The State of the Tenor

The State of the Tenor, Volume 2

My maternal grandmother died on 14 March 1989At the time I was living at the rather bucolic sounding Cliff Vale Place, in reality a now demolished terrace slum between the Twyford’s toilet factory and the old gas works.  Really.  On the occasions I visited my parents I’d afterwards make my way home by the once an hour train from Longton station.

I wasn’t especially close to my mums mum, in fact I’d probably not seen her for as much as eight or nine years, not through any sort of bitter estrangement, it was just that we didn’t go in for excessive closeness as a family generally.  Nevertheless, news that Grandma had died took me over to my parent’s house that day and that evening I made my way back to Cliff Vale Place on the train.  As I walked across the car park of the dolefully named Normid supermarket, I glanced up at the station set on an embankment ahead of me.  Behind the station, the bridge over King Street and the dark outline of the twin bottle kilns of the old Phoenix Pottery works, there was something extraordinary going on.  The sky seemed to be hung with shimmering curtains of different coloured light.  Yellows turned orange and overlapped with greens that swirled to blue and then purple.  I stopped in the middle of the car park with a thought bubble over my head that accompanied my open mouth with the words “what the fuck is that?” On that site now stands a colossal Tesco store which is busy all day and late into the night, but back then, on this particular night, Normid car park was deserted, but for a gormless looking article staring at the sky.  Nothing that I’d seen before and nothing that I knew about, could account for what I was now seeing.  I turned 360 degrees, but to the east, south and west the sky was its usual filthy sodium-brown murk.  Only northwards, behind the station, was this strange occurrence occurring.  It could only have been three or four minutes but it felt longer.  I couldn’t rationalise the evidence, though it only took a nanosecond to dismiss the notion of a supernatural event connected to my grandmother’s demise.  These days, strange lights in the sky aren’t that strange.  Open air events, big gigs with lasers and fireworks are not unusual and paint the sky all colours.  But in 1988, they were a rare event, certainly in the Potteries.  By the time the light show was over, I’d pretty much concluded that it must be a fair or event somewhere that was causing the display.  When I got back to the Cliff Vale slum I told my house mates about it, all of whom said ‘yeah, right…’ and made spliff smoking gestures at me.

Next day, on Radio 4’s Today programme, I heard the weather forecaster say; ‘some of you, as far south as Oxfordshire, might have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis last night…’  Can you imagine?

I had no idea that the Northern Lights could be visible so far south and people I’ve told the story to since always look sceptical about it.  In the intervening years I’ve heard forecasts that the show might be on perhaps three times but despite staying up late and watching the skies, I haven’t seen it again.

In the big game hunt that is Retracing my Vinyl Footsteps, one of my biggest prizes is a copy of Joe Henderson’s State of the Tenor, Live at the Village Vanguard Volume 2.  Like seeing the aurora that night, State of the Tenor was an unsought thing of unspeakable beauty.

Of a Wednesday lunchtime a chap pitched up outside the students union bar at Staffordshire Polytechnic selling second hand records.  He usually had a dozen or so crates of albums, one of which was labelled ‘Jazz’.

Mine was not a musical family.  We weren’t unmusical or actively antipathetic to the form, but there was no informed idea of music in our home.  When you see the profiles of the candidates in the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition they usually tell the story of a person growing up steeped in music, where music is in the DNA, where the most important article of furniture in the house is not the sofa in front of the TV, but the piano.  That wasn’t the case in our house.  My paternal grandmother was lauded somewhat as a singer in her youth.  She told a tale that she had an opportunity to ‘go and sing on the wireless’, but that my Grandfather had forbade it.  ‘And that was that’ she always said, eying her audience as though it was them who were being sanctioned.  When this was is unclear, but who knows?  If my Granddad hadn’t been gassed in the First World War, taken prisoner by the Germans and put to forced labour in a coal mine in Westphalia, he might have taken a more liberal view of his wife pursuing a career in music.   Or maybe he wouldn’t.  Either way, that was probably the last opportunity I had of being bought up in a musical household.

