Sunday 12 January 2014

Roger Turner and Urs Leimgruber

St Margaret’s Church, Manchester, Jan 10, 2014 


Here’s a youtube clip of a gig I went to on Friday: -

People think of free jazz as non-commercial, but I think Turner and Leimgruber are missing out on a potential revenue stream here. The opening ten seconds would make a very good ringtone, and the music would make a very effective alarm call, being taut, prickly, attentive and generally wide awake. 

Actually, words can't convey how good this concert was. It was a privilege to see two masters at the top of their game. The music seemingly organised in discrete cells of sounds, so there was never repetition and nothing to interrupt the free flow, or impede the instant responsiveness of the duo. It was fascinating on a neurological level, and  simulated the fluidity of thinking. What a joy to witness thought that is open and can assimilate change, and how rare!  

The dynamics were extraordinary. That rimshot at 4.40 elicited a laugh from Richard Scott, who was sitting next to me (you can just hear it: Rina was recording on the other side of me). But such explosions were the more powerful for the contrast with the silence all around. At another point Leimgruber was playing his saxophone a few inches away from his mouth, so all you heard was the sound of air in his cheeks and the rhythmic clicking of his fingers on the keys. The musicians had created their own micro-cosmos, where every small, fragile sound was sharply defined. The effect was to magnify detail and stop time. Little gestures implied grandiose gestures: the outlay of energy was the same. And the music was rich in proportion to all the things one didn’t hear. 

It’s a testimony to the intimacy of the space, and St Margaret’s - a veritable art church, with paintings and sculptures outnumbering the sacred decorations - has near-miraculous acoustics. 

Roger Turner’s modus operandi is to load super-abundant energy onto tiny detail and small noises. The results are infinitely more expressive than any amount of bombast. For evidence, look at another extraordinary performance, captured on youtube:

It’s a non-verbal Sam Beckett. The human condition in stark abbreviation. Marvellous.  

Whereas this (following a trail through)…

is paradisiacal and sublime.  

Contrary to recent experiences (and returning to St Margaret’s), the free jazz youngbloods acquitted themselves well, with Julie Kjaer, Andrew Cheetham, David Birchall and Seth Bennett making the trajectory from tentative exploration to confident exhilaration with nary a slip. 

Richard Scott, who occupied the interval slot, crouched boffin-like over an electronic circuit that sprouted a fecundity of wires. It would be an understatement to say that Scott is really onto something here. His first, purely improvised, contribution made me think of the gurgling test-tubes from The Man in the White Suit. Praise doesn’t come higher than this. His second and third pieces, a little more pre-meditated apparently, displayed more gravitas and evoked ‘Gesang der Junglinge’ by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Again, praise doesn’t come higher than this. 

Thursday 9 January 2014

Why P.J. Harvey has risen and John Humphrys has fallen

I realise that the subtext of all my comments in the last blog (A Christmas Medley) could be summarised in a paraphrase of a Clash song: “I’m so bored with the BBC”. Whilst they didn’t redeem themselves totally with the PJ Harvey-edited edition of Today it gave a very rare glimpse of a more radical worldview. 

The first thing I heard when I tuned in, assuming it was a normal news day, was someone (John Pilger, it turned out) deriding Barack Obama for the crocodile tears he shed in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell in Robben Island. This from the keeper of keys at Guantanamo. And then he turned on Mandela himself, lambasting him as one of the boys whom the Western powers felt they could do business with. I was amazed. I was stupefied. I turned up the radio full blast so that Lozenge could hear it in bed. 

“Tomorrow we’ll have an alternative view of civilian deaths in Iraq,” said presenter Sarah Montague hastily. Yes, I’m sure we will.  

The songs were apropos, showed the taste of a pro musician and were not inchoately angry. The match of song and news is a forgotten art and I welcomed its partial return (a note for Today producers: Stanley Accrington is a genius at crafting topical songs and is more consistently funny than 'Thought For the Day'). The poems were more successful still, thanks to Ralph Fiennes' beautiful diction. Rowan Williams’ contribution actually clarified some of my thinking about the limitations of the protest song. And Charles Simic’s ‘Austerities’ could make you weep. Or not. The reading took about thirty seconds but not one second was spared for it to resonate. Instead, the weather forecast was given its customary breathless trot to meet those inviolate pips on the hour. It's the rigidity of the format (of Today in particular, the medium in general) that makes thought and reflection impossible. 

Find it at 01:56:55 on  

Anyway, it’s business as usual today, I notice, with news of Tesco’s poor Christmas sales performance delivered in grave tones and the usual line-up of politicians, economists and weasels. The official version has been reinstated, as on all the other 364 days of the year. 

I do have a vague recollection of a news programme with a left-wing agenda. BBC2. It boasted contributions from John Pilger, James Cameron (the sainted late journalist and not the bombastic film director) and the late great Ivor Cutler. The thought makes me sigh for long gone yesterdays of hope. Can anyone remember what it was called?   

