Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker : I Cover The Waterfont

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Often, when we tell the story of our own life, to ourselves, or to others, the narrative teems with incident. An action movie filled with high drama.

Now, reflecting on my own life I have come to realise that a more apt comparison would be one of the contemplative, steady gaze movies directed by Robert Bresson from France or Yasujiro Ozu from Japan.

The meaning is won, revealed, not through a hectic series of heroic events but powerfully accumulated through close attention to small details and patient meditation on the weathering, sometimes destructive, sometimes ennobling, passage of time.

Life is mainly waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting for what you want or need the most.

Waiting for your mother’s or father’s attention.

Waiting for the fabled excitement of love and romance and high passion to blow into your life like a hurricane.

Waiting for someone to recognise you as the one they have been waiting for.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting on the waterfront for the one, miraculously found, to return.

Waiting, worrying, wondering why she had to go.

Waiting, never understanding why she had to go.

Waiting, rheumy eyed, obsessively scanning the horizon for her to return.

Waiting, waiting, covering the waterfront.

Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker.

Bluesmen. Brothers in The Blues.

Initiates. High priests. Orphean adepts.

Anam Cara – soul friends.

Sounders of the depths. In their music they tap the source. The energy they draw upon seems to come, direct, from the very core of the Earth.

In touch with such power is it any wonder that they are often described as, ‘glowering’ and, ‘moody’.

I Cover The Waterfront looms in our imaginations like a fevered dream. The great Booker T on organ sets up a heat shimmer from which Van and John Lee emerge like royal travellers from some mysterious distant land bringing testimony of great import.

Some say the purpose of art is to stop time. Well, here, Van and John Lee do a wonderful job of making time eddy and meander as they dig deep into the song. They are both able to lead us away from the tyranny of everyday time into new dimensions of being.

Ships leave harbour and the coast vanishes as they voyage into the open sea. Beside the vastness of the sea humans seem small, insignificant. Yet, the sea is bound by the shore while the human imagination knows no such bounds. With their voices, their intense vocal and imaginative presence, Van and John Lee take us far beyond the mere realms of cartography and circumnavigation.

Their music at its best always opens new territory bringing us visions, emotional insights and dare one say it – mystical revelations.

They bring it on home while we are waiting.

Waiting for someone to reply to the message in a bottle thrown in the sea those many years ago.

Waiting for the knock on the door – sometimes in hope, sometimes in dread.

Waiting before you go out with seed for the sowing.

Waiting before you return carrying your sheaves.

Waiting for forgiveness.

Waiting in vain for the Raven’s return.

Waiting for the Dove to return with an Olive leaf.

Waiting for a miracle.

Waiting for Ahab to sail The Pequod, laden with Whale, back into Nantucket.

Waiting for Godot.

Waiting for The Dodgers to come home to Brooklyn.

Waiting for this terrible day to become tomorrow.

Waiting for the slow train coming around the bend.

Waiting for the full moon to rise.

Waiting for two riders to approach.

Waiting for the barkeep to pour one scotch, one bourbon, one beer.

Waiting for the foghorn to blow.

Waiting for the dawn to break.

Waiting for the wind to howl.

Waiting for the circle to be unbroken.

We are all waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Whatever you are waiting for I hope it will have been worth the wait.

And, as each of us waits, for our own reasons, the music of Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker lends us peace and perspective.

Notes:

The version of I Cover The Waterfront featured here comes from the John Lee Hooker record, ‘Mr Lucky’. I’m sure of few things but I am sure you can never have too many John Lee Hooker records.

This post largely written on the decks of the M/S Lily and S/S Ukkopekka as they sailed in blazing sunshine between Turku, the Island of Vepsa and the town of Naantali in Finland.

Van Morrison – Sometimes We Cry

‘There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love’ (Washington Irving)

‘Oh, I awoke in anger, so alone and terrified,
I put my fingers to the glass,
And bowed my head and cried’ (Bob Dylan – I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine)

Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we don’t know why. Sometimes (though we are loath to admit it) we know exactly why.

Sometimes we know we are about to cry. Sometimes the hot tears overwhelm us in an instant.

Sometimes we cry when we read, or write, a tear stained letter.

Sometimes we cry when the hearse carries our loved one away.

