Allowed back for a second month, the Monolith Blogger column deliberates on a duo of new releases; the first a live lounge suite from contemporary jazz composer Greg Foat, the second, the latest reappraisal of a, hitherto obscure, African music star by the Analog Africa label: a timely compilation of Congolese rumba and funk from polymath musical talent and entrepreneur Verckys.
The Greg Foat Group ‘Live At The Playboy Club, London’ (Jazzman Records)
The Playboy brand may have lost its sheen and glamour over the years: for some the most garish appropriated symbol for decadence and objectification, for others, the “wink wink”, kinked rabbit eared, soft porn choice of a discerning male reader. Enervated to a logo without substance, its connotations ignored, and now embossed on any product willing to pay the license, it has been attached to some of the most ridiculous and (sometimes age wise) inappropriate products and clothes ranges, or become a misjudged tattooed totem – the symbol of some misguided sexual rebellious streak.
It wasn’t always that way of course. Though the sex and “beautiful people” draped nudity is part and partial of the original magazine and lifestyle’s remit, Playboy under the stewardship of its founder (still going strong) Hugh Hefner, was always a thriving cultural hub for writers and journalists alike. In fact, it was arguably one of the greatest concentrations of literary talent during its halcyon heydays, publishing some of the most intriguing and candid interviews with auteur film directors (perhaps one of the most insightful interviews ever published with Stanley Kubrick, on the eve of 2001: A Space Odyssey), artists and composers, and running short stories by such luminaries as Ian Fleming, Arthur C. Clarke, Vladimir, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton, John Irving – much of this down to the magazines fiction editor at the time and perceptive genius, Robie Macauley.
However, from the stiff shirted business meeting cocktail hours of the 50s through to Woodstock, the magazine’s persona and reputation may on the surface have seemed alien and at odds with the social changes gripping America. The best example of this can be found with the late 60s recorded series of Playboy After Dark shows, produced at the CBS studios in Los Angeles. Better billed as a social experiment, this party central meeting of both class and generations introduced the democrat voting, swanky sophisticated cool cats of upper Manhattan and L.A.’s TV land with the Haight-Asbury and Greenwich Village counter-culture. In effect a glimpse into the “behind-closed doors” Hefner mansion soirees, the viewer was invited to sit amongst a dazzling cast of both the be-suited and tie-wearing stars of film and showbiz, and the fringe jacketed, longhairs and tie-dye of the acid rock and west coast freaks and heads, in one of the most extraordinary live shows to ever be granted permission to air. But it is the musical performances that really amaze; whether it was a full on “life-affirming” soul revue from Ike & Tina Turner (complete with full band and dancers) or Iron Butterfly belting out their heavy mental psych anthem ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, the odd conjuncture of straights and bohemians offered a spark of sublime inspiration – just some of the groups and artists to appear, The Byrds, Steppenwolf, Deep Purple, even The Grateful Dead, all graced the shindig with memorable performances.
Its with this rich musical heritage (that brings out the best in an artist) in mind that the adroit jazz pianist Greg Foat choose to record his first live album – which also happens to be the first live recording in over forty-years – at the Playboy Club in London. An encouragable showman, perfectly suited to the Playboy surroundings, Greg has however become a serious pilgrim on the road to self-enlightenment – honing his skill and finding an epiphany in the work of a litany of both criminally undiscovered and maverick composers from across the ages and world -, as he brings his inimitable style of spiritual conscience and pan-European disco funk to the swanky lounge set.
Carving out a niche in the jazz world with his pervious congruous soundtrack rich suites, Dark Is The Sun and Girl And Robot With Flowers, Greg’s concrete futuristic and 2001: A Space Odyssey Baroque laden, harpsichord tapestried dreamscapes, have merged the esoteric cosmic and earthly romantic travails of Alain Gouger and Michael Legrand with the well-thumbed 60s and 70s Sci-fi paperbacks of the authors Brian Aldiss, Roger Zelazny and Robert Heinlein.
Greg’s futuristic travelogues and majestic panoramas are tethered to a tradition of escapist jazz: however, no matter how far they project and journey, they remain a comforting barrier to the threat of a vast expansive nothingness and sense of insignificance in the vast depths of space.
