ROCK & JAZZ: When dinosaurs ruled the earth

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The Independent Culture
THE ISLAND is a well-run reconverted bingo hall, cropping out into the Ilford High Road, its shores lapped by carbon monoxide tides. Inside is the dancefloor that fashion forgot: The Trammps are doing a vocal PA to 'Disco Inferno', stonewashed denim rules, and ultraviolet light blesses all with severe dandruff and dark yellow teeth. Tonight's main attractions, sunstrip legends Kool & the Gang, are horribly delayed. An MC with an alarming resemblance to Gary Bushell urges the crowd to 'keep on drinking'.

Time passes and he explains the reason for the hold-up - 'a few technical problems with the DAT, for those who understand that kind of thing'. This would seem to be letting the cat out of the bag somewhat, as it implies that Kool & the Gang are going to be miming. When they do finally come on, they aren't miming, but it's soon hard not to wish they were. They seem to have opted to play a set composed entirely of B- sides. The dance routines are so cheesy they can only be fully appreciated with the aid of a stick and some pineapple - just as they should be - but the sound is nowhere. At the door a mountainous bouncer calms a gaggle of distressed nostalgia-seekers. 'Groups always do a lot of songs nobody knows at the beginning to advertise their new album,' he counsels with the wisdom born of experience, 'then they play the good ones at the end.'

And so, happily, it proves. Trainee vocalists give way to old hands and gradually, with 'Joanna' and 'Cherish', Kool & the Gang ease into the mighty back- catalogue preserved for all time on the epic compilation Twice as Kool. There are plenty of founder members on stage - Robert 'Kool' Bell on bass, and original drums, trombone and guitar too - and the street-funk roots which were always there, even beneath the most heinous pop-disco sludge of their commercial heyday, eventually show through. The lustrous mid-Seventies classic 'Summer Madness' takes its place next to later hits like 'Big Fun' and 'Celebration'. The brass section still takes no prisoners, the horn-lines so taut you could floss your teeth with them.

With free-form guitar eminence James Blood Ulmer, musicianship is more formally the order of the night. Joined by fellow virtuosos Jamaladeen Tacuma on bass and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, he fills the Jazz Factory (once the ponytail hell- hole that was Dingwalls, now radically refurbished so you can actually see the stage) with pure, brittle cascades of guitar sound. As was the case with Jimi Hendrix - the man his style is most often compared with - Ulmer's fretwork sometimes gives rise to the heretical wish that he would sing a bit more and play a bit less, but it never does to take issue with a man in a Liberty-print kimono.

All three of the musicians on stage used to play with Ornette Coleman, and all have absorbed his famous harmolodic theory (which boils down to playing whatever you want whenever you want - it won't make you rich but it'll be fun and it saves practising). When they slip suddenly out of chaos and into a recognisable pattern - a disco bass loop or a thrash-metal crunch - the thrill can be intense, but when they start off that way, as with a surprisingly traditional reading of 'Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher', they can get quite dull. Tacuma is the musical star tonight - his bass-playing recalls The Jam's Bruce Foxton in its vibrancy - but Jackson steals the show, emerging from behind his kit to solo on the Mayhorn, a fantastical home-made instrument made out of strapped-together bicycle horns.

Legend has it that Terence Trent D'Arby knew the titles of his first three albums from the beginning. What he didn't foresee was how little the lofty pretensions of his second, Fish Nor Flesh, would appeal to the eight million people who'd bought his debut; or maybe he did and just didn't care. With Symphony or Damn (Columbia, out tomorrow) he rediscovers the big tunes and dazzling vocal self-confidence that made him a star in the first place, but the effect is slightly muted by self-indulgence and over-elaboration.

The album is divided, for no apparent reason, into two parts, dubbed 'Confrontation' and 'Reconciliation', which is quite irritating. More damagingly, the extra space the CD format provides again turns out to be a curse in disguise: this would be a much more complete and satisfying piece of work with 12 songs instead of 16. But D'Arby's talent has always tended to sprawl, and the best songs here - 'Delicate' (a duet with Des'ree) and the Dylan-esque 'Turn the Pages' - are probably the best things he's done. Some of the lyrics are pretty silly - 'You will still be home in time to watch the 'Pops' featuring Chrissie Hynde' - but when has that ever mattered?

Prince gets a thank you on the sleeve (as do Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke and Bruce Springsteen) and so he should - if only his last album could have been this good. Meanwhile, newspaper offices all over the world are silenced by purple carrier

pigeons tapping at the windows. They bear letters from Minneapolis; a shock Paisley Park communique proclaims 'Prince to retire from studio recording'. The great man apparently intends to turn his creative talents to 'alternative media' - including theatre, nightclubs and (I'm sorry but it's true) motion pictures. Fans should not be too distraught - touring plans are not affected, and his record company will still be releasing his 500 unreleased recordings 'well into the 21st century'. The American comedian Steven Wright has a great joke about a man who walked his dog all at once which seems somehow relevant here.

(Photograph omitted)