We knew that would happen one day, even thought ourselves prepared for it, yet we learn that no one is ever truly prepared for such an emotional earthquake.

Sometimes when we unexpectedly catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror we find ourselves surprised by tears of shame and regret.

Sometimes we cry tears of pure joy – remember the day your child was born? The day you got married?

The day that dream that you feared would never be more than a dream became miraculously true!

Sometimes we cry because with sickening finality we know that dream is over, over.

Sometimes we cry not believing just how stupid, stupid, pluperfectedly stupid we have been.

Sometimes we simply cry and cry and cry and somehow having cried our hearts out we feel a little better.

Sometimes we need a great singer to to sing about the tears in things and we feel a whole lot better.

Call for (Sir) George Ivan Morrison!

Van Morrison – It’s All in The Game

‘… This is a song from the 50s .. It’s been recorded by hundreds of people … But not like this!’

(Van Morrison’s introduction to It’s All In The Game before performing it at The Albert Hall in 2014)

Van Morrison is a dweller on the threshold.

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An artist who delights in the sensual world of earthly love and light and linear time while understanding in the very core of his being that we are also citizens of co-existing realms beating to the rhythms of a different eternal drum.

In his art he seeks to demonstrate that there are no walls between these realms but rather permeable membranes we can pass through if we would but release the flickering fires of our imaginative and spiritual nature.

So, when Van heard the song, ‘It’s All In The Game’; bizarrely written in posthumous collaboration by a Noble prize winning Vice President of The United States (Charles Dawes) and a savvy professional songwriter (Carl Sigman) he recognised that this slight, sentimental ballad from the 50s was ripe for transformation into a kaleidoscopic revelation of the simultaneously transitory and eternal landscape where the travails of all of us as winners and losers in the dance of the love are truly all in the game.

Van’s performance here as a singer, arranger and bandleader is proof of his genius as an artist. Surely, listening to such a searching performance, each of us will find our own history stirred and evoked; often in surprising, potentially disturbing ways.

One of the great gifts true artists can offer us is the opportunity, through encounters with their art, to come to terms with our unresolved subconscious struggles to find integration and wholeness.

Each of us in our own unique way will discover that we know what they’re writing about and what Van is singing about!

Van recorded, ‘It’s All In The Game’ on his magisterial 1979 record, ‘Into The Music’ which is lit with incandescent grace throughout.

Characteristically he assembled a superb team of musicians who had the technical chops and the imaginative reach to follow where his arrangements and inspirations led.

Herbie Armstrong (rhythm guitar), David Hayes (bass) and Mark Jordan (piano) were Van veterans and in Peter Van Hooke (drums), Toni Marcus (violin) and Katie Kissoon (backing vocals) he found rhapsodically empathetic partners.

The extravagantly talented Mark Isham and Pee Wee Ellis on the horns added enveloping depth and colour to the sound.

Of course, as with every great Van Morrison record, it’s Van’s heart-stirring, heart-stopping vocals which cast the spell we have to surrender to.

Here, Van in a vocal tour de force seems to hold the song up to a series of shades of illumination and heat so that, ‘Your heart will fly away’ can move magically as the song progresses from barely perceptible, deeply tender, softly shimmering candle light to searing, inescapable white hot conflagration.

And, this is not achieved through dramatic changes of tempo but through the vocal and imaginative engagement which Van brings to individual syllables, words and phrases as he utters them – teasing them, testing them, for artistic, spiritual and emotional weight.

Van makes intuitive raids upon the hoard of popular song for the mysterious values bound up in the sheer sound of the words as well as their overt meaning.

Of course, Van knows that words can only take you so far. Sometimes it’s the silences between the words and the accents of their placement which are most revealing.

Van added his own coda to, ‘Its All In The Game’ with its segue into his own, ‘You Know What They’re Writing About’ where he brings it all back home to the landscapes of his Belfast youth which will always haunt his every hour.

To my mind it is a mark of Van’s spiritual, not to say mystic insight, that he knows that there is no need to travel to distant valleys or Himalayan hideaways to find illumination.

Sometimes there’s no more words to say but its all right there in front of you. Right in front of you, wherever you are – down by the river, down by the pylons, down by the pylons, down by the pylons …..

