Essential New Music: Mike Cooper’s “Life & Death In Paradise + Milan Acoustic Live 2018”

The moment when it seems like you have nothing to lose can be a good time to strike a deal. That’s how it was for Mike Cooper in 1974. He was bumming around in Spain, stung by the failure of his visionary blend of folk rock and free jazz to gain any traction, working odd jobs and strongly considering ditching music altogether. That’s when a producer recognized Cooper in a bar and offered to put out his next record on his label. Cooper allowed that he would, if he could do so on his terms. He insisted that he be accompanied by the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world, which turned out to be a band with no rock ’n’ roll musicians in it. 

Cooper got his deal, and he made Life & Death In Paradise with a core combo that consisted of South African jazz musicians Louis Moholo on drums and Harry Miller on bass, plus English saxophonist Mike Osborne. While they certainly could rock, they did so while flying free, and that wasn’t all that they did. Cooper comes at you on “Black Night Crash” (which occupies the pivotal center of side one) like Ziggy Stardust lunging for Bob Dylan’s poetic brass ring. Grab it he does, and then he keeps going and going, until he’s chanting some words swiped from a Rolling Stones song while the band pulls up and heads for the stratosphere. But for every flight, there’s a crash. The title track, which weaves in and out of the flip side, celebrates the oceanside life that Cooper had been enjoying in Spain, only to see it go up in smoke. There’s also “Suicide De Luxe,” a soulfully sung but uncompromisingly bleak assessment of Cooper’s relationship to the business he hadn’t quite figured out how to leave.

By the time the album ends, it’s clear that even though Cooper was making the record he wanted to make, something had to change, and it did. After Life And Death In Paradise, he carried on as a musician, but ditched confessional songwriting in order to take up with improvisers and experimentalists. In subsequent decades, Cooper based himself in London and various sunnier locales, improvising with secondhand techno keyboards and using exotica as a platform for critiquing the colonial and capitalist impulses that laid waste to the very places that were supposed to be escapes. But he never totally let go of songs.

Milan Acoustic Live 2018, which is tucked into hard copies of the reissued Life & Death In Paradise, documents Cooper’s recent work in such settings. Cooper doesn’t sing about himself anymore. Original songs like “Approaching Zero” and “Industrial Hazard” use cut-up texts to portray a fractured, confusing world, and a closing performance of folk song “Lord Franklin” mourns sailors who died trying to map a route around the New World. Cooper wields a resonator guitar, a cracklebox (an antique handheld electronic tone generator) and a cell phone loaded with field recordings of tropical birds, running the country blues through an obstacle course strewn with feedback and noise. Heard together, these two albums affirm Cooper’s enduring capacity to turn not much into something special.

—Bill Meyer