Jazz Matters: David Murray

It was my friend, the late David Kresh, who first attuned me to the controlled fury that is David Murray. A one person compendium of the tenor saxophone, a Murray solo can stretch from the honk and rasp of the R & B bands in which he learned his trade, to the keening stratospheric upper-register yelps of an Albert Ayler and the avant-garde, without straying far from the rich and muscular mainstem of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. In print, Murray has vouchsafed Paul Gonsalves as a major influence, and if that isn’t always tonally evident, it is present in the way he muscles rhythmically from phrase to phrase, line to line – evident also in that the length of most Murray solos seems  inspired by Gonsalves’ famous 27 chorus solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue in front of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

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I first saw David Murray play at a smallish club in Nottingham, after that in the brutal splendour of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, and then again, last week, at another small venue, the Vortex in Dalston, east London. The first of two nights and to say it was packed would have been an understatement; jazz & crime fiction aficionado, Bob Cornwell and I had snagged the last pair of seats going, close up against the stage with our backs to the window facing out onto Gillett Square – any closer and I would have on top of the drummer’s kit rather than alongside it.

Humourously bemused by the weather – it was a day of unending torrential rain and he had flown in that morning without as much as a coat – Murray was in a relaxed mood (he even sang, pleasingly, on a couple of numbers)  and played, I thought, well within himself, eschewing much of the ferocity of which he’s capable. Which is not to say that he didn’t play with great virtuosity and rhythmic brilliance.

Sharing the front line with trombonist Paul Zauner, with whom he’s played, off and on, since the 80s, Murray was backed by bassist Wolfram Derschmidt and drummer Dusan Novakov, with Carlton Holmes at the piano. It may have been a relatively new rhythm section– he had to refer to a scrap of paper before announcing their names – but they had no problems following the shifts and changes, and soloed well. Sitting as close to Novakov as I was, I was able to follow his playing closely, my admiration soured only by the regret that I’d swopped my drum kit for a pair of DJ turntables somewhere back in the 70s and never pushed my own playing beyond the merely passable when I’d had the chance. I can dream, can’t I?

Here’s something I wrote after seeing Murray on that first occasion …

Grace Notes

Let’s say it’s one of those
insubstantial inner-city days,
from the flower beds in the park
to the slim-hipped cellist
playing the inevitable Bach.

And say, strolling home, I chance to pass
this bar just hours after David Murray
has jet-lagged in from New York.
It’s light enough still for the doors
to be open out onto the street;
the sound and the small crowd
draw me inside, and there on stage
before bass and drums he stands:
back arched, chest pigeoned forward,
horn angled outwards as he rocks
lightly back from heel to toe,
toeing the line of a calypso so true,
the crowd, as one, leans back and smiles,
relaxed, not noticing those heels
have lifted with an extra bounce
and before anyone can blink
his left leg kicks out in the curve
of a high hurdler; his tenor twists
and soars and lifts us, holds us to him,
wrapped in curlicues of sound,
blessed by the effortless grace
of his playing.

from Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

 

 

 

Old Coppers Never Die …

… with any luck, they live on into an easeful retirement … Look at Charlie Resnick, for instance, in the final scene of my dramatisation of Darkness, Darkness, which was produced at Nottingham Playhouse last October … The scene is the chapel garden following the funeral of a young woman who went missing during the Miners’ Strike: after a conversation with another officer who is leaving the force and moving away, Resnick moves downstage and addresses the audience.

RESNICK : Difficult things, endings. Goodbyes. Trying to find the right thing to say, the right thing to do.

Barry Hardwick earlier, in the chapel, stumbling over his last few words, tears blinding his eyes. Any anger, resentment there’d been between himself and Jenny, set aside. Maybe some day them as stood either side of the picket line’ll feel the same … and maybe not. Some things too big, happen, to ever forget.

For me now, it’s going to be a matter of going on from day to day. Taking small pleasures while I can. A decent cup of coffee. Saturdays at Meadow Lane. A glass of Scotch. Charlie Parker. Lester Young. (BEAT) There’s this CD I saw in the window of Music Inn. Thelonious Monk in Amsterdam. I might stroll up there later and take a listen.

THE SOUND OF JAZZ PIANO, SLIGHTLY DISCORDANT, RISES UP …

What was it Lynn said? That bloke who plays piano as if he had no arms? Anyone who can play like that without hands – got to be worth a listen, eh?

… AS RESNICK WALKS OFF STAGE AND THE LIGHTS SLOWLY FADE.

CURTAIN

Didn’t think about killing him off, then? someone asked, after reading the novel on which  the play was based. Well, yes. But never for more than the odd moment; didn’t have the heart.

And, of course, for Charlie there’s another life, still happily continuing. A life on the internet: e-books. A life in translation. Darkness, Darkness itself was published in French by Rivages as Ténèbres, Ténèbres in 2015 …

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…and in German as Unter Tage, in a fine edition from Ars Vivendi in 2016.

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And now Donmay Publishing of Taiwan are to publish all 12 Resnick novels in Chinese, beginning with Lonely Hearts, which first saw the light of day in 1989, and finishing with Cold in Hand and Darkness, Darkness in 2022. I hope I’m around to see them.

The cover design for the first in the series arrived today for my approval and what could I say, other than I think it is beautiful. Original and beautiful.

lonely hearts tw cover

 

Music Matters: Monk, Feldman & That August iPod Shuffle

With the news that Apple are to discontinue manufacturing iPods and their ilk [because nowadays we all have smartphones, right?] who knows how many more months of shuffling through my music collection will be available for blogging? But until my neat little device finally shuffles off its [doubtlessly built-in] mortal coil, this is what my iPod threw at me today …

  1. Tangled Up in Blue : Bob Dylan, from Blood on the Tracks
  2. Jumpin’ at the Woodside : Benny Goodman, from BG in HiFi
  3. Gulf Coast Highway : Nanci Griffith, from Little Love Affairs
  4. Stone for Bessie Smith : Dory Previn, from Mythical Kings & Iguanas
  5. Angel : Aretha Franklin, from Twenty Greatest Hits
  6. Stairway to the Stars : Milt Jackson & John Coltrane, from Bags & Trane
  7. I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love : Dusty Springfield, from Something Special
  8. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore : Ernestine Anderson, from Live From Concord to London
  9. Winter is Gone : John Renbourn, from John Renbourn
  10. I Should Have Known Better : The Beatles, from A Hard Day’s Night
  11. Sir Charles at Home : Vic Dickenson Septet, from The Essential Vic Dickenson
  12. All Blues : Chet Baker, from The Last Great Concert

The above is what I’m likely to listen to while wandering the streets of Kentish Town or strolling up hill and down dale on Hampstead Heath, a good part of the pleasure coming from the juxtapositions that are thrown up and from encountering something you’d quite forgotten – in this case, Renbourn’s lilting Winter is Gone. As against that, there’s the music I’m currently listening to in a more positive way, stuff – often newly acquired – that sits close to the stereo [yes, the stereo, remember?] and gets played frequently.

Monk 1

First and foremost, then, this double CD of tracks which come from a 1959 session by the Thelonious Monk Quartet [Monk, piano; Charlie Rouse, tenor sax; Sam Jones, bass; Art Taylor, drums] with the addition on some tracks of the French tenor player, Barney Wilen. These recordings were made in New York with the intention of being used on the soundtrack of Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but never used. The master tapes lay hidden away in the archives of Wilen’s manager, Marcel Ramono, until 2014.