Van Morrison is undoubtedly the living custodian of the hallowed tradition of blues based singing. He has spent a lifetime listening to and learning from those he inherited this tradition from.

So, when Van takes on a, ‘Big ballad’ he draws upon and invokes the shades of Ray Charles, Jimmy Witherspoon and Bobby Blue Bland with their ability to command a band, caress a lyric and move with fluent dynamism within a song from whisper to scream.

Van brings all this lore to his live performances of, ‘It’s All In The Game’ – each time setting forth on a new pilgrimage invoking the muse to descend.

It is possible to spend many days losing yourself while listening to epic performances by Van of this song (believe me I’ve done it!).

 

From the treasure trove I’ve chosen a performance from Dublin in 2015 where if you can’t see the muses of fire above his head you can certainly feel their presence.

What Van Morrison adds to the grand tradition he inherited is the product of his own unique Celtic soul: his gift for being at the dead centre of a song while being absolutely outside it at the same time.

So he is both hot and cool.

A relentless seeker and a still contemplative.

A dweller on the threshold.

Van Morrison – Tupelo Honey: The Grandeur of Love

‘Tupelo Honey has always existed … Van was the vessel and the earthly vehicle for it’ (Bob Dylan)

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If a songwriter is very, very lucky they might in their lifetime write one song that becomes the misty eyed anthem of love for devoted couples all over the world. A love song that incarnates love rather than merely describing it. A song that always seem fresh while yet building a patina of fond memories that increase every time it is played.

A song which flowing like a river, never the same twice, still seems to contain the past, the present and the future. A song which takes up residence in the hearts of succeeding generations – for today and every day, someone, somewhere, is discovering that they are in love for the very first time.

By my count (and on The Jukebox my count is the one that really counts) Van Morrison has written at least four songs that meet the criteria outlined above. From his incandescent second solo album the title track, ”Moondance’ with its peerless swooning swing and, ‘Crazy Love’ with its intoxicated, intoxicating, sweet surrender.

From ‘Avalon Sunset’ came the deep, devotional, ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’ – a song especially close to my heart as it was the first song my wife, Clare, and I danced to once we were married.

But, if I had to pick one song to demonstrate the depth of Van Morrison’s romanticism; proof that he was and is the great courtly love balladeer of his age I will always choose, ‘Tupelo Honey’ – a pluperfect song, glowingly alive with love’s grandeur.

Good God, what a hallelujah of a song! A song that shares the blissful total immersion in the sweetness of love with Solomon’s Song of Songs! I love the majestically sure, unhurried flow of the song which sweeps our hearts away, illuminating our deepest wish and need – to love and to be loved.

The team of musicians assembled in San Francisco in 1971 to record Tupelo Honey brought all their technical accomplishment to the track but, no doubt inspired by their mercurial leader, they brought something much rarer – a devotional surrender to the music they were making, so that ‘Tupelo Honey’ really does sound like a direct revelation from Heaven itself.

On drums, the great Connie Kay from the Modern Jazz Quartet, having already played with angelic grace throughout Van’s sublime masterpiece, ‘Astral Weeks’ outdoes himself with his backbeat and fills surging the song forward to greater and greater heights of rhythmic rapture. On guitar Ronnie Montrose plays with a shimmering, harp like delicacy that is endlessly beguiling.

Mark Jordan’s piano takes us by the hand and navigates us through the song assuring us that we can and will find our way to that promised land of love and fulfilment we all believe is out there waiting for us to come home to. Bruce Royston on flute is the harbinger of the miracles to come while Ted Templeman on organ, Gary Mallaber on percussion and ever faithful Jack Schroer on saxophones ensure that the miracles are delivered.

Tying everything together is Van’s vocal which reached pinnacles of inspiration that is beyond the reach of critical language to adequately express. So, I will unashamedly borrow my language from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’.

Van Morrison’s singing on Tupelo Honey flames out like shining from shook foil, it gathers and gathers and gathers to a greatness that elevates everyone who listens to it – inducting them into a vision that encompasses love in all its sacred and sexual incarnations. A vision which once experienced leaves a permanent flaming brand on the heart and soul.

This post dedicated to Clare because she’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey. Because she’s an angel of the very first degree.

