1970 and The Songs of Leonard Cohen

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In the summer of 1970 I stayed with a Parisian family at their house in Normandy. They were friends of my parents and I there was in to improve my French.

 

That August was rainy so killing time between breakfast and lunch presented a problem until I discovered a record in my host’s collection: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. I was taken by this LP and I played it repeatedly while looking at the singer’s unhappy face and reading the sleeve notes.  I was thirteen. Quite apart from the physical changes I underwent that year, there was a growing, open-minded curiosity about what happens over the horizon.
Cohen’s voice and imagery pulled me into a world I’d never known. It was a period when he was very popular in France but barely known in England. I certainly had never heard of him.

 

The two songs I remember also happen to be his most enduring:  Suzanne and So Long Marianne.
Suzanne often pops up in poetry anthologies and I used to remind myself of that long-ago summer by singing it to my young children. And how I loved it when the backing singers came in on the second chorus in So Long Marianne.  Cohen’s world-weary voice gave me an insight into an adult world which I was just about to enter.
I’ve always seen myself as a musician first, and that words merely garnish the melody. I don’t think I have ever actually bought a folk album so I surprised myself by liking this album so much. In my later teens I became obsessed with the rockier part of the spectrum and in adulthood, the jazzier.  In later years, especially with Chico Chica, I have taken a greater interest in appreciating and writing song lyrics. So I was perhaps better in tune with my true self as thirteen year old than I was as a young adult.

 

Cohen’s career and his later work never made an impact on my consciousness and is almost completely unknown apart from  Hallelujah and Dance To The End of Love.  Leonard Cohen was a very personal discovery. None of my friends and family knew about him so I as unable  to discuss or share . It was all so personal and direct. But now it’s different and after his recent death he has been much lauded and many are saying what I have always believed: he was a greater song-writer than Bob Dylan.

Gig On The Coast

Last summer, Chico Chica played a function gig in Folkestone, Kent. Barbara and I, as we walked along the Sandgate Esplanade to where her car was parked, noticed that the Sandgate Hotel hosted live music on Sundays. So we popped in and left a card. The result of that small action was a gig yesterday.

It was Remembrance Sunday and Barbara had a Last Post to play in the morning. Walking to Shepherd’s Bush station with my guitar and cavaquinho, I stopped to watch the remembrance parade. There was a brass band to my right and a bagpiper to my left and I wished one of them would stop. To avoid offence I won’t say which one.

 

The Sandgate overlooks the English Channel. When we arrived, the westering sun was to our right and we looked out at the sea. That’s what people do when they travel to the coast. For some reason I thought of the Russian aircraft carrier which had passed a couple of weeks ago on its way to Syria and wondered if the great plume of black smoke emitting from its funnel  had been visible form Sandgate. Probably not.

 

But we were pushed for time so quickly set the PA up, ordered two glasses of water (one still, one fizzy) and, after ensuring all the cables were in the right sockets and the knobs at the right levels, started playing. The room overlooked the channel and we had our backs to France. There was a log fire and a warm appreciative audience. As the evening progressed the drinkers became drunker and louder and one man wanted to play Barbara’s bongo drums. We ploughed on through the Chico Chica set because that’s what we do. The journeyman musician is often tempted to change according to the room and in the past I would have done this. But Chico Chica is different – we do what we do and that’s it.

 

The show finished at 6pm by which time I was hungry and began to think about what I’d eaten that day – one bowl of porridge and a service station tuna sandwich plus coffees but they don’t count.  There was no rider at the gig so we went in search of fish and chips which I only ever eat when I’m at the seaside. We drove slowly and found a shop. We ordered a portion. Barbara had the fish and I had the chips which reminded me of Mr and Mrs Spratt. We ate in the car and it was a most satisfying repast.

 

Driving back to London after distant gigs gives us an excellent chance to talk and reflect. We chat about our families and then move on to Chico Chica – how to improve the performance, the best way to deal with drunks who want to play the bongos, business matters and the overall artistic direction. On this occasion we decided that getting signed to a record label is our highest priority and we resolved to approach certain individuals over this.

 

But the journey was long and at around the Maidstone turn-off, the conversation lulled. On these occasions I talk about the book I’m reading which happens to be The Story of O by Pauline Reage. I bought a copy the previous day. It was in the Romance section at Foyles, a shelf which I usually ignore.  The story is indeed about love , at least it is so far – I have read ninety pages.  I started describing the story and quickly realised it could prove embarrassing and awkward. It’s not the kind of book to bring up in conversation and I was thankful the M25 junction came into view and we had to concentrate on reading road signs instead. We fell silent again and I reflected on The Story of O and how suffering can be an expression of love and how Christianity and indeed Western civilisation are based on that very idea. And then we discussed next week’s mixing session at Porcupine Studio.

 

Chico Chica’s next show is at Bull’s Head, Barnes, 8.30pm, Thursday 17th November 2016.