I used that box labelled ‘Jazz’ outside the union bar as an opportunity to find out about the music.  I’d already made a few speculative purchases, Bud Powell, some ECM, guitar based stuff, a tenor player called Bud Freeman and then one Wednesday in 1989 I pulled out State of the Tenor.  It was three quid.  It had a cracking portrait of Joe Henderson (who I’d never heard of) by Carol Friedman (who I’d also never heard of) on the cover and a sticker in the corner that proclaimed ‘Blue Note Limited Edition Audiophile Pressing’.  I was seduced.  Three quid on a record was four pints of Guinness not drunk in the union bar in those days, but from the opening few bars of Boo Boo’s Birthday I knew the compensatory few quid on my student overdraft was worth it.  Back then, what I knew about Jazz could have been written on the back of a standard postage stamp.  What I know now would fit on the back of a Christmas first day cover postage stamp, but that’s still a hell of a lot more than I knew before.  Rather as with chess, it doesn’t matter how good you think you are or how much you think you know, compared to Gary Kasparov, Bobby Fischer or even Martin Amis, you’re still and will remain, an idiot, picking up infinitesimally small crumbs of knowledge from the table of giants.  So it is with the panorama of Jazz.

One of the first things I noticed about State of the Tenor was the perfection of threes.  Three musicians: Henderson on tenor, Al Foster on drums, Ron Carter on bass and three tracks on each side.  I later came to appreciate that other favourite albums shared some of these characteristics.  The three piece of John Martyn, Danny Thompson and John Stevens on Live at Leeds, the three tracks per side of the extraordinary record  Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk, the line-up of Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charlie Mingus on Duke’s Money Jungle.  I don’t as a result seek out trios who have recorded trios of tunes but I remain inclined that way when making speculative purchases of any genre of music.  It suggests a thought-throughness, although it doesn’t always work.  Much as I love the big horn of Ben Webster, his 1960 three tracks per side encounter with Gerry Mulligan on the Verve label was so smooth I wasn’t actually sure there was any music playing at all.  But I heard that on the day I first heard Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, which makes Stravinsky sound like James Last.

Out to Lunch made an impression on me for a number of reasons but primarily because of how much it reminded me of State of the Tenor.  What the Penguin Guide to Jazz described as Dolphy’s “Slightly tentative masterpiece” preceded Henderson’s magnificent Village Vanguard effort in 1985 by some 21 years, which is roughly the same period of time between me hearing the two recordings, yet what made Out to Lunch accessible to me was State of the Tenor.

We tend to think of complex things as evolving, one upon the other, over time; and this they do.  In visual art, the work of Cezanne takes its lead from Monet and develops the form.  It is not enough for a visionary like Cezanne simply to imitate his predecessor, he must develop what has gone before, refine and intellectualise it and work it, perhaps at great personal hardship, into something new.  At the coalface of creativity, these efforts are enormous.  Cezanne’s breakthrough exhibition in 1895 was as a result of Ambrosie Vollard’s observation that the painter did not have an agent and therefore took the opportunity to acquire a large number of works for next to nothing, exhibit them and propel the unknown painter from obscurity.  It was the turn of Picasso a few years later to pick up on Cezanne’s approach and develop the form we came to call cubism.  But the 21st century 17 or 18 year old art student will not experience the works of any of these artists in the order in which they were made.  So while there is progression and development of ideas in a straight line dictated by linear time, influence and awareness occurs in loops and whirls and spirals that connect all manner of sources.  The great beauty of this is that these complex maps of influence are unique to the cartographer and no two artists could possibly share the same set of influences, experienced in the same way.  And it seems to me that this is how record collections work.

Like that first sight of the northern lights, I’m sure (though I don’t remember it) that I must have had a ‘what the fuck is that’ moment when I first heard State of the Tenor.  Had I been at the time in thrall to some other form that rendered me unable or unwilling to internalise the newness of the music I was hearing, then State of the Tenor might have ended up being played once and eventually discarded without much wear to the playing surface.  Instead, it set me on a meandering journey, probably without end, that finds me now at a station sitting listening to Jimmy Smith with Stanley Turrentine on the Blue Note release Prayer Meetin’ from 1964.  Among the many things it is, a record collection is a map that forces one to shift temporal zones.  Nick Drake’s Pink Moon was recorded in 1971 but is forever placed for me in that council bungalow in 1997.  Let it be will always be associated with the grass outside Mr Tunny’s chemistry room in 1982, even though it was recorded (just) 12 years before.  At the time, those 12 years were inconceivably long ago, whereas 12 years ago from now seems like recent news.  I was recently in HMV when Althea & Donna’s 1978 number 1 Uptown Top Rankin was playing.  It’s a top tune, but to me only belongs to 1978 because I had no further investment in it other than hearing it on Radio 1 at the time.  The Squeeze classic Up the Junction belongs geographically in Blackpool, specifically in a café in the tower where it was playing for my mum and dad and me on a Potter’s Special day trip in 1980.  Yet for no good reason, it’s a song that has followed me around in such a way as to transcend any time specific event and exists in each moment of hearing.  Perhaps that’s because I’ve never owned a copy of it.