Note:

There’s a wonderful live version from his 1979 tour of Ireland featuring Toni Marcus on violin and the late Peter Bardens on keyboards which I urge you to investigate.

Van Morrison – in The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll!

‘Turn it up! Turn up your Rad-io!’ (Van Morrison – ‘Caravan’)

‘We were the War children – born 1945 ….’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wild Children’)

‘I can get your station when I need rejuvenation … Wavelength you never let me down’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wavelength’)

‘… I like Morrison because I know that his work comes from the same level as my own poetry – the level of daydreaming; that he’s out to annihilate ego; that he’s after the same,’nothingness’ as Kavanagh was after ….’ (Paul Durcan)

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Van Morrison is an only child. A child alone much of the time by inclination and perhaps vocation. A soul born to dream, to live in dreams and to birth those dreams in songs and singing – dreaming in God.

As a boy growing up in East Belfast he was close to the sea and the countryside. From his house, beyond his bedroom, he could hear voices echoing over the Beechie River and imagine the mist swathed shipyard towers looming out of the night as the foghorns guided ships safely home.

His head, heart and spirit opened up and welcomed dreams and intimations of an immortal world coexisting with the mortal world. Walking down Hyndford Street to leafy Cyprus Avenue he could be transported so that he was both thrillingly outside himself and strangely never so completely himself.

Dreaming those young man’s dreams he found sustenance for his creative imagination in the sights and sounds of his home city, its hinterland, and in sounds closer to home emanating from the radio and the HMV record player. The radio and the record player would become almost sacred objects.

The sounds they produced would enter deep into his consciousness, his soul; sounds he could never forget, sounds he would store as treasure and draw on for decades – fusing them through the mysterious alchemy of art into extraordinarily beautiful and affecting visions of his own.

And these visions have their genesis in the days before Rock ‘n’ Roll. The days of post war austerity. Days which could seem monochrome, mundane and stultifyingly metronomic. Days when a dreaming boy hunched close to the radio and the record player in search of a rainbow for his soul.

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Together with fellow Irishman and fellow dreamer, poet Paul Durcan, he would dramatise those dreaming days in a song, ‘In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’ – a song which would catalogue some of the signposts of those dreams in a performance which has something of the hyper real, time slipping, giddy character of a waking dream. A performance which has me laughing out loud and punching the air with Joy as he hymns the stations and the musicians that called to him – that called his own unique voice into being.

‘In the Days’ is a dream that’s shot through with good humour, strangeness and charm. A dream that flows like a pure mountain stream strong enough to cut through stone yet gentle enough to dip your hand in. A stream you would surely want to let the goldfish go into!

A dream brought to vivid life over four days in the studio by an intimate quartet – Paul Durcan as the inspired/crazed narrator, Dave Early on drums, Steve Pearce on bass with Van Morrison on animating spirit, piano and vocals.

The sleeve notes tell me the song last 8 minutes and 13 seconds but that only records how long it lasts the first time you hear it – for once you’ve heard it it will be playing in your imagination and in your dreams for the rest of your life. Come aboard!

A Listeners guide:

Paul Durcan:

Paul Durcan is a maverick Irish poet who has been writing poems which fizz with emotional and literary energy for as long as Van has been writing songs which fizz with spiritual and musical energy. Durcan’s poetry speaks in an urgent conversational tone about almost every aspect of life not excluding the political, the sexual and the spiritual.

Reading a Durcan collection is to be taken on a thrilling literary roller coaster ride which will have you laughing and gasping as well as exhilarated and emotionally pummelled. He is a performance poet on the page as well as the stage addressing his audience as friends and fellow campfire sitters as he examines the crazy world we live in. He seems to me to be wholly mad and wholly sane simultaneously – ideal territory for a poet to occupy.

‘Justin’:

Who is Justin? Just a name plucked out of the air for its sound, its comparative rarity in a world awash with Jims and Georges and Pauls? Probably we will never know who this, ‘gentler than a man’ man was. Just a thought but it strikes me as not insignificant that an Irish poet from the latter half of the twentieth century would use a name which happens to be the little know second name of the greatest Irish poet of that era: Seamus Justin Heaney!

