Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Marrakech in the cool of the evening

Marrakech is a city of powerful experiences, where the sounds, sights and smells of North Africa assault every sense. But what happened next must have been, in the jargon of the day, truly mind-blowing. Nick and his friends went down for a meal in the smart French quarter of Marrakech. As they sat down they noticed the trademark floppy hat of celebrity photographer Cecil Beaton. With him were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Keith's girlfriend Anita Pallenberg and 'several other assorted Stones and hangers-on'... Richard Charkin says that Nick and his friends were astonished. They'd come over 1000 miles from home to immerse themselves in Moroccan culture, only to find themselves in a restaurant with the apostles of the counter culture... Fuelled by some cheap local wine, they told the rock-star party that they should hear their friend... And so it was that The Rolling Stones sat and listened as 18-year-old Nick Drake serenaded them with a selection of Dylan and Donovan covers.
That extract comes from Trevor Dann's Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake. Apocrypha about the antics of pop stars in Morocco abound - witness Hendrix's Castles Made of Sand. But despite that improbable reference to 'Fuelled by some cheap local wine...' - alcohol was unlikely to have been available in a Guelitz restaurant in strictly Muslim Morocco in 1967 - it is a fact that Nick Drake met the Stones in Marrakech.

The 5-star La Moumonia Hotel in Marrakech was a favourite hangout for the Stones, Cecil Beaton and other pop culture celebrities. Long before the swinging sixties the Moumonia was a favourite winter destination for Winston Churchill who wrote that “Marrakesh is simply the nicest place on Earth to spend an afternoon”. In 1943 during a break from the Casablanca Conference, which birthed the Allies' doctrine of 'unconditional surrender', Churchill took American president, Franklin D Roosevelt to visit Marrakech.

My header graphic provides another link between the Moumonia Hotel and a musician who pushed, and continues to push, beyond creative comfort zones. In 1992 African American jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston cut his solo disc Marrakech In The Cool Of The Evening in the basement of La Mamounia using one of the hotel's several grand pianos. The recording was made in tandem with a disc featuring Gnawa musicians from Marrakech on which Randy Weston joins them in a concluding piano improvisation. Both recordings were made directly onto 2-track digital tape using two dummy heads fitted with Blanchet microphones created by filmmaker Vincent Blanchet for location recording. Solo piano sound is probably the hardest to capture, and the piano tone on Marrakech In The Cool Of The Evening is among the best I have ever heard, and it is great jazz as well. The CD is deleted but copies are definitely worth seeking out*, as lossy audio files cannot do justice to the demonstration quality sound.

* The advertising for French cigarette brand Gitans dates the CD cover! No review samples used. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

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