The cartographers allay in psycho-muso-mapping is the record shop and in particular, the second hand record shop, because you never know what you’re going to find there.  But there is a balance to be struck, which I find difficult.

One side of the balance is that before you walk in to a second hand record shop, everything you ever wanted, dreamed of having or finding is in there.  A Debut 10” Jazz at Massey Hall, Danny Thompson’s Whatever, Edgar Meyer’s Dreams of Flight and State of the Tenor are all there behind the door.  Northern Soul stuff so obscure, rare or mythologised no one is actually certain that it really exists.  That’s there too.  There are even Beatles albums that, if you throw them in the air when the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can hear a secret message from Brian Epstein in the dead wax that was recorded after he died.  It’s all there, before you go in.  Like Schrodinger’s cat however, its aliveness or deadness can only be determined by opening the box.  And leaving a second hand record shop with a dead cat is a dispiriting experience.  To put it another way, one enters the second hand record shop like a cave man, (for it’s mainly men, let’s face it) looking for a mammoth.  But in the absence of a mammoth, a gazelle will do, not as satisfying or long lasting as a mammoth made of pink label Island records it’s true, but it’s something to take back to the cave at least.  Going home empty handed just isn’t an option.

The Guy Barker Quintet backed John Martyn on a possibly ill advised version of You don’t know what Love is on his Glasgow Walker album.  I knew of Guy Barker before that but had never picked up any of his albums-they all seemed terribly expensive even new on CD.  But much as I had chanced upon State of the Tenor at the Union bar I came across Barker’s 1989 album Holly J on the Miles Music label in King Bee.  This was a gazelle.  I didn’t need it for the project but there was nothing there I did need that day and it was only four quid.  Might as well.  And it turned out to be worth every penny, not only for its own sake, but for what it threw up for me after a bit of quick googling around.  Peter King, who I’d seen at the Bulls Head at Barnes alongside Dick Morrissey was also part of the Miles Music stable, which led me in to that whole area of underrated British Jazz that includes the likes of Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey, the man himself, Ronnie Scott, the Jazz Couriers et al.  As a consequence I’ve filled in the personal cartographical gap between Charlie Parker and the music of Loose Tubes, Iain Ballamy and Django Bates-records that were never far away from the hifi in the debauched summer of 89-for about 25 quid.  A still neater little B-road connection is the fact that the sleeve notes on Stan Tracey’s Bracknell Connection album were written by Miles Kington, then of the Times.  Kington was a proper Jazz fan and musician with the modesty and humour of the likes of Humphrey Lyttleton.  In 1986 he started writing for the then new Independent newspaper.  Back in those days the Independent bore the torch of quality photo-journalism high, especially in its Saturday magazine which was required reading in the house at the bottom of the hill where Jake and I lived.  So before Michael arrived with the weed, I’d read Miles Kington and by the time Antony arrived, I was stoned enough to talk proper bollocks about the photographs.

The other side of the balance is about how often you search for your mammoth in the same place.  The fact is, I hang around King Bee records like a dog in a butcher’s doorway.  At the first opportunity I’m in there, rummaging through the priority sections, searching out a copy of London Conversation or Murray Head’s Find the Crowd.  If I miss a day, or an hour or even less, some other bastard might have got in there before me.  This is where my rational assessment of the uniqueness of complex maps dissolves into nonsense.  How many other people in my postcode area are obsessively seeking out a copy of Andy Shepherd’s Introductions in the Dark, or even Ornette Coleman’s the Shape of Jazz to come?  Realistically, very few but I wonder if there is an identified pathology to this behaviour.

Mark Katz, the author of Capturing Sound, How Technology Has Changed Music talks about the fetishism involved in collecting physical formats:  “Collectors tend to be drawn to the images on record covers,” he writes “and to the look and feel of the vinyl, and even to the musty smell of old records”.  These are powerful, emotive associations.  The record hunter-collector is subject to similar influences as the scratch card user or scratch card addict as some would have it.  Anticipation and a slow reveal that ends in a hit, either of disappointment or elation.