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The Wireless Knobs/Telefunken

Vintage radios such as those made by the Telefunken Company in Berlin were gorgeously tactile objects. Radios, humming with valve power and gleaming with polished wood, bakelite and glass, softly lit, took pride of place in our homes in the days before Televisions took up their imperial dominance in our living rooms. No point and shoot remotes then! Radios were switched on and off and tuned to stations using knobs that clunked satisfyingly into position and dials that you set spinning to call up and capture sounds from distant lands beamed in from the ionosphere.

The very air crackled with possibility as you waited for the signal to settle as you settled down to laugh along your favourite comedians, sing along with your favourite singers, gasp at the heroics of your favourite detective or be amazed by a discovery as the spinning dial led you into imaginative territory you had never dreamed existed.

Radios conjured up dreams, created communities of interest and painted pictures that seared into our memories. Radio, despite all the technological developments of the last few decades remains the dreamers ideal companion. Tune in!

‘I am searching for … Luxembourg, Athlone, Budapest, AFN, Hilversum, Helvetia …’

One of the great pleasures of vintage radio was discovering what programmes were made by exotically named radio stations broadcasting from places which often had to be looked up on an atlas to see where they were! Not knowing what you might find and be introduced to was exciting and expanded our cultural horizons.

I’ll take spinning the dial over preset culture any day of the week: only listening to what you already know you like narrows your horizons and precludes the revolutionary discoveries that open up new worlds.

As you scanned the stations on the radio dial even reciting their names became a form of litany – clearly recognised above by Paul Durcan who has a genius for incantatory recitation.

Luxembourg:

Radio Luxembourg had a very powerful signal (on 208 metres Medium Wave) which washed tidally over the British Isles bringing many young people their first regular exposure to those new fangled musics their parents just knew were no good for them. Luxembourg, in contrast to the BBC, was a commercial station which meant it was happy to devote whole programmes to showcasing the new releases from record labels such as Capitol and Phillips.

On Saturdays at 8pm in 1956 (when Van was aged 11) you could listen to, ‘Jamboree’ – described as two hours of non-stop, action packed radio featuring ‘Teenage Jury’ and American disc-jockey Alan Freed with an excerpt from his world changing show, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

Athlone:

Athlone is a historic Irish town on the shores of the River Shannon. From the 1930s to the 1970s the principal transmitter for Irish radio was located in Athlone and the Irish national radio station came to be known on radio dials all over the world as Athlone. The fledgling Irish state was keen to promote native culture with Irish sports and traditional music being prominently featured.

Athlone is also the birthplace of the great Irish tenor Count John McCormack whose golden voice resounded all over the globe in the first half of the twentieth century.

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Like Van he had a voice that was able to express the normally inexpressible – a voice that could send shivers through the soul.

AFN (American Forces Network)

One of the spin-offs from the presence of GIs in Europe as a result of WW2 and the ensuing cold war was AFN whose broadcasts of American music could be listened to by Europeans hungry for the jazz and blues based music which was so hard to find anywhere else. Being near an American military base was a boon both for the likely strength of the signal and the possibility that personnel from the base might have records never seen in domestic stores.

Lester Piggott:

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Lester Piggott (‘The long fellow’) was, as my Dad would have told you, the greatest horse racing jockey who ever lived. He won England’s premier race, The Epsom Derby, an almost unbelievable 9 times from 1954 as a teenager with, ‘Never Say Die’ through to 1983 when he won with, ‘Teenoso’. Lester Piggott became an almost mythical figure not just in the world of the turf but in the folklore of the nation.

Children and grandmothers who never opened a racing page in their lives would go into a bookmakers on the day of a classic race and simply say, ‘I’ll have five shillings on whatever Lester is riding!’ And, very, very often that turned out to be a very smart bet for no one was a better judge of what horse to ride than Lester Piggott and no one more capable of riding a race with ice cool expertise to ensure victory. Lester was a close mouthed man with a very dry sense of humour – he had no time for the hoopla of celebrity. He he lived to win horse races and he spoke horse with a fluency that’s probably never been matched.

Fats, Elvis, Sonny, Lightning, Muddy, John Lee!, Ray Charles:The High Priest! The Killer: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard.

Van Morrison was extraordinarily fortunate to be the son of a father who had lived in Detroit and who had a fabled collection of blues and Rhythm & Blues records young Van could immerse his thirsty soul in. As he says he heard Muddy Waters and Blind Lemon on the street where he was born. Leadbelly became his guiding spirit. A spirit he has remained true to over five decades and more of music making.

