It has been twenty years since the passing of English composer and multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes (1949-1997), the founder of Penguin Cafe Orchestra. To mark the Anniversary, Erased Tapes have reissued Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s final studio album ‘Union Cafe‘, including a vinyl edition for the first time (December 1st, 2017).
It was 1972 in the South of France when Simon had an unfortunate experience with food poisoning which lead to a much more fortunate circumstance when a vivid dream, induced from his illness and depicting a dystopian future, conceived the Penguin Cafe Orchestra; a charming place where solace, harmony, and the orchestra’s unique music could be found amidst brutal concrete structures and darkness. For the following 25 years, Simon carried out this vision bringing brightness into a world full of noise. Sadly, after his passing, the original orchestra disbanded, but the doors to this happy place reopened when his son Arthur Jeffes decided to continue his father’s legacy under the name Penguin Cafe.
Speaking about the record, Arthur Jeffes said:
“Union Cafe marked a move towards a definitive English pastoral sound combined with larger string arrangements set against longer solo piano pieces. With this last album, they got even closer to the PCO idea of squaring the circle of intellectually challenging modern music that is still actually beautiful. For me, this has always been a contender as my favourite PCO album, and the fact that it never ended up on vinyl was more to do with the way things were in the early 90s, and chance rather than it being deliberate. So in that sense, this release is righting an old wrong. The slow development of the pieces means that you can really get lost in them and vinyl is, of course, the perfect way to do that.”
Growing up, Simon Jeffes travelled all over the world as his father’s work entailed many foreign postings, his early life was spent on the move around Canada and Europe. He played in an R’n’B band at school and when he left, he studied classical guitar and music theory at music college. Swiftly disillusioned with the factory-like conditions in which he was being taught, Jeffes dropped out and joined a 10 piece avant-garde guitar ensemble, Gilberto Biberian’s Omega Players. Following this, in 1972 he got on the Trans Siberian Railway and spent four months at the other end in Japan. This was where he first became interested in ethnic music, particularly African sounds, which you can often hear on the work of PCO.
The music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Simon broadly regarded as “a very big yes to the survival of the heart in a time when the heart is under attack from the forces of coldness, darkness and repression.” When forced to describe it more precisely, he called his music “imaginary folklore” and “modern semi-acoustic chamber music.” Simon Jeffes always conceived his Orchestra to be a fluctuating unit rather than a tightly cast group: aside from one other founder member, the cellist Helen Liebmann, there were no regular performers. Dozens of players passed through the Orchestra’s ranks in the 24 years of its young life. “It is my context as a composer,” he said. “I write for people rather than instruments.” The line up on ‘Union Cafe‘ included Annie Whitehead, Ian Maidman, Julio Segovia, Jeffes’ old friends and allies Geoffrey Richardson and Neil Rennie and of course, Helen Liebmann.
‘Union Cafe‘ was the fifth, and the last studio album by Penguin Cafe Orchestra. It was initially released in 1993 merely on cassette and CD, and will now be given a new breath of life, for the first time available on vinyl, and another chance to reach old and new fans alike.
The continuation of the PCO began at London’s Union Chapel in 2007 when Arthur and the original musicians commemorated Simon 10 years after his death. Another 10 years forward, 2017 will see Penguin Cafe pay tribute to him once again at the Union Chapel on December 11th where they will perform ‘Union Cafe‘ in full – a union from all corners of this magical world.
Robert Raths, founder of Erased Tapes Records explains why this album means so much to him:
“The first song from ‘Union Cafe‘ that I’d unknowingly heard was Nothing Really Blue, performed live by Arthur and his successor band Penguin Cafe at the Barbican in summer 2016. He simply announced it as “another one of my dad’s”, and left me wondering all night about which record it was from… It wasn’t until summer 2017, a whole year later, that Arthur shared his father’s last studio recordings with me. ‘Union Cafe‘ is a record that somehow missed me, simply because it wasn’t available on vinyl like the other records I had gathered over the years. I couldn’t help but feel privileged for the chance to discover another original PCO album. And so I put my headphones on and lay down at the foot of the small lake in Victoria Park to listen to this box of treasures. And as with all of Simon’s works, a whole world appeared in front of my closed eyelids — a world full of love and wonder, that manages to put tears in my eyes, shivers down my spine and a smile on my face. Scherzo And Trio would become the song that manages to brighten up my days, no matter how grey London sometimes gets. Organum would become the piece that Arthur played at my wedding. Cage Dead with its déjà vu-like character would become the theme song to a series of live sessions with artists from all around the world performing in the Sound Gallery, our new home on Victoria Park Road. Songs like Silver Star Of Bologna and Kora Kora, just like all the classic PCO songs, would feel familiar, though I’d never heard them before. Lie Back And Think Of England sounded like the work of a seasoned composer and yet unfamiliar at the same time — it made me wonder if Simon was planning a new adventure for his orchestra. Lastly, Passing Through would remind me that having a hidden track on your album was very popular with bands in the 90s, but finishing your album with the sound of water dripping out of a sink, slowly forming a musical pattern within all the chaos before the record suddenly ends, surely must be the most perfect way to say goodbye.”
Arthur very kindly gave access to the original ‘Union Cafe‘ painting that currently lives in his North London home studio, created by Arthur’s mother Emily Young and now photographed by Alex Kozobolis for this special reissue edition.
‘Union Cafe‘ tracklisting:
1. Scherzo And Trio
2. Lifeboat (Lovers Rock)
3. Nothing Really Blue
4. Cage Dead
6. Yodel 3
8. Another One From Porlock
9. Thorn Tree Wind
10. Silver Star Of Bologna
11. Discover America
12. Pythagoras On The Line
13. Kora Kora
14. Lie Back And Think Of England
15. Red Shorts
16. Passing Through
Order it here: http://phonofile.link/union-cafe
Photo credit: Matt Anker