During a recent visit to my least favourite city centre record shop, a place where vinyl can be exchanged, but I won’t mention its name, I came upon a record I’d highlighted as a priority find, the second album from Bill Bruford’s Earthworks project, Dig.  I know that I let out some kind of involuntary noise, followed by a very deliberate teeth sucking sound at the price.  Nonetheless I put it between my legs, as close to my crotch as possible to scent it as now mine and continued flicking through the box marked Jazz.  Next, due to the poor indexing I’ve come to expect from that particular emporium, I found something I’d forgotten I’d had.  Charles Lloyd Quartet, a Night in Copenhagen.  Between the legs with that too.  Flick, flick, flick.  Heart stopping moment.  Joe Henderson, state of the tenor, volume…one.

I don’t do the lottery.  I’ve tried but somehow all the other vices I have or have indulged in don’t seem to leave enough room in my addictive personality for gambling of any sort, so perhaps this collecting behaviour is a sort of surrogate.  People who do do the lottery can often be heard bemoaning the fact that they were ‘just one number out’ on winning a prize, meaning the ball came out a five when their number was a six.  Of course, they were no closer to winning than if the ball had come out any other number than theirs.  One is as close to six as five, four, three or two if you haven’t won.  But I couldn’t help feeling as though I’d just missed out on State of the Tenor Volume 2 as I stood there with Bill Bruford and Charles Lloyd clamped between my thighs.

Interspersed between the songs on Joni Mitchell’s Mingus album are a number of vox pops from the man himself.  On one, Mingus says ‘I was lucky, man. God blessed me.  I was blessed by God’.  I’ve never thought myself blessed, but I do count myself lucky.  Only boy, youngest of three.  Lucky.  Drifted through life at a quite leisurely pace, pretty much doing as I pleased without having to work too hard but still ending up comfortably enough off.  Lucky.  Sexy wife, great kids.  Lucky.  Back in the mid 90s I was keen on the idea of urban beachcombing.  I’d already learned that there was much good stuff to be had out of skips and for a while I was unable to walk past a skip without pulling something out of it that I could put to good use.  I also had an uncanny knack for finding cash and cannabis.  I well remember one occasion when a friend of mine called round to the flat I shared with Lenny.  It was summer and she was away in Newcastle and I was whiling away the days listening to records, drinking tea, smoking fags and reading unfashionable novels.  Tobacco was at a premium on this particular day, as was milk, so Damon’s arrival in his dads car with a lump of ganja in one pocket and no money in the other presented both opportunity and problem in equal measure.  However, pooling resources meant that we could eke out the tea and just about afford the cheapest available rolling tobacco and a pint of milk.  We got in the car to drive around to the Kwik Save about a quarter of a mile away.  Half way there I said ‘stop the car’.  We stopped.  I opened the passenger door, reached down and picked up a ten pound note off the road and said ‘drive on’ holding aloft the note, to Damon’s utter incredulity.  We got biscuits too.  That same summer I did some work for a gardener.  Among his regular jobs was the maintenance of a couple of flower beds on a private road.  We ate our lunch in the van, on this particular occasion, right next to these beds.  I finished up my cup of thermos tea and jumped down from the van, gardening fork in hand, and plunged it into the soil to grub up a big dandelion.  I chucked the weed into the rubbish sack and went to do the same with the ring pull I’d dug up, now on the tine of the fork.  As I slid it off, the soil around it fell away revealing a big, chunky, ugly gold ring, studded with three big diamonds.  Private street it may have been, but it wasn’t a private garden.  That dandelion paid well.

This serendipity was helpful in straitened times and just a great big bonus when things were better.  I once found two ounces of ganja under a chair in the refectory in one of the college centres where I was a manager.  What was I going to do with that?  I had a wonderful day in one of the gallery’s I worked in courtesy of the lump of hash I picked up at the bus stop that morning and still I find notes of all denominations in the gutter at least three or four times a year.

I found my copy of Dig on 6 March 2012.  That day the sun threw up an X5 class eruption which produced what helio-physicists call a CME or coronal mass ejection.  A CME is the sudden and violent release of gas and magnetic fields from the sun’s surface causing billions of tons of solar material to be belched out in to space and in the case of the 6 March event, towards the earth.  The rational, scientific worry about this activity was potential damage caused by a strong electromagnetic storm to essential services on earth and in earth’s orbit-power grids, GPS and mobile networks.  Various fanatics and fundamentalists naturally saw it as yet more evidence of the impending calamity that will befall mankind at the hands of a disappointed deity.  The most exciting thing for me was that it was very likely that the aurora would be visible at more southerly locations.

I hope I stay lucky.  I found Dig that day, but not State of the Tenor Volume 2.

The aurora didn’t show either.


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