The radio brought to him and millions of others the original Rock ‘n’ Roll creators – the revolutionaries whose legacy will live for ever. The greater the distance we are from those giants of the 1950s the greater their genius is clear. They were the guides and spirits who befriended us – who turned on the coloured lights for whole generations. Their genius is lovingly celebrated in the roll call here to form an honours board of immortality.

There can be no doubt that Van Morrison has joined that company.

As the song fades back into the ether a transported Paul Durcan says:

‘We certainly got a lot of beautiful things in there Van’.

Truer words were never spoken.

Thanks to Kerry Shale for suggesting the topic of this post. For those of you who may not be familiar with the name Kerry is a multi-talented actor, writer and voice over artist. He also, obviously, has great musical taste!

Van Morrison : Carrickfergus (Elegy for Vincent)

The Unfinished conversation:

‘There you are …… ‘

‘Grand, Grand ….’

‘Isn’t there a fine stretch in the evenings now’

Aye – there’s a fair dazzle of daffodils over the old road’

‘Did you hear that McCoy’s retiring! And didn’t he drive in a 14/1 winner, at the front every step of the way, at his last Cheltenham.’

‘Sure, many a time I’ve seen him near lift an animal over the line to get a winner’ – we will not see his like again.’

‘If you had to guess who, in their seventies, would record an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra and pull it off who would you pick?’

‘Not Bob! But after the Christmas record who could ever be surprised again!’ We will not see his like again’

‘You’d hardly recognise the lad now – he’s up to my shoulder’

‘God bless him – isn’t it natural. Before too long it’s you that will be looking up at him’

‘Well I can see you need to be on your way. I’ll see you further on up the road’

‘Aye, but take your time, take your time – there’s plenty of road.’

In memory of my friend, Vincent Roche (RIP) who was one of nature’s gentlemen. A craftsman, a scholar of music and horseflesh and a man of wry humour and quiet dignity. Vincent was a proud Irishman from Foxford in the County of Mayo.

We often traded lines from the great ballads of the Irish tradition as opening salvos or payoff lines in our conversations:

‘… And we made a football of his rowdy-dow-dow’

‘… He never tried to go railing from Ennis as far as Kilkee’

‘… One star awake as the swan in the evening moved over the lake’

‘… Down by the sally gardens my love and I did meet’

‘… The pale moon was rising above the green mountain’

‘… And I said let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day’

Today, in his honour, I feature a luminous performance of, ‘Carrickfergus’ by the greatest singer Ireland has ever produced, Van Morrison, accompanied by the legendary Chieftains who provide the sympathetic melodic and rhythmic ground against which Van weaves his profound magic.

Van makes emotionally real the knowledge we have in our bones that our relations and dearest friends are all bound to pass on like the melting snow. Treasure them while you share the same stretch of road.

Wherever we wander most of us keep an image in our hearts of the home place and all of us are mesmerised by the waves of the salty sea ebbing and flowing as they have done for millennia before we were born and as they will do long after we are gone.

P.S. Those of you interested in my more literary efforts and Ireland might like to look up the, ‘Once In A Blue Moon A Poem’ post below.

Christmas, A Clarinet And Acker Bilk (RIP)

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Christmas is coming.

I know that for certain because following much deliberation and discussion my son has composed his 2014 letter to Santa Claus. We sealed the envelope with due ceremony and in his best handwriting addressed it to Santa’s North Pole headquarters. We cycled down to the local postbox/mailbox and very carefully sent the vital message on its way.

What he wants, and what we are all sure he will receive curtesy of the elves and Santa’s crack reindeer delivery team (led by Rudolph) is a clarinet.

Why a clarinet? Because over the last year listening to CDs in the car Tom has become a fanatical fan of British ‘Trad Jazz’ from the 1950s and 1960s. This was led by young men aflame with passion who had discovered in the shiny shellac of imported American Jazz records a doorway to a new world of rhythmic joy and wonder. Many of them then started journeys and careers that would sustain them for the rest of their lives through obscure internecine culture wars, improbable transatlantic popular successes and long periods playing to small audiences in draughty halls and smoky pub back rooms.