With a fourth album in the offing and nuanced change of style for 2015, this live recital offers a different perspective on Greg’s expressive modal style of jazz. Devoid of any material from his own albums, Greg’s performance is cut from a diverse range of considered covers; rearranged from their source and at times absorbed into his own unique peregrinations. With reverent purpose, Greg pars down from his finely tuned, extended horn section, with a trio of bass guitar and drums to open proceedings with a shimmering, sheik-sauntering version of Ernie Clark’s spiritual paean ‘By The Grace Of God, I Am’. Elevating the original from its more sacrosanct somber tones to a looser rare groove jamboree, which soars as it reaches a tighter double time climax of twinkled cascading organ notes and break beat drums, the group make it one of their own. This flange-effected eastern trip is carried over into the ‘Exodus (Interlude)’ – a sort of cooling down exercise of sparkling 70s Afrocentric religious flitted keys and resonating cymbals, and also a prelude to the next odyssey – and continues through the progressive Arabian via flared-trouser period Miles Davies turn ‘Mr. Minor’. A tale of light and shade dynamics, the song travels through sustained periods of echo-y spiraling, snaking – and almost puffed inside out – harassed horns and floating keyboard couplets that serenely drift into the ether emanating from Greg’s drawn-out phrases. In a similar mode, the Rahsaan Roland Kirk inspired vortex of saxophone playing and soulfully reverberating cooed melody rich ‘Ingen Rekaim’ (“no advertising” in Swedish) loiters over imaginary North African sand dunes: via a Nordic detour.
Taking it down low and romantically softening the live environment with a ‘Blue Melody’, we are transported across lush horizons abroad. Suffused with a vapourous, almost hypnotically entrancing delay, every instrument lingers, leaving notes hanging as they build upon each other and overlap. This effect can be heard, to increasing or decreasing levels of intensity, on all the tracks; adding an atmosphere of languorous mystic, layering them with wave after wave of cosmic pulsations. The spell isn’t even broken by the lack of enthusiasm from the audience or even the individual chatter and interruption from individuals – recorded over two nights with varying degrees of response, Greg and his group were initially part of a compered (who we can hear introducing the group and later on in the LP as they plough through ‘Funky Fanfare’) line-up of comics and acts; later on as the resident band, getting their own night.
The last stretch of the album lightens the mood further, and goes all out to entertain the now warmed-up and appreciative audience. Sprinting off into funk-fried dazzling organ flourished bombast and heralded horns swinging jazz, Greg and his fellowship turn in a placable version of Keith Mansfield’s famous tune, ‘Funky Fanfare’ – as favoured by a litany of Hip Hop acts over the decades –, and launch into a Henry Mancini conducted slapstick-60s-a-go-go fidget with Tubby Hayes’ ‘Finky Minky’. The finale takes the 80s signature Pigbag funk anthem, ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’, on an alternative route across a Moroder style discothèque dotted pan-Europa landscape; if anything, transporting the original back to a luxurious dry-ice conjured 1970s.
An excursion in degrees from his loftier, escapist original compositions, Greg’s live set is directed to some degree by the swanky surroundings. Though the first half of this album is imbued with the Jazzman Records mantra of esoteric, spiritual and championed obscure composers mission statement, these wondrous, meandering odysseys demand more. Yet far from playing to the exclusive chin-stroking connoisseur set, Greg accessibly, and convincingly, showcases both the spiritual and filtered flanged beauty of composers such as Bernard Estardy, alongside the glitz and chic of St. Tropez without lowering or compromising standards to produce one of not only the jazz performances of 2014, but also one of the most serendipitous, gliding and lightly administered turns on the keys too.
Verckys et L’Orchestre Vévé ‘Congolese Funk, Afrobeat and Psychedelic Rumba 1969 – 1978’ (Analog Africa)
As glowing endorsements of musical prowess and live performance go, James Brown’s seal of approval must take some beating. Catching the chief instigator of the Congolese music scene – protégé guitarist turn entrepreneur, record label owner, producer and doyen of a whole new generation of emerging talent – Georges Mateta Kiamuangana, better known by his stage persona Verckys, in Kinshasa in 1974, the Godfather of soul anointed him “Mister dynamite”. When you hear Verckys at his most robust and funk-trunk shaking best, it’s pretty obvious why. Channeling the atavistic and contemporary shifts in black music from both across the Atlantic and from his homeland, Verckys turned his inimitable, nimble fretwork onto a myriad of dance rhythms; seamlessly rephrasing the South American staples of rhumba and pachanga with Afrofunk, pop and soul.
