Monk x 3

The centenary of Thelonious Monk’s birth has received much deserved, sometimes surprising, attention. Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 no less! [Listen on the BBC iPlayer, if you just happen to have been otherwise occupied each weekday between noon and 1.00pm]. The London Jazz Festival did its bit with a triple-header at London’s Cadogan Hall this Sunday just past, November 19th. Largely pulled together by saxophonist Toni Kofi (Nottingham’s finest) with the help of pianist Jonathan Gee, the ambition was to play every piece that Monk wrote, climaxing with a recreation of the 1959 concert at New York’s Town Hall, in which a selection on his best-known and most often played compositions was played by a 10-piece band in  versions scored by Hal Overton.

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Tony Kofi 

The two afternoon concerts featured a constantly shifting personnel in varying small combinations, largely drawn from the various groups Kofi and Gee have been involved with over the years. No time for lengthy improvisation with all those tunes to fit in, the impression was of a musical kaleidoscope from which certain moments stood out: Byron Wallen prowling around the breadth of stage playing solo trumpet; Tony Kofi and Jason Yarde standing off to one side in shadow, each holding a baritone sax, before starting to play and moving slowly – almost menacingly – towards centre stage; Yarde, again, looping a succession of saxophone lines and overlaying them with slaps and yelps; Jim Rattigan on French horn and Andy Grappy on tuba providing a subtle and sonorous brass wall to first Yarde and then Wallen; Rattigan’s pin drop French horn solo.

Chatting to a couple who’d come up from Southampton in the interval – and Southampton was nothing; one person I spoke to had travelled down from Edinburgh, while his partner had flown in from Moscow – it was clear that, in amongst all that good music, all those musicians, the one person who had caught their eye was drummer Rod Youngs. And it was easy to see why. Originally from Washington DC, Youngs has much of the showman about him, without it ever getting in the way of the overall performance or detracting from those he’s supporting: he’s not brash; he’s not a latter-day Gene Krupa or a Buddy Rich. His rhythm is often springy and floating; his solos give due accord to moments of unsuspected silence, of spaces – of humour. If a drummer can be droll, Rod Youngs is droll.

On his web site it suggests one of his influences was Sid Catlett, and watching him I kept thinking further back to Zutty Singleton, then it was forward to the 50s and 60s and the great Max Roach. Youngs has played with Gil Scott-Heron and Jon Hendricks, with David Murray and Lee Konitz [now there’s a contrast], with Mica Paris and the Jazz Jamaica All Stars, and on this Sunday he played with everyone, from trios to the full band and he was never less than the absolute business.

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Rod Youngs

Intriguing as the first two sessions were, there was always the sense that the Town Hall recreation would be – should be – the day’s crowning glory, and it was. The American trumpeter and arranger, Charles Tolliver, had reconstructed Hal Overton’s scores from the original lp, and they were played by an outstanding band, with a front line of  Ed Jones on tenor, Jason Yarde on alto and Mike Yates on trumpet; Tony Kofi sitting behind and urging  a huge sound from his baritone, with Dennis Rollins alongside on trombone, Jim Rattigan’s French horn and Andy Grappy’s tuba; Jonathan Gee was at the Steinway, Ben Hazleton on the bass and Rod Youngs on drums.

 

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Charles Tolliver & Band. Photo Kat Pfeiffer

I know the original recording quite well, but not well enough to know to what extent, if at all, Tolliver’s scores differed, although there did seem to be more room for solos. There was a gorgeous sonority from the brass – shades of Gil Evans with Miles? – and some outstanding solos, with Ed Jones’ fluent, driving tenor, for me, the pick of the bunch. Although – wait a minute – Gee, who’d been good throughout, was tremendous here, beginning this set with a solo version of ‘In Walked Bud’ and continuing to play in a manner that recalled Monk in its sudden accents and angularities, while never losing the fluidity that’s natural to his own style.

