Friday, July 20, 2012

Mixtapes and old friends

I come from a small town in Northern Spain, in the Basque Country. Although we had a good jazz festival nearby, in San Sebastián, music-wise there was not much going on. A neighbour ran the only bookshop in town, and I spent many idle hours at the best of two tiny record shops. This was a time before the internet, before mp3, before recordable CDs. Any music sharing was made through borrowing of actual records, or dubbing on cassettes.

At the time I was heavily into blues and I was slowly entering jazz and somehow, probably by the sheer amount of time I spent at the shop, I became friends with another regular named Ketxus.

Ketxus (Keh-choose) was ten years older than me. He was a cool guy, with huge sideburns; he looked like Peter Fonda on Easy Rider. A music lover, he ran a small stationery shop in another town, he had a girlfriend, a car, a nice acoustic guitar, and a somewhat eclectic record collection, mostly LPs. Like many people from his generation, he loved beer and spliffs. To his credit, I never saw him drunk or high, and he never ever pushed none of that onto me. He was cool.

Along the years he made me a few tapes, with his own hand-crafted covers and hand-written information, with music that I didn't know but he thought I would like. Of those I still have three: a Carmen McRae compilation of 1970s recordings, Dizzy and Basie's The Gifted Ones (Pablo), and the first Charlie Parker I ever owned.

It may have been my age, my starvation for music, or his good judgement about my taste, but those tapes made a very strong impression (so much so, that now I own all that music on legit CDs). The Carmen McRae I loved. The Gifted Ones too, especially for the opening "Back to the Land" and the filler he added at the very end, Miles Davis' "It Never Entered My Mind", recorded in 1957 at the Café Bohemia. However, it was the Charlie Parker tape the one that made the deeper impression. Until then I hadn't been quite convinced by his music, but, for some reason, I clicked with this tape and it kicked me into Bird for good. It has some studio recordings (originally on Dial), as well as some excellent live selections, namely the ones from Carnegie Hall 1949. I got so hooked that I actually learnt to play the head to "Ornithology" on the guitar from that tape, after several weeks and a lot of REW-ing and FFWD-ing. Bird has been one of my heroes ever since, and it was thanks to Ketxus.

We had some funny adventures together, best of all, an improbable gig by Jimmy Dawkins at a discotheque in the middle of nowhere in the Basque coast, where the bluesman got really angry at some nutter who threw – rolled, rather – a bottle of bear onto the stage, and ended up playing "Hey Joe" so one member of the audience would just shut up.

Some years later, I paid my friend back. Iñaki, the record shop owner, and I had this thing about identifying and finding difficult records for the sake of it or for actual customers, and for several years the top of the list was taken by Ketxus. He was crazy about a Stanley Turrentine album he had on tape, with no other information than the personnel and the tunes in it. Iñaki had tried his best – even in a trip to the US – and we couldn't even figure out the title and label of the record. I was already living abroad when one day, while browsing a Japanese book on the Blue Note label, I saw the cover and info of Turrentine's Straight Head, a Blue Note album from 1984 that has fallen into the cracks of history. I found a decent copy on eBay, bought, and, without telling him anything, had it mailed to my friend's address in Spain. Soon after I got an excited SMS saying “oh, man, this is the one, this is it!”

After I left my town for good I didn't always see Ketxus when I visited. About a couple of months ago I bought The Gifted Ones on CD and thought of Ketxus again. Perhaps I'd sent him some music, or give him a call to tell him about my very late discovery of The Band, which would make him laugh. I googled him, and learnt that he died one year ago this week. He was only 52, but his good heart failed him.

He was just a regular guy, but I won't forget him.

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