Big concept, top licks

Irish surname, Latino vibe: Kip Hanrahan is a funkmeister with few peers. By Phil Johnson
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It sounds, at best, unpromising - Latin music from a New York Irish Jew who admits he's a lousy musician, and whose compositions are burdened with impossibly wordy titles like "The September Dawn Shows Itself to Elizabeth and Her Lover on East 18th Street in Manhattan". A British debut by his band in 1985, at, of all places, Tring in Hertfordshire, was met with such extreme incomprehension from the audience and hostility from critics that they haven't been back here since (and that, according to Kip Hanrahan, was one of their better gigs). But the music of Hanrahan, and of the American Clave label which he runs, is rich beyond compare. It's dark, mysterious and sexy, even humorous, and it delights in mixing the obscure with the obvious in a way that is less clever-clever than it sounds. Even if you don't go for the big concept, you can still get off on the riffs, for Hanrahan's band must be among the funkiest in the whole world.

Look, for a start, at the collection of musicians (and these are real bands, not mixes and matches of session players) on his latest album, a series of tracks recorded live over the past 10 years. On keyboards, there is the late, great Don Pullen (who died of cancer in May), along with New Orleans funk-godfather Allen Toussaint. The bass and vocals spots are inevitably held by Jack Bruce (ex-Cream; ex-everyone, really), although Steve Swallow and Andy Gonzalez double up on one track. On guitar is Leo Nocentelli of the Meters, sax is played by either Charles Neville (of the Neville Brothers) or Chico Freeman, and the percussion section is likely to include the finest New York Latin players, such as Milton Cardona, JT Lewis, Jerry Gonzalez and Giovanni Hildalgo. Hanrahan's pulling power is such that he can even get Sting to record on his projects. So what, you begin to think, does he actually do?

It's a good question, too. "I'm a mediocre percussion player," he says. "I always have been. If I kept practising, I'd just be a better-practised mediocre player. But I need to have this music heard so I seek out musicians who can make it better than I imagined it."

It's a method of working often likened to that of a film director. Hanrahan comes up with the script, casts the parts and, like, say, John Cassavetes, lets his players feel their way into roles and improvise lines until the basic template of the script is superseded. "The film director analogy chafes a bit, but it's probably the most truthful," Hanrahan says. "I write the stuff, I understand how it could be, but I need someone like Jack Bruce to embody it. You work with the person until they embody that aesthetic; I don't know anyone else who does the same thing except maybe the old bandleaders or someone like Allen Toussaint."

A more down-to-earth analogy might be a football manager (Hanrahan is a big soccer fan), especially one whose authority is often in dispute, for star striker Jack Bruce is apt to get mighty stroppy if he's asked to play out of position. "I have as many terrible ideas as I have good ones," Hanrahan says, "and I can always ask Jack or the band to do something and they'll say, 'Sod this!' But the reason I will continue working with Jack until I die, or he dies, is that you can see yourself in his dark demons, and those demons need to make themselves heard."

When the band plays live, Hanrahan does very little. "I used to play percussion and I sang, but Jack said it didn't make a lot of sense, so now I walk round the stage like I'm a waiter. I talk to people and rewrite the parts as the concert goes on. Sometimes I make it better, sometimes worse." Hanrahan met Bruce when the bassist played with Carla Bley (Hanrahan had worked with Bley as a percussionist previously), and later asked him to record some vocals when he knew he could not do them justice himself. "I was taken by the intensity of Jack - when he enters a room, the walls vibrate. He could do the vocal things backwards and then tell me how you could take it so much further. He got the intimacy and the asymmetricality of the lyrics exactly and immediately. I was stunned. He and Pullen formed the nucleus of the band, and when they found a chord everyone would follow them."

Hanrahan's own background determined the form of his music; he grew up in the South West Bronx in a neighbourhood once Irish and Jewish but rapidly becoming Puerto Rican and Cuban. "Latin music was the soundtrack to our lives and Joe Cuba was our hero. It was Latin music at parties the first time you got laid. But because I grew up with it and yet it was not my music, I could think critically about it. While Latin musicians would say, 'This is the way the clave [the classic Latin three-two rhythmic measure] is played,' I could mess around with it."

The results have been unusual, to say the least - albums of ritual voodoo music, settings of texts by the writers Ishmael Reed and Paul Haines, productions for the late Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla, and a series of solo sets that has become, well, the only one of its kind, with New York art-punks set alongside the free jazz aristocracy and rock- biz bigwigs. The quality may vary but the aims are always high. As Hanrahan says: "Hey! Even Beethoven wrote some terrible pieces. He needed Jack or Don to tell him to get lost."

n 'All Roads Are Made of the Flesh' is available on the American Clave label, distributed by New Note