Monday, 28 April 2008

RADIOHEAD WITH HUMPHREY LYTTELTON AND HIS BAND: Life In A Glasshouse


Not so much included here for its musical greatness - like much of Amnesiac, it's an interesting experiment which doesn't quite come off, largely because Thom Yorke didn't yet have the vocal fluidity to inherit the desired damn you England persona of masked politesse - but as a pointer towards the wonder of Humphrey Lyttelton and his band agreeing to appear, orchestrate and (Jonny Greenwood's deadpan piano chords notwithstanding) play on the piece to begin with. I cannot think of anyone else who managed to play with both Louis Armstrong and Radiohead, nor anyone else who would have had a mind sufficiently open to do so (though I note the presence in the contingent of his band which he brought to the sessions with him of reedman Jimmy Hastings, a man who once played on records by the Soft Machine).


As you know, Laura and I never made it to that Radiohead gig at South Park, but Lyttelton's band were as I understand it by far the most successful and popular of the support acts which appeared that Saturday (locals Supergrass included); assessing and understanding this audience perfectly, Lyttelton sauntered amiably onstage, asked whether anyone was up for a game of Mornington Crescent to a huge roar to approval and then dived enthusiastically into a set of Dixieland's Greatest Hits - "The Saints," "Tiger Rag," "Muskrat Ramble" and so on, all present and correct, and he and his players got the audience awake, vertical and dancing.


Lyttelton possessed a character strong yet humble enough to fit in with any environment, while always genially suggesting that he was never to be moved from what he thought right; almost uniquely among Old Etonians, he was a socialist all his life, and almost uniquely among his generation, he was forever open to new ideas. He was of the same generation as Larkin and Amis, yet his unquenchable desire to move forward (and sideways into cartooning and mock quiz show presenting, if so he wished) remained undimmed; reading Larkin's All What Jazz? now gives me the same queasiness of late period Ian MacDonald - the self-exhausted pining of a man who, having progressively shut every available door on himself and opted for slow self-obliteration, criticises the daylight for not being as bright as it had been in, say, 1936 (or 1966).


Lyttelton was happy and wise enough to avoid such traps; he pioneered the British trad revival immediately after the war, and over a decade before it went pop, only to move on to the then unheard-of realm of Afro-Cuban fusions inspired by saxophonist and arranger Kenny Graham (still a hugely underrated figure and the nearest thing Britain has ever produced to a Gil Evans equivalent); when he incorporated Bruce Turner, not only a saxophonist (the scandal!) but a decidedly post-bop one, into his band it was nearly the equivalent of Dylan going electric at Newport. Then he even had the temerity to have a hit single - 1957's "Badpenny Blues" with engineer Joe Meek seemingly submerging Johnny Parker's piano under several leagues of the River Thames (and which would directly inspire "Lady Madonna" over a decade later).


As a broadcaster - and I will leave assessment of his 36-year tenure as compere/unwitting (or was he?) double entendre specialist on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue to others - his Radio 2 show The Best Of Jazz was, along with parallel broadcasts by Charles Fox and Peter Clayton, a vital element towards my early understanding of jazz. While it is fair to say that the advent of Ornette was more or less where he got off the bus, he skilfully avoided the pitfall of criticising the New Thing and diplomatically continued to ensure a good proportion of contemporary input among his cherished favourites; everyone from the Brotherhood of Breath via Lester Bowie to Brad Mehldau received fair and usually favourable treatment, and in his late sixties band he even found room for the likes of John Surman and Chris Pyne.


His own playing was forthright and yet fundamentally melancholy on trumpet - he considered himself extremely fortunate for his long-term association with the veteran Buck Clayton as fellow musician and composer/arranger - and ruminative or rumbustious on his lesser-heard clarinet. Always restructuring his band to allow space for newcomers to thrive and learn alongside veterans, his music was never a period piece, always happily exploratory - and we owe it to Lyttelton for recognising and encouraging Helen Shapiro's talents as a great jazz and blues singer.


In my last years in Oxford, it was frequently the most cleansing of tonics after a muddy, insufferable Monday to return home, especially in summer, listening to The Best Of Jazz, marvelling at whatever gems he had unearthed that week. Now, like Peel, he is gone, and although 86 is a more than fair innings by anyone's standards, the fact remains that another subtle constant in my life has disappeared into history. A fine and unrepeatable man who never got bored with opening doors, ever eager to move on to the next chapter - standing gainly and gladly outside any restricting glasshouses, and never once wanting or needing to throw stones.

2 comments:

John L said...

A beautiful obit to a top man. He was always an oddly progressive figure, wasn't he? "Go home, dirty bopper!" Didn't Humph once heckle at some rather populist 1950s big band concert -- was it Louis Jordan? -- when the bandleader asked for requests. I think Humph shouted out "how about some jazz?"

mike said...

Lovely tribute programme on Radio 4 this morning, fondly hosted by Ken Clarke (no, really, he did a good job), with contributions from Neil Kinnock, Annie Whitehead and many others. I got quite moist eyed. It's repeated at 21:30 this evening, again replacing the usual Midweek slot.

My good friend Zinnia has written her own ISIHAC-slanted tribute here; I warmly commend it to you.