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But it was joyous, that’s the thing. That was the over-riding impression as you shuffled smiling up the aisle with the crowd and stepped through the doors and out into the night. A joyous, heartfelt tribute to a singular musician, a singular composer. What’s the expression? We will not see his like again. Nor hear it, either.

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Monk, Me & the art of Going Down Slow

Some days, over say twenty-four hours or so, you could get to feel your stars have mysteriously fallen into happier than usual alignment.

It began last evening, at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London, where my friend Woody Haut and I were celebrating the publication of our new books – in Woody’s case a novel, Days of Smoke, set in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the maelstrom of 1968, and in mine, a small but beautifully formed [thanks to Five Leaves Publications] collection of short stories, Going Down Slow.

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There were forty or fifty people present; there was wine; Woody and I read and asked each other questions; the audience asked questions – good ones; at the end of it all books were sold and signed. Several of the questions, one way or another, were about music and its place in our work, its importance to our writing. I talked about not really listening to music when I was writing, but occasionally having it playing in an adjacent room, Thelonious Monk, especially; the ear being pricked, attention gathered, by a note or phrase that headed off into a sharp and unexpected direction: truly, the sound of surprise.

Woody’s favourite of my books, alongside Darkness, Darkness, is In a True Light, which is partly set in Greenwich Village in the late 50s, early 60s, and includes a chapter in which the leading character goes to the Five Spot to hear Monk play.

… Monk launches himself along the keyboard in a clattering arpeggio which calls to mind a man falling headlong down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance, not falling, saving himself, miraculously, with an upward swoop, and final, ringing double-handed chord.

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That passage, and that book, are referred to in a recent piece by the American critic and commentator, Bill Ott, published in Booklist Online.

With reference to the centenary  of Monk’s birth, Ott mentions a number of writers who have written about his music in various ways before concentrating, very positively, on my own attempts in both poetry and prose. So positive, in fact, that when I read it my heart gave a little lift and I’ve not yet been able to wipe the smile off my face.

Good things come in pairs?

A matter of a few hours later, the first review of Going Down Slow arrived, this by Jim Burns in the Northern Review of Books. “If anyone should be tempted to think of Harvey as ‘just a crime writer’ they should think again.”

Thanks, Jim; thanks, Bill; thanks, Woody; thanks, Thelonious: thank my lucky stars.

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Looking for Charlie Resnick: Slow Burn

Some nights, Resnick thought, you knew sleep wasn’t destined to come; or that, if it did, it would be haunted by dreams pitched just this side of nightmare, broken by the startled cry of the telephone heralding some new disaster, awful and mundane. So there he was, at close to two a. m., ferrying through the sparsely filled refrigerator for the makings of a snack, during cold milk – yes,milk – into a glass, opening the back door so that Pepper could join Dizzy in a little night-time prowling, hunting down whatever was slower or slower-witted than themselves. Miles and Bud were upstairs on his bed, missing, perhaps, his bulk and warmth while relishing  the extra space.

Carrying his sandwich through into the front room, he pulled an album from the shelf and slipped the record from its tattered sleeve. The Thelonious Monk Trio on Prestige. Through the smeared glass of the front bay, he could see the outlines of houses left and right along the curve of street, roofs bulked against a city sky that was never truly dark. Faint, the hum of occasional cars, one block  away on the Woodborough Road. Monk’s fingers, flat, percussive, treading their way through ‘Bemesha Swing’ like an overgrown child lurching along the pavement, crack by crack. It was no surprise when the phone finally rang, nor that the voice at the other end was his sergeant’s, weary and resigned.

That deep into the early hours it was no more than a five minute drive to the old Lace Market, the corner of Stoney Street and King’s Place and the Victorian conversion that for years had housed Jimmy Nolan’s jazz club and bar. Acrid and pungent, the scent of burning struck Resnick as he climbed out of the car. Smoke eddied on the air. Fire officers, purposeful yet unhurried, damped down smouldering wreckage; making safe. Resnick knew they would already have isolated, as far as possible, the area where the fire began. The building itself was little more than a blackened shell.

