about jazz then and probably don’t count as such now in some circles, but I had already heard a strange mix of traditional jazz (my father’s tastes didn’t run much past Bechet, and veered mainly to the classical anyway) and the new avant-garde, so I was just about primed not to expect conventional harmonics or much in the way of Broadway melody (though Waldron did include Willow Weep For Me, which I persist in thinking was Gershwin’s most gracious gift; others have deemed this anti-feminist; hmm).

A good pub-quiz question, if it’s a jazz pub, is “who played bass and drums on Free At Last?” A fair few people remember that the bassist was Isla Eckinger, a stalwart of European jazz and a man with an impressive run of credits, accompanying visiting Americans and local talent. Hardly anyone remembers Clarence Becton. Waldron described his drummer as a man who “really knows how to take care of business”, which is true enough but sells the guy a little short. I don’t know many sets with Becton at the helm, but whenever he is, there’s always something interesting going on, little cross-overs, fours against fives, rubato passages that would sound like mistakes if they weren’t just right. I know him from a Hadley Caliman album, whose name I’ve forgotten, and he turns up on Michael White’s Father Music, Mother Dance, one of my favourite ever soul-jazz records, issued on Impulse! in 1974, bought by a girlfriend for my 20th birthday and still getting played today.

In fact, it was one of our Christmas records. My two roles in the holiday season are to cook the goose, which I find curiously lulling and not at all stressful (just drink a lot!), and to compile the Christmas playlist from which no divergence is tolerated. The only principal is that every album should have some stretched or spurious connection to the season. So We Free Kings made it in again this year, as did Oliver Lake’s Have Yourself A Merry . . . (yes, really, that Oliver Lake; it’s on Passin’ Thru), and the Michael White. The last qualifies purely on the grounds of a Moog piece at the end called Mary’s Waltz; I strongly suspect that the Mary is not Our Lady, but rules is rules. My guilty secret, though, is that I actually like Christmas albums. I like the tunes. I like the fact that nobody does Body And Soul or Alone Together, especially not Alone Together, and I like to see photographs of usually-tough jazz cookies wearing Christmas jumpers or silly hats. I even tolerated Crescent City Christmas Card one year, breaking my usual rule of “marsala, yes; Marsalis, no”. And if all this makes me sound like some sort of Soviet commissar, the others get to pick their favourites, too, so we’ve had Foo Fighters on the very thin premise of Halo (it’s on One By One, old timer) and The Feast And The Famine from Sonic Highways. And we get quite a bit of Disney and some old-fashioned King’s College stuff, too.

Hope you had a good one. Next year I’m resolving only to listen to older music that I like, a resolution I intend to break around the usual day, 12 January.