Record Review: Robert Wyatt, “For the Ghosts Within”

Posted on by Mike Quinn

I still vividly remember my very first rock concert. The Houston Music Hall, mid February, 1968. I paid about four bucks to see Jimi Hendrix on the Houston stop of his first US tour. There were several opening acts, among them, Houston’s Moving Sidewalks, a sort of proto-ZZ Top featuring Billy Gibbons, who featured a minor pyro show at the end of their set when flash powder created several columns of flame surrounding the band, and of course, Gibbons’ own early guitar pyrotechnics…sorry, had to get that phrase in.

The Soft Machine, circa 1967. Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge

The Soft Machine, circa 1967. Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge

The primary opener, however, was a British band under the same managerial tutelage—Chas Chandler—as Hendrix, who had been assigned the difficult task of accompanying the era’s reigning guitar wiz on his US debut outing. This totally unknown trio was called Soft Machine. And though most of us were eager to hear the lanky American with the flashy Afro alight the stage with his own Fire and cloud the stage with his Purple Haze, this mystery musical offering managed to capture a few hearts and minds that evening. Mine was one of them, though most likely, the word “few” is the operative one here. I can’t think of any of my then, or future, musician friends who ever followed the band’s recordings as I did over the years.

Soft Machine, 1969. Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper

Soft Machine, 1969. Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper

The trio consisted of an organist, a bass player, and an odd, long-haired, shirtless drummer who also, even while swinging away on his double-bass drum set, managed to do most of the vocals. I was impressed. In fact, I was blown away. My soul left as marked by Soft Machine as it was by Hendrix, or nearly so—no small feat. Their continuous hour-long set was punctuated by long instrumental solos, a wild “psychedelic” light show, amusing lyrics and powerful drumming by the blond guy with no shirt. I later learned, when their first LP finally came out several months later, that this drummer/singer was named Robert Wyatt.

As successive records were produced by the band, I realized that Wyatt was really the intellectual and musical brains behind Soft Machine, and when he finally left the group in the early ‘70s, so did I. The spark of true, imaginative creativity was extinguished in Soft Machine when Wyatt departed. Though rooted with great jazz sensibilities, he knew how to let those influences emerge within the context of something less literally jazz, allowing some sort of new musical genre to develop, but the SM guys wanted to play jazz, plain and simple. The band was never the same. To his credit, hipsters today know Wyatt’s brain was a major component of the Canterbury Scene, a progressive music movement from the late 1960s known for its cerebral musical exponents like Pink Floyd, Gong, Caravan, Kevin Ayers and, of course, Soft Machine.

Wyatt did not stop his musical career when he was excised from Soft Machine, but rather, continued on in a similar vein with a new band he called Matching Mole, a play on words on the French translation, machine molle, of Soft Machine. See? Very clever boy.

Robert Wyatt

Robert Wyatt

Unfortunately, overindulgence in alcohol at a party in the summer of 1973 resulted in Wyatt falling from a fourth story window. He’s been confined to a wheelchair ever since, paralyzed from the waist down. With traditional drumset drumming out the window, so to speak, Wyatt has concentrated his subsequent solo work on singing, percussion, keyboards, and more recently trumpet. His string of critically successful—if not so much on the hit parade—titles include albums Rock Bottom, The End of an Ear, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, Old Rottenhat, Dondestan, Shleep, and his first solo single, a charming version of the Monkee’s hit I’m A Believer.

In late 2010, Wyatt released his newest venture, a team effort with Israeli-born reed player Gilad Atzmon and British violinist and arranger Ros Stephen entitled For the Ghosts Within.

Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen, For The Ghosts Within

Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen, For The Ghosts Within

And here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of the balance of this review: I love this record. I suggest you buy it and listen to it often. You can stop here and proceed to Amazon, or read on…you’ll get to Amazon eventually!

For me, this experiencing this record was love at first sight. And I have listened to it often. More than often, in fact.

Wyatt shares the spotlight, in fact, mostly yields the spotlight, to his partners, and though Canterbury pilgrims may not delight in this fact, I feel it shows great maturity, and enriches the program immensely. I love Wyatt’s sometimes tentative tenor, and his almost overly-British enunciation—I’ll never forget his rendition, forwards and backwards of the “concise British alphabet” on Soft’s second LP—but allowing Atzmon room to paint plaintive and rich, woody textures with his horns and Stephen to do likewise with her thick, almost romantic string arrangements provides enough variation of voice to keep this project interesting from start to finish.

Having said that, the choice of material seems to be largely reflective of Wyatt’s aesthetic, a mix of jazz standards and a couple of recycled tunes from Wyatt’s past, though Stephen and Atzmon as composers are likewise represented.

