If you’ve heard of Eden Ahbez (1908-95), it will be as the composer of the multimillion-selling jazz standard Nature Boy, written for Nat King Cole in 1948 and since covered by everyone from John Coltrane to Lady Gaga. But that was only part of an extraordinary story. Born in Brooklyn, one of 15 children, he was adopted at the age of nine and brought up in rural Kansas before moving to California. He slept under the stars – claiming to live under an L on the Hollywood sign for years – grew his hair and beard to Christ length, embraced vegetarianism, played the piano in a health food shop, followed a Hindu spiritual guru and lived the hippy lifestyle at least two decades before the word “hippy” was coined. Nature Boy’s success made him something of a celebrity, although his only solo LP, 1960’s Eden’s Island, was a flop, and the death of his wife three years later put a stop to his burgeoning musical career.
The artwork for Eden Ahbez’s Dharmalan.
While researching a documentary about him, Ahbez scholar Brian Chidester recently uncovered a cache of sheet music in Washington DC’s Library of Congress that Ahbez had copyrighted between 1961 and 63, and invited the Swedish band Ìxtahuele to interpret these tunes. The orchestrations are similar to those of Eden’s Island – pitched somewhere between the quirky, Latin-tinged exotica of Martin Denny or Yma Sumac and the orchestral chamber pop of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. The melodies pursue a similar Yiddish-accented modal territory to Nature Boy, with harmonic minor and Phrygian dominant scales abounding, played on bamboo flutes, marimba, vibes, Hammond organ, piano and woozy woodwind. Ahbez’s poetry tends to use the proto-flower-power vocabulary shared by Jesus freaks and Buddhist beatniks – enchanted worlds, spiritual pilgrims, sunlit fantasies and so on – but the songs are often arresting. The Lambert, Hendricks & Ross-style hipster jazz of Dharma Man; the Mark Lanegan-style hymnal lament Fire of the Soul; the Disney-ish ditty The Sandal-Maker; the Afro-Cuban ballads The Lion and the Fox and Bwawto – all deserve to be interpreted for years to come.
Released on 11 June
Also out this month
Robert Ames, founder of the London Contemporary Orchestra, is a super-connector in modern music, the arranger and conductor linking the likes of Jonny Greenwood, Frank Ocean, Little Simz, Jónsi and Actress with contemporary minimalists. His solo debut Change Ringing features six meditative, drone-based pieces, but the highlights are Tympanum and Rounds, where Ames’s slow motion, multilayered approach gets more microtonal and harmonically complex. The Chinese composer Pan Daijing is best known for her abrasive, noise-based albums and sonic installations, but her new album Jade is a more introspective, low-volume work – a barrage of claustrophobic, intense metallic drones and discordant electronic voicings, linked by her bleak, Laurie Anderson-style narrations. Bristol’s intriguing Spindle Ensemble features composer and pianist Daniel Inzani backed by vibes, violin and cello. Their second LP, Inkling, features Philip Glass-style minimalism, Morricone-esque exotica, Japanese-inflected C&W and Satie-ish romanticism.
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