Talking The Groove – Jazz Words From The Morning Star

The Morning Star’s jazz scribe finds the positive in the music, noting that Marx would have passed the Pizza Express as he hatched Das Kapital

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One of the functions normally expected of a jazz critic – indeed, of any other arts critic – is to confront and expose the third-rate. Some of the most entertaining and helpful criticism is that which is prepared to call a turkey a turkey and by implication shifts attention to more appealing plumage. Like any other performing art, jazz has its share of crud: pretentious, vapid, badly-played and poorly conceived. One way of avoiding it is to, er, ignore it. Dip at random into this collection of interviews and record reviews by Chris Searle of the Morning Star and you’ll discover loads of superlatives but few, if any, instances of dismissal or serious reservation.

In his foreword, Mike Westbrook says he doesn’t see Searle as a critic. “Chris listens,” he says. “Don’t go to him for musicological analysis or for objective opinion on an artist’s musicianship. Few people like criticism, me included. We just have to put up with it. But we don’t want people telling us what to play, or how to play it. We simply ask them to listen.”

That’s one way of putting it; and sometimes, having listened, we grab the sick-bag for perfectly valid reasons. Searle probably won’t mind anyone saying – as Westbrook does later on – that he’s interested in challenging, orthodox-defying jazz rather than the sort produced by “a commodified culture” and by “academisation”. Searle seeks out what he finds interesting by extension; that’s to say, jazz that speaks to and from a socio-political context rather than jazz played for itself – jazz for jazz’s sake, as it were.

It’s no surprise, therefore, to find in the book’s contents – there’s no index – musicians who have the kind of extra-musical claims on his attention that don’t concern listeners making judgements solely on what they can hear. To have allowed them to pass us by while others diverted us may have resulted in our loss. It behoves critics to consider what they’ve chosen or been asked to assess. Some don’t have a choice.

Searle has been the newspaper’s jazz correspondent for almost 30 years. Talking The Groove is his third book on the music and encompasses, or attempts to encompass, the changes wrought by its continuing development and international reach, and how it has remained “…campaigning and evolving, with its aims rooted in a quest for freedom, popular justice and astonishing boundary-breaking artistry”.

While Swiss pianist Stefan Aeby and his trio play “with strong respect for each other, putting their egos behind them” on the album The London Concert, discussed with Searle in October 2020, its inspiration was the East End street life of Dalston and its “special vibe: tough and hard but warm and open-minded”. Here we encounter criticism’s dichotomy of aesthetic and contextual, of what can be gleaned by just listening and what may also be present as a result of factors unknown to us until, or unless, they’re enumerated. Even if as listeners only we felt the music to be tough and hard but warm and open-minded, there’d be no pointer to the inspiration’s provenance.

Searle’s February 2016 review of trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s Blue Note album Breathless, dedicated to black victims of police repression, recalls musical forebears such as John Coltrane and Max Roach, who were involved closely with the civil rights movement. In June of that year Searle reviewed an album by another trumpeter, the Iraqi-American Amir ElSaffar, whose association with Syrian musicians bruised by civil conflict inspired the trumpeter’s Crisis Suite. Noting that within the music’s sounds are “the mourning voices of millions in … Iraq and Syria”, Searle ends his review by considering it strange that ElSaffar’s message should have come from a studio in New York, “from a nation whose bombs and drones defiled them, but true and real nevertheless”. Yep. It’s an odd world.

Searle’s contexts and connections are continuous: Andrew McCormack on “arrogant leadership and its terrifying ramifications” (interview, August 2019); singer Kate Westbrook’s tribute album to Dartmoor stone-quarry workers (interview, March 2019); the diversity of Colin Towns’ sonic mind and how his music for Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt Of The Sun reminded Searle of how much seeing the play as a teenager taught him about imperialism “and those millions slaughtered and enslaved in its wake” (record review, August 2017); singer Elaine Mitchener and her activist songs with “strong messages” (interview, June 2019); Jacques Coursil’s trumpet “weeping with oppression” (record reviews, December 2015). And so on.

The final item is a piece about veteran clarinettist Sammy Rimington and his appearance at a Pizza Express “memory lane” gig in January this year. You know the Pizza Express – Karl Marx, as Searle quickly reminds us, walked past it on his way to the British Library to cogitate on what would become Das Kapital; Shelley lived around the corner; and almost opposite William Blake was born and nurtured. Shape-shifting hell-raisers all. Searle is also enamoured of new arrivals such as trumpeter Laura Jurd and tenor saxophonist Binker Golding, whose reception when they bounced on to the scene was not universally glowing, though one often wondered why.

Concert reviews are of the moment and difficult to make compelling on a revisit; interviews and album reviews less so. At least, Searle’s are not short on content, which is a change from those replete with unconstructive gobbledegook. One might take issue with Mike Westbrook: we should be able to go to a critic for objective opinion on an artist’s musicianship. But maybe a jazz correspondent is not a jazz critic. At base, the issue in Searle’s case is the one constantly exercised in classical music: Can one like Wagner’s work knowing that he was a raving anti-Semite and the unofficial MD of Nazism? Does Wagner’s music have qualities wholly separate from his opinions on race; or does it in some way enshrine repellent beliefs? And if you enjoy it, are you nothing less than a fellow traveller? Discuss.

Talking The Groove is accompanied by a two-CD album compiled by John Thurlow and Pete Woodman, of the publishers, Jazz In Britain. It illustrates some of the book’s themes and some of the musicians whose work Searle deals with in the book. There’s music by the John Stevens Septet, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath (and other McGregor bands), Splinters (in six-piece format following the death of drummer Phil Seamen), Trevor Watts, Mujician, the Bruce Turner Quartet and the Watts/Mark Sanders Duo.

The first Watts track on disc two, a quintet, is from the Rock Against Racism Festival, Hastings, in 1980, and includes Nana Tsiboe on talking drum. The Turner track is from possibly the UK’s only Jazz Against Racism event, which took place in London, also in 1980. Sanders, described in the liner note as probably the most often-mentioned musician in the book, put together a quartet to play at its unveiling.

Talking The Groove is worth reading for its focus on British jazz and jazz seen from a British perspective. Despite the free-flowing and unhindered positivity, it comes not unexpectedly with a generosity of spirit missing from more jaundiced surveys.

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Talking The Groove: Jazz Words From The Morning Star, by Chris Searle. Jazz In Britain, pb, 394pp, £16.99. ISBN 978-1-9163206 -7-3