Monk – why would one be surprised by this? – made no attempt to tailor his music to Vadim’s film or its requirements, and it was never used. The tunes are, for the most part, familiar from amongst Monk’s compositions – Rhythm-a-Ning; Well, You Needn’tPannonica; Crepuscule with Nellie – the only ‘outsider’ being Monk’s version of the hymn, We’ll Understand it Better By and By. Familiar or not, this was a terrific session, recorded with beautiful clarity. Whether sparked by the presence of Barney Wilen in the studio or other factors that could only be speculated upon, Monk is in especially fine form and the band, propelled along by the rhythm section of Jones and Taylor, play superbly well. Taylor is magnificent on the opening Rhythm-a-Ning – quite possibly the best version of this much-recorded piece I’ve yet heard. A delight.

Feldman

From one iconoclast to another. I first got to know Feldman’s music through his largely choral piece Rothko Chapel, which was first performed in the non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas, which has fourteen of Rothko’s canvasses on its octagonal walls. Feldman and Rothko were friends, just as he was friendly with Philip Guston and other New York painters of the 50s and early 60s. Sit patiently in front of Rothko’s work and it begins slowly to move before your eyes, to bleach into your consciousness, and Feldman’s music works in much the same way. For Bunita Marcus is a composition for solo piano and it lasts just short of 73 minutes. It requires patience and repays it plentifully.

 

Robert Frank: The Americans, 2

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Robert Frank: Crosses on the site of a road accident. U.S> 91. Idaho.

Crosses on the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91. Idaho

It started when I told Jerry not to take the wheel. Look at you, I said; he was so close to falling-down drunk, if it hadn’t been for the way he was bouncing off the walls, he’d have been eyeballing the floor. Will you get a look at the state you’re in? Well, of course, it was the last thing I should have said. I mean, whatever else he was, sober or drunk, that Jerry always was the world’s most cussed son of a bitch. Besides, by then we’d already hit on these two girls, dark-skinned, like maybe they had some blood in them, you know what I’m saying, and the way they was swallowing down shot after shot, barely stopping to wipe their mouths across the backs of their hands – Hot! Jerry grins at me when we’re out to take a piss. Hot and not a day past fifteen. He was wrong about that. The taller one, Marcie, she was sixteen years, three months, so it turned out; Sheryl, she would have been seventeen three weeks this Labor Day. Anyway, Marcie and me climbed right in the back, Sheryl up front with Jerry, real close, one of her legs hooked over his knee. We had this pack of Coors swimming in a bucket of day-old ice down by my feet. Petey, Jerry said, swinging round his head, pop me one of those. I saw his face, just for that moment, bright in the headlights, Jerry having the time of his life, smiling his cock-eyed smile.

When they rolled the truck back over and reached inside, mine were the only arms that reached back.

from Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998)

Robert Frank: The Americans, 1

I’ve just spent an enjoyable week at the Courtauld Gallery Summer School, following, along with a small group of other students, a programme devised and taught by Tim Satterthwaite, Living Cities: The photography of Urban Life in Europe and America, 1920-1989. Modernism to street photography; art photography to social documentary. Fascinating stuff – and centrally placed, Robert Frank’s 1958 book, The Americans.

Not least for its fine and freewheeling introduction by Jack Kerouac, The Americans has long been one of my favourite books of photographs, three of the images – Ranch Market, Hollywood: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina & Crosses at the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91, Idaho – the subject of a short sequence of pieces which appeared in my 1998 Smith/Doorstop collection, Bluer Than This.

Here’s one …

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Robert Frank: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina

Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina.

They don’t want me to hold this child. All them righteous brothers with the anger and their shades. Sisters, too. Wave placards in my face and shout and spit and sound their horns. One of them come right up to me, sanding here with this precious boy in my arms, and says, “Sister, can’t you see that’s the Devil’s child?” Well, I ain’t his sister, nor about to be, ain’t got no sister ‘cept Merilee, and she passed on having her third. No, if there’s anything I am, it’s this child’s mother, near as can be, doing everything for him his own mother don’t do. ‘Sides, you just have to look in this sweet baby’s face to know he ain’t no Devil. See that sweet little angel mouth, way that skin shine so white and flawless like a doll’s; and his eyes, how they stare out at you, never looking away, not blinking, like they already owned the world.