Animal Jazz (Piano Book), Barbara Snow

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One of the things we try to remember to bring to Chico Chica gigs is a metal camera case which we call the shop. There are three items we sell: Mélangerie, our first CD, The Glow of Havana, a 10” vinyl release and a piano book written by Barbara Snow called Animal Jazz . This book, published by Edition HH,  sells surprisingly well.  After all, piano players are less numerous than listeners so one would expect this to be too niche.

 

A band can sell what it likes at a show and I have been looking for ideas for suitable items other than the obvious t-shirt. I thought of cufflinks and even started talking to jeweller Lee Renee. I envisaged Chico on the left and Chica on the right – or maybe the other way round. But sadly, this project became one of those myriad loose threads in my life which I hope one day to get back to.

 

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In our other lives Barbara, Hilary and I are peripatetic instrumental teachers. Teachers are constantly recommending the purchase of books so why not write one’s own?  Barbara Snow is more than adequately qualified. The fifteen pieces in Animal Jazz evince a natural mastery of melody which is both simple and playful. Listen here and I’m sure you’ll be as charmed by them as I am. You can buy a copy of Animal Jazz here.

 

Or even better, come to a Chico Chica show and buy direct:
  • Sicily Restaurant, London November 11, 2016 at 8:00 pm – 10:30 pm
  • Sandgate Hotel, Folkestone November 13, 2016 at 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
  • Bull’s Head, Barnes November 17, 2016 at 8:30 pm – 10:30 pm

Nice Guy With an Edge

There’s something compelling about an article consisting of ‘do’s and don’ts’. A couple of years ago, I saw one about online dating and being a complete sucker with too much time on his hands, I clicked it. The reader was told not to describe himself as a ‘nice guy with an edge’, presumably because the phrase was too common and it’s important to stand out. The phrase gave me the idea of a setting a fictionalised online dating profile to music. The result is Nice Guy With an Edge, track three of Chico Chica’s album The Glow of Havana released earlier in the year.

 

 

I has absolutely no hand in the either writing or performing the music. Barbara Snow was the composer and she even translated my choruses into Spanish, albeit with the help of bass player Andres Lafone. When performing the song I put the guitar down – I feel I can get a closer connection with the audience when I’m not hiding behind my instrument. 

 

 
The Glow of Havana is an unusual fusion of spoken word with an English sensibility and salsa, complete with percussion, horns and Spanish coros. The album was recorded at Cowshed Studio, London by Joe Leech. Joe has since moved to Western Australia with his family so it is likely to be the last of that happy and fruitful relationship. It can be purchased here

 

Chico Chica will be appearing as a trio at Sicily Restaurant, 2a Elizabeth St, London SW1W 9RB 8pm, Friday 11th November. Roberto, the owner, is really committed to live music and Sicily has now become a key component in the London jazz scene.

 

 I personally will be back at the Nova Restaurant, Chiswick High Rd 1pm tomorrow Sunday 30th October. 

If I Ever Lose This Heaven + I, Daniel Blake

 

 

Song of the Week is not really a feature on this blog but I make an exception in this case because this week I have been learning, playing and thinking about funk/soul classic If I Ever Lose This Heaven by the Average White Band.

 

 I left school in 1975 and in order to celebrate that glorious crossroads-of-my-life feeling I bought AWB’s Cut The Cake album and listened to it constantly throughout most of that carefree, long-ago summer. The song that particularly struck me was If I Ever Lose This Heaven. Recently I decided to return to it. Much of my playing at home has been song focussed – where I learn a song I love and see how it fits together and analyse why it appeals to me. More often than not, it’s a certain twist in the chord progression where it takes a less-travelled road yet still manages to sound natural and pleasing. The chords for If I Ever Lose This Heaven starts with a III  V  I movement which I have used in Chico Chica’s yet-to-be-recorded Red River. It also happens at the start of the verse in Marvin Gaye’s Sunny 

 

For years I assumed The Average White Band wrote If I Ever Lose This Heaven – I’ve never been one for reading credits so alas, will never become a ‘buff’ in anything.  In the previous year, Quincy Jones released Body Heat which features Minnie Ripperton, Al Jarreau and the song’s composer Leon Ware so it was natural for the boys from Aberdeen to pick it for Cut The Cake‘s sole cover. They borrowed a few of Quincy’s arranging ideas and I suspect they got the free blowing section at the beginning from Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay which came out in 1970.