Friday 3 January 2014

A Christmas Medley

Including Dr Who, University Challenge, the British class system and gender difference; together with a comparison study between the seventies and now...

I didn’t see much TV this Christmas. I don’t know anybody who did, except that Alex disappeared at 7.30pm on Christmas Day to tune into Dr Who in his room. When he came down he was skipping, and chanting to a tune of his own creation, “Matt Snow is gone”. It seems the current team in charge of Dr Who have turned Alex’s passive adulation into something like betrayal, with poor Matt Snow as the lightning rod of his seething resentment. So the Doctor’s regeneration was the cause of celebration. For me,  Dr Who is too slick by half - some of the Christopher Eccleston episodes are among the best TV ever (oh, those children in their gas masks!) - and a return to wobbly sets would be welcome. 

Anyway, the one exception to the TV ban is Christmas University Challenge, which I catch up with on iPlayer. I’ve gotten into the habit of tuning in at lunchtime. I’ve found Paxo goes well with soup. 

What happens here, as I'm sure you know, is that competitors are drawn from the past alumni of some academic establishment rather than the current crop. I like it because it conclusively demonstrates how the great and the good, the opinion-formers, the Oxbridge elite and the chattering classes are actually very, very dim. Or, to be fair, they're just as thick as the rest of us. 

This might be intentional. Jeremy Paxman, a master of scorn, once exposed the hollowness of power with a book called Friends in High Places: Who Runs Britain (I seem to recall). Now he's utilising the quiz show format to make the same point. 

As I get older, I grow more impatient with representatives of the ruling classes, even liberal ones; even those who donate their services free to the BBC. Poor loves, public ridicule is a price worth paying for self-publicity.

I come from Middlesbrough, a magical place where the middle classes didn’t exist. Sigh! 

Meanwhile, a poll the other day showed that a majority (I can't say how many exactly: my attention wanders when numbers are mentioned) believed that the world would be a better place if women ruled. 

It seems obvious to me that the world would be nearly as bad, but in different ways. I have a suspicion that the changes that have crept into the workplace - the rise of Health and Safety, the new Calvinist work ethic, the smiling exterior that masks bad behaviour and skulduggery - are simply the outward signs of women’s higher status in the workplace. The problem is, it’s the wrong women who gain power. 

Back in the seventies, when men dominated, the day’s labours ended as soon as the pubs opened at eleven o’clock in the morning, and we had power cuts for four days out of seven and no one noticed (at least I didn’t, even though I know all the words to ‘All Right Now’ by Free). And Saville and Hall et al went around molesting girls with impunity. Hmm!  

Sweet Emma and a New Orleans Mystery

Sweet Emma, otherwise Emma Barrett, was a powerhouse pianist and affectless singer from old New Orleans. A recent find, New Orleans’ Sweet Emma And Her Preservation Jazz Hall Band (Preservation Hall, VPS-2), has, with one bound, just joined Echoes From New Orleans (Bunk Johnson et al: Storyville 670 203) and Bille and Dede Pierce, New Orleans: The Living Legends (Riverside RLP 370), not to mention Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines (Philips BBL 7046), as defining statements of the miracle of New Orleans (trad jazz division).  

Sweet Emma! What a performer! Immediate, direct, indomitable, and with a hint of defiance. This, doubtless directed at the ones who patronised her because of her unconventional looks - she was slouchy and skinny with expressive features and literally tied bells to her garter - in a city dedicated to hedonism. Whilst Emma embodies the pleasure principle in music, and, indeed, in existence, it didn’t prevent her from essaying a desperately vulnerable and moving ‘Closer Walk With Thee’. 

New Orleans’ Sweet Emma And Her Preservation Jazz Hall Band is wonderful, and unreservedly recommended to anyone keen to go back to the source of the music, away from all those hearty revival copycats. It swings with exuberance. 

But, and this is what I’m leading up to, my copy is signed on the back not by Sweet Emma and band but by a later aggregation of New Orleans musicians. I vaguely recognise some of the names, and a little research on Google has fleshed out some gaps in my knowledge. 

Among the more legible of the autographs, Chester Jones, played drums with the Eureka Brass Band, and Jeanette Kimball is a doyenne of New Orleans pianists, maintaining the New Orleans tradition of leaders recruiting femme pianists (see Lil Armstrong and, indeed, Emma Barrett herself). Louis Nelson, a trombonist, and Joe ‘Cornbread’ Thomas, a reed player and vocalist, were old-timers active in New Orleans up until the seventies. 

This just about exhausts my sleuthing and leaves two signatures unaccounted for. James ‘something-or-other’ Boaz (?) and the dominant scrawl on the centre right vertical. This latter is too flamboyant to be understood, which was also the fate of many a New Orleans jazzman. 

Can anyone help? 

Further viewing:

The Complete Chris Ackroyd vs Vladimir Putin 1-61

Chris Ackroyd, who manages to lead a fulfilled life without a computer, asked if I could send a message to the world. Well, I sometimes have...