The program starts off with “Laura”, the now familiar theme to a 1944 Hollywood noir offering, one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time with more than 400 registrations! A cursory listening might result in classifying this cut as syrupy, maybe even sappy. But Wyatt’s almost odd voice quality salvages this; he provides an almost naive innocence to the lyrics, while Stephen’s string arrangement actually harkens back to the dark mood of the original film soundtrack and Atzmon’s alto solo reflects a bit of Charlie Parker who riffed endlessly on this theme back in the day. It pays to actually listen.

“Lullaby for Irena” is a tribute to the mother of Wyatt’s wife, Alfreda Benge, with poignant lyrics by Benge herself. The music matches this poignancy with a bit of an Eastern European feel. Very sweet, indeed.

The title track, “For the Ghosts Within”, also features lyrics by Benge, but the music was penned by Atzmon, and the feel veers a bit more to the Middle Eastern, this time reflecting his own roots. That Middle Eastern evocation, actually Palestinian, reinforces the topic of the poetry, sung in this case by Tali Atzmon, Gilad’s wife: the homelessness of the Palestinian people, “We’re still here under the olive trees; When will you see it’s where we belong? We’re still here, we are the ghosts within…for our land, you gave us just dust.” Powerful stuff. Powerful music. And a bit eerie, an appropriate mood for those ghosts within.

Robert Wyatt

Robert Wyatt

A similar theme is echoed in “Where Are They Now?” which utilizes bits of Wyatt’s older composition “Dondestan”, his questioning tune about the status of a Palestinian homeland. But it also incorporates a bit of Palestinian hip-hop performed by the duo called Stormtroop. “What’s the land worth if you’re not allowed to grow? What’s the street worth if you’re not allowed to cross?” Funny that many reviewers have panned this tune as unlistenable and a throwaway, I think one called it an “earsore”. Maybe the political content is too hot? I, for one, found the tune challenging in a good way. Charles Ives, long ago, taught me to listen “like a man”!!!! This and the previous selection work together as a unit, thematically and musically, to me, in a very legitimate manner. I laud the performers for their forthrightness.

“Maryan” is a Philip Catherine melody with words by Wyatt, again brought out of his old catalog. The spare arrangement for Wyatt’s percussion, Atzmon’s clarinet and Stephen’s strings works to convincingly support the haunting melody and Wyatt’s obscure, minimal lyric about salmon spawning—the rhythmic drive of the arrangement helps propel the words upstream. You’ll want to listen to this many times to soak it all in.

Apparently Wyatt doesn’t like the words that have been associated with Thelonious Monk’s “ ‘Round Midnight”, so he opts here for whistling the tune, actually quite effective. Again, his partners’ musical accompaniment seems just right for this updated and original version of what is now a bit of an overworked jazz piece. Understated and very evocative of midnight. Seems right to me.

Speaking of overworked jazz pieces, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” must be near the top of anyone’s list composed of such things. But, once again, Wyatt and crew adopt a new perspective, largely carried by Wyatt’s very believably honest delivery of the words…that voice, so tentative at times, avoids any trace of slickness, and yet emerges sweet and potent. Is it the almost comical British accent? Or the guy-next-door quality of Wyatt’s tenor? Whatever, it works. And Atzmon delivers a soulful, wailing alto line which harkens back to the more than handful of jazz greats who have recorded the tune.

“At Last I Am Free” is a song originally performed by the American disco unit Chic, but recorded by Wyatt in 1980 as a single. This new version adopts a minimalist approach and presents mostly a wash of orchestral color with Wyatt simply repeating the lyric segment, “At last I am free, I can hardly see in front of me.” Again, to me, this is a very powerful, yet simple performance.

Gilad Atzmon

Gilad Atzmon

“What’s New?”, “In A Sentimental Mood” and “What a Wonderful World” fill out the disc with an enormous nod to the early musical influences of all three performers: the great American songbook and the era of “classic” jazz. Atzmon comes close to making his clarinet speak on “Sentimental Mood”, especially meaningful since Wyatt only hints at the melody, ignoring the lyric. This is modern clarinet playing at its best, and something we need more of, in my opinion. We’ll have more to say about this under-recognized reed player in a future review.

I am not a fan of Louis Armstrong’s version of “What a Wonderful World”, it just seems overtly and calculatedly sentimental. But crap, again, Wyatt’s relaxed, unassuming, boyish vocal approach offers the tune in a new light. This is once more supported by the pungent, powerful alto sax work of Atzmon, it just never allows the music to sink to anything approaching silly or sentimental. The strings, offering a hint of dissonance instead of sweetness, help elevate the song to something even more palatable.

This is a great fucking record. You might hate it, but give it a chance, you just might fall in love with it as I have. And you will feel great satisfaction for having risked ten bucks in order to make your personal world just a bit better by allowing this enchanting music into your life.

Note: This review is of the LP version. The CD is identical, except it lacks the warmth and depth of the LP’s sonics. The one complaint I’ve had with Domino’s pressings is that they can be a bit noisy. So, I bought two extra copies of this for myself…a safeguard for the future! Is that love or what?

Domino Records: LP: WIGLP263; CD: WIGCD263

 

 

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