 

Staying on the nostalgia theme, I remember as a boy going to the cinema to watch a film and I can’t remember which. It was common in those days to put on what in rock concert terms would be called a supporting act. The film was about a boy with a pet kestrel called Kes – a bit like calling your dog Doggy but there you go. I hated it for the first few minutes and then I slowly became drawn into the characters and story. The film was by Ken Loach. I had never seen another of his films until last night. I am not an avid film watcher and my cinephile friends are appalled at how few I have watched over the years. This is something I want to put to rights so last night I went to see I, Daniel Blake. This lack of cinematic education made me nervous about organising a cinema trip. Originally I wanted to see American Honey but the timings didn’t suit. The genre of  I, Daniel Blake is social realism. And it certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect. Daniel Blake is a man going through grim times, and in the course of the film they get ever grimmer and then (spoiler alert) he dies. Today I read a review. The writer said she cried. This made me feel bad because I stayed dry-eyed throughout which probably means I’m an emotional cripple.

 

Tomorrow (Sunday 23rd October 2016) 1pm-4pm, I will be performing solo guitar at Nova Restaurant and Bar,  20 Chiswick High Rd, London W4 2ND.  I may be performing If I Ever Lose This Heaven. I do hope you can support me. Nova have a very good, weekly Sunday carvery – highly recommended.

Marimba

Marimbist Rob Millett has just delivered his tracks for the new Chico Chica album. Rob plays tuned percussion and recorded the marimba for the song Birds. The marimba (a wooden xylophone of African origin) is no longer the obscure instrument it once was. In fact we hear it several times a day in the default ringtone for the iPhone . I fell in love with the sound of the  marimba on Donald Fagan’s The Goodbye Look  When I made up the demo for Birds, I, for no obvious reason,  put a steel drum sound on the keyboard. Barbara liked it but we didn’t know any steel drummers so we decided to go for marimba instead. Hilary recommended Rob Millett. She works with Rob in Big Band Metheney. Marimbas are large and unwieldy so Rob recorded at home. We loved what he did and look forward to working with it at the second and final mixing day this Friday 21st October at Porcupine Studio.
Last Wednesday I saw Luna Cohen at the 606 Club, Chelsea. Chico Chica’s percussionist Jansen Santana plays with her so it was interesting for me to hear him play in another band. Luna has a warm expressive voice and presented us with a selection of original songs, some from her album November Sky as well as a few she hadn’t written and which I didn’t recognise. The guitarist was Robert Loft whom I hadn’t heard before but made a good impression on the audience – his style involves repeated parking of his plectrum in his lips even for the shortest of phrases.   Christian Brewer played some alto saxophone and I had a brief chat with Christian. We tried, unsuccessfully, to pinpoint the year we last worked together. I have tremendous respect for Christian – an absolute jazz pro – never sacrificing his principles and always playing with honesty and integrity.
It’s also good to seek inspiration from outside one’s genre. So the following night I went to see The Kaiserchiefs at Kingston Hippodrome. Friends had a spare ticket and I thought what the hell, why not. I didn’t know the music because I never listen to indy rock. And I’d never heard of the Kingston Hippodrome. Before the show, security men were working their way down the queue asking for names and ID.  Only under 25s carry ID so we couldn’t provide any. Then they asked to photograph our bank cards. Naturally we refused – but still got in to see the show. It was good fun. If I started a Kaiserchiefs tribute band, and please don’t leave any snotty comments about this,  I’d call it The Handkerchiefs.

Mixing

People constituting an organisation are apt to give themselves pompous titles. Well a band is an organisation so there’s no reason we can’t join in the fun.

My role in Chico Chica is a combination of Project Manager or Artistic Director and the other band members are happy to indulge my deluded vanity. It’s generally down to me to push the band forward – booking recording and live dates. But I also do fun stuff like choosing the setlist and this, crucially,  defines the band’s character and direction. And there’s the small matter of writing words so in publicity blurb  I’m usually referred to as the lyricist.

 By contrast, my colleague Barbara Snow looks after the actual music – composing the songs, choosing instrumentation, personnel and studio and overseeing sessions. So she’s what is what you could call the Musical Director.
Last Friday we were in the studio for the first day of mixing our latest batch of songs. We have been recording at Porcupine Studios, Mottingham, London SE9 with engineer Nick Taylor and we returned there to prepare the music for release. Barbara’s keen ears, which picked up all the errors in time and pitch during the recording, were now needed to help Nick blend the sounds to form a coherent whole. Particular attention was paid to the voices and lines where the flugelhorn and flute were playing together. Such is the mysterious art of mixing.
  It was interesting to listen back. We recorded last June which now seems ages ago. The material is heavily samba-influenced. We had a Brazilian rhythm section in for the day: Carlos Straatman, Jansen Santana and Xande Oliveira. Instead of the usual guitar,  I played cavaquinho throughout. Of the five tracks, four were songs and one an instrumental. The songs are tightly arranged and unlike our last album, there is no spoken word. There’s some excellent playing and I’m looking forward to hearing how the overall sound will be wrought. It’s going to be a huge contrast to The Glow of Havana.
  I arrived for the session early to make sure everything was okay, and drank an excellent coffee which Nick made from his cappuccino machine, but left soon after because there really wasn’t anything for me to do. You could say mixing is not part of my job description.