 

Yes, I know what I said …

… no more novels after the last, Darkness, Darkness, the final book in the Resnick series that was published in 2014, and certainly nothing more involving retired police detective Frank Elder, who last saw the light of day way back in 2006 in Darkness and Light [bit of a theme going on there] but it seems as if Frank’s retirement is pretty much as water tight as mine, and I’m truly delighted to be able to say the manuscript of a new Elder novel, the fourth, has been delivered and happily accepted, the deal has been done and William Heinemann will publish the new Elder novel, Body & Soul, in April, 2018.

Scan

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Listening to Jazz, 4

So, appropriately in the light of the centenary of Thelonious Monk’s birth, here’s the last of four extracts from my work chosen by Sascha Feinstein for the summer 2017 issue of Brilliant Corners. This comes from the novel, In a True Light, which is set partly in New York in the 50’s, partly in London in 2001.

Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid shirt, had stood on line at the Five Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he was able to find squashed him close to several others on a table right up against the stage. Monk soloing against the rhythm, fingers held stiff above the keyboard then jabbing down, the bright percussive sound chiming through the buzz of conversation, clink of glasses, the occasional shout of laughter from the back of the crowded room.

Monk wearing a pale jacket loose across his shoulders, pale green, silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt, dark hair neatly, recently trimmed, no hat tonight, no hat, goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling  for a rhythm in the bottom hand, rocking back upon the piano stool and then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body, and the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewed right and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed at the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for the underlying pulse. And Coltrane, John Coltrane, horn hooked over his shoulder, head down, fingers fluttering from time to time over imaginary keys, stands mute, focussed, waiting his time.

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Art Chronicles: Philip Guston

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Philip Guston: Dial, 1956

Philip Guston’s work as a painter is interesting in that it seems to divide quite startlingly into two disparate styles: first he was an abstract expressionist and then he was not.

I find his earlier, abstract paintings quite beautiful, if difficult to analyse or describe. Well, he was, at this time in his career, an abstractionist after all and that’s part of the point. Perhaps it’s easier to begin with what they were not. Not for him the aggressive, flung down marks that distinguish Pollock, not the formal, slowly reverberating heaviness of Rothko; not the cosying up to landscape of Joan Mitchell or Helen Frankenthaler. If there’s a comparison at all, maybe it’s with the geomorphic canvasses of Sam Francis. [Though my daughter has just wandered into the room, glanced at the above image on the screen, and said, “That looks like an angry Joan Mitchell,” so what do I know?]

What you do find in Guston’s paintings at this time – as in “Dial”, above – is a clustering of colour towards the centre, clumps and blotches of orange and red, the surrounding canvas fading into pinks and greys and blues. Is that the sky? Is that the sea?

In October, 1970, with an exhibition of new work at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, it all changed. Farewell, abstraction; hello, figuration. But this was the figuration of comic books, of Robert Crumb, of German artists like Max Beckmann; this was vulgar, grotesque, confrontational. The critics hated it; accused Guston of betrayal. Below is the famous self-portrait from this period, the artist as a member of the Ku Kluk Klan.

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Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969

This was art in the age of Kissinger and Nixon, the continuing war in Vietnam. “What kind of a man was I,” Guston said, “sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything and them going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”

Among Guston’s responses to the political situation was a series of some 80 cartoons under the title “Poor Richard”, which caricatured Nixon along with his close confederates  Spiro Agnew and Henry Kissinger – the later shown merely as a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles. Nixon himself is shown as a sweaty self-publicist, with thick stubble and a phallic nose, elongating in Pinocchio fashion with each successive lie.

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Originally intended for publication in 1971, the drawings were only published finally in 2001 by the University of Chicago Press. Until 29th July they are on show at the Hauser and Wirth Gallery in London, along with works from The Phlebitis Series of 1975 and the magnificent and coruscating painting, “San Clemente”, showing Nixon dragging his sorely affected leg along the beach in extreme pain.

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Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975