Prominent among these was a clarinettist from Somerset named Bernard Stanley Bilk who rejoiced in a schoolboy nickname he would ever after be known by, ‘Acker’. Though Tom has time for the pure vision of the incorruptible Ken Colyer, the urbane style of the aristocratic Humphrey Lyttleton and the gusto of the Chris Barber and Kenny Ball bands his unquestioned favourite is Acker who has just died at the age of 85.

Acker came from England’s West Country where the accents, the cheese, the cider and the characters all have a distinctive flavoursome tang. This distinctiveness is reflected in the instantly recognisable sound and tone of Acker’s clarinet playing. There is an immensely charming open hearted generosity and vibrato vigour in his sound. Once Acker announced his beckoning presence you just naturally relax and lean in confident that you will be moved, entertained and uplifted.

Acker also developed a signature look – bowler hat, waistcoat and goatee beard that amounted to the kind of winning brand that ‘image consultants’ would now charge you a couple of limbs to devise. There was an element of the Edwardian dandy in this but also a sense that a canny countryman was both celebrating and mocking the whole show business cavalcade – a witty wink to the wise.

At the dawn of the 1960s Acker hit his musical stride and issued a string of records that would become hits and and cement his place forever in the national consciousness. Let’s kick off with a top 10 hit from 1961, ‘That’s My Home’ which nicely demonstrates Acker’s relaxed take on traditional jazz.

Later that same year Acker composed a tune he called, ‘Jenny’ after his daughter. Retitled ‘Stranger On The Shore’ when it was used as the theme tune of a BBC TV show it became Acker’s calling card, his old age pension and a world wide hit selling millions of copies. Billed as by, ‘ Mr Acker Bilk And His Paramount Jazz Band’ Stranger took up residence in the UK charts for more than a year and became almost unbelievably a US number one record in May 1962. There was a ritual at Acker concerts whereby he laid his bowler hat on the piano when taking the stage – donning the hat near the end of the concert was the rapturously received signal that he was about to play Stranger: the tune be would always be known by.

Stranger must be one of the most evocative instrumentals ever recorded. Acker’s clarinet seems to drift into our minds like an enveloping sea mist. For the duration of the record we are cast into a reverie where our everyday cares are dissolved and memories of landscapes, seascapes and times past swirl deliciously in our thoughts. Turn down the lights, lie back and prepare to be transported!

Acker was a major draw in Britain and you might be surprised to see who was below him on the in June 1963 – none other than The Beatles!

In 1964 Acker cut a particularly charming single which showed that he was open to new influences and that he was a more versatile musician than often supposed. ‘Dream Ska’ is one of those records that sets me grinning wildly and assaying a series of lurching dance moves best executed in private.

In Britain the baby boomer generation grew up with Acker as a fixture on our radios and TV screens. He was one of those rare artists that everybody recognised and who was universally regarded with affection. This embrace extended to some of the titans of the music world who turned to Acker when they wanted a clarinet sound that was poignant and nostalgic. If you can find it look out for Acker joining forces with the great Van Morrison to bring before us the shades of Avalon. Acker is reported to have described Van as a nice guy and expressed some surprise that when Van offered him a lift home to the West Country after a recording session it was by private plane rather than by car!

My last musical selection to showcase Acker’s gifts is a wonderfully romantic song by the sadly lost siren of English folk music – the incomparable Sandy Denny. It would be hard to beat this record for an example of distilled English melancholy.

Acker Bilk was a hard working musician who never stopped making records and performing for his loyal audience. He played his heart out every time he lifted his clarinet and he leaves a marvellous legacy of recordings filled with humanity and joy which will always find an audience.

Acker Bilk born on January 28 1929 died on November 2 2014 (Ar dheis De go raibh a anam)

This post dedicated to my son Tom: avid music fan, Acker Bilk devotee and a proper chip off the old block.

Post Christmas update!

For those of you who were concerned about whether Tom would receive his clarinet I am happy to report that Santa’s Sleigh made a pin point landing in the meadow near our house so that when Tom woke up on Christmas morning a clarinet was indeed poking out of his stocking! We are getting used to Tom’s version of Stranger On The Shore – which is somewhat more free form than Acker Bilk’s version!