Rising from the embers of a tumultuous period of unease, Verckys found fame in the relatively stable calm of the late 60s and early 70s. A violent transfer of power and fight for independence in 1960 followed by a coup in 1965, and the devastating civil wars of the 90s (still ongoing in one degree or another) stand either side of, what was, a contiguously vibrant music scene. And for a momentary pause in the melee and mayhem of normal life (though it was orchestrated to promote the country, it would cause a whole new level of speculation and interest into its dodgy leadership), the capitol played host to the ‘rumble in the jungle’ boxing match between the heavyweight titans, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974; captured in the winning documentary When We Were Kings.
Music wise, not just the Congo, but the whole of Africa were enamoured by the Congolese Rumba craze, which grew from the dance floors of the country’s capital Kinshasa and echoed across the network of radio stations to become the no. 1 export. Earning his apprenticeship as a member of the country’s most dominant and influential band, Franco’s OK Jazz, Verckys took the homemade genre even further. His relationship with the band would be short-lived, but proved fruitful as the polymath and multi-instrumentalist formed his own highly successful group, Orchestre Vévé in 1968; his aim, to reinvent and modernise the Congolese sound by stripping away the more conventional approach of the OK Jazz sound to allow his own sauntering and swooning saxophone melodies to dominate, creating a fusion of Meters style Orleans funk and infectious South American joy.
Going down a storm, Verckys was able to build on his success, setting up a blueprint label, les Editions Vévé, and building a sprawling entertainment complex called the Vévé Centre, which was followed by the country’s first ever vinyl pressing plant and its most modern recording studio. The motivational stars own reputation steadily grew in the 70s, leading him to record a host of fellow Congolese artists (Les Freres Soki, Bella Bella, Orchestra Kiam) who all shot to overnight stardom.
Compiled by the African music, with occasional flights across the Atlantic to Columbia and Brazil, connoisseur and archivist Samy Ben Redjeb, under the banner of his critically acclaimed Analog Africa label, has brought some of Verckys most stimulating and enticingly funky recordings together for this collection. Alongside the more familiar “stormers”, Redjeb has also wrestled up some of the Congo soul man’s hitherto rare and unheard outside Africa, recordings from his 1974 sessions in the neighboring Kenya – ‘Bassala Hot’, ‘Cheka Sana’ and ‘Talali Talala’, produced specially for the Kenyan market, during his month long tour of the country.
Picking up on the first of that trio of rarities, Basssala Hot kicks the compilation off with a seven-minute hot-strut down the sweltering Kinshasa streets, with one of those Orleans’ style filthy grooves, backed by a languid drum shuffle, feverish congas, chugging guitar riff and melting saxophone. Setting the scene then with an Afrobeat staple rhythm, Verckys skips to the famous homegrown lilt of the Congolese rhumba on ‘Ye Nini’. Placably swooning and floating along to a pleasantly incessant South American vibe, the renowned sound of 70s Congo, drifts in beguilingly. Ennui setting in already, Verckys adds a mild touch of psychedelia to the rhumba to create another of his subgenre interpretations with the two-speed ‘Sisa Motema’ and ‘Zonga Paralise’. Sisa reverberates with the distant atavistic song of Cuba, but ends up shuffling to an inherently Afrorock beat with blasting saxophone punctuated Stax revue stabs; Zonga goes from a Cuban lullaby to a ringside J.B’s.
Reshaping styles as he goes, Verckys turns his talent to Watts 103rd Band imbued funky, slinky, salacious saxophone, party jam grooving, on ‘Cheka San’; hits the rarest Hammond organ jerked refrain on the rough’n’reedy ‘Oui Verckys’ and takes the Blues on a detour through the Louisiana Meters stomping ground back to the motherland on ‘Sex Vévé’.
The album finishes with the beautifully meandering cavacha – a musical style named after the chugging motion of a train, and made famous throughout Kenya, Benin and the Congo – rhythmic ‘Nakomi Paradise’ and sweetly crooned and twinkly pachanga paean ‘Matinda Comono’. Both songs encapsulate the softened nuances of interplay at work, delicately strummed and swooning between and absorbing the reverberations of the neighbouring countries that flank the Congo.
Though we can’t all take a flight of fantasy time machine back to the heady days of Verckys’ prime, we will be able to catch the doyen of Congolese rumba next summer as he embarks on a European tour. This reappraisal collection will do much in the meantime to celebrate one of central Africa’s most important music movers and shakers.
Celebrating the Analog Africa labels superb back catalogue, I’ve cherry-picked some of the highlights and most interesting tracks; including stunning floor fillers from Ghana and Benin, sauntering grooves from Angola, bombastic festival anthems from the Amazon and Columbia, and Afrobeat screamers from Nigeria.