Four cats still rather than just the one; vinyl albums instead of CDs, back before vinyl was the trendy thing: Resnick in 1999. A while ago.

‘Slow Burn’, the short story of which this is the beginning, actually began life a year earlier, as a 60 minute radio script written for BBC 4 producer, David Hunter, which was originally broadcast in 1998 and has been repeated on several occasions, most recently  this week on Radio 4 Extra. You can still catch it on the BBC Radio iPlayer, where it’s available, from today, for another 27 days.

David Hunter was the producer who marshalled my dramatisations of two Resnick novels onto the airwaves, Wasted Years in 1995 and Cutting Edge in 1996, each in several parts. Slow Burn followed these in 1998 and my original radio script became a short story, which was first published a year later in the collection, Now’s the Time, by my own small press, Slow Dancer, that collection being reprinted, in an enlarged edition, by William Heinemann in 2002 and in 2013 the Arrow paperback below.

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There has only been one representation of Resnick on screen [so far – hope springs eternal et cetera] that by Tom Wilkinson in two television adaptations – Lonely Hearts & Rough Treatment, produced by Colin Rogers for Deco Films and TV and the BBC, and shown in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Tom reprised the role in the first of the radio versions mentioned above [Wasted Years in ’95], after which Hollywood beckoned and Resnick was personified first by Tom Georgson in Cutting Edge, then Philip Jackson in Slow Burn, and, finally, Keith Barron, in two other dramatised short stories, Cheryl (2001) and Bird of Paradise (2002).

Keith Barron, who sadly died just yesterday, November 15th, was the reader of two abridged versions of the novels Cold Light and Living  Proof, released by Reed Audio in 1995, and Philip Jackson the reader in the excellent ten-part version of Wasted Years, adroitly abridged and directed by Gordon House for BBC Radio 4 and since repeated on a number of occasions.

Most recently, Resnick was brought to the stage by David Fleeshman in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness, directed by Jack McNamara. That’s David, outside the Playhouse, immediately below, and, with Simone Saunders as Catherine Njoroge, in a scene from the play.

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And here’s Tom Wilkinson in Resnick guise, first in a BBC publicity shot and below on the jacket of the French edition of Lonely Hearts, Coeurs Solitaires.

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iPod Shuffle, November 2017

Out for a brisk and chilly stroll on the Heath this morning, taking a break from scripting the ninth and last Qiu Xiaolong novel, Shanghai Redemption, for producer David Hunter and the Inspector Chen series on BBC Radio 4. This is what my iPod served up …

  • The South Coast of Texas : Guy Clark
  • Pannonica : Thelonious Monk (from Les Liaisons Dangereuse)
  • Help Me : Junior Wells
  • Over the Bars : James P. Johnson
  • California Bloodlines : Dave Alvin
  • Haydn Piano Sonata No. 60 : Glenn Gould
  • Little Girl Blue : Bud Shank
  • West End Blues : Louis Armstrong Hot Five
  • Varese – Déserts – 3rd Electronic Interpolation : Polish National Radio Symphony  Orchestra
  • Blind Willie McTell : Bob Dylan
  • Feeling for the Wall : Meshell Ndegocello
  • West of Rome : Cowboy Junkies

Henning Mankel: “After the Fire”

Henning Mankel’s After the Fire, which has just been published here by Harvill Secker in a translation by Marline Delargy, was first published in his native Sweden in 2015, the year that he died. It’s a strange book, strange but compelling – not a crime novel, not a mystery – though there is a mystery smouldering deep at its centre – a story told in the first person by a seventy-year-old former doctor, Fredrik Welin, who has chosen to live alone on one of the remote islands of an equally remote Swedish archipelago. The house he has been living in has belonged to his family for generations and it is his intention to pass it on to his daughter Louise – the daughter he never knew existed until ten years previously, when she was already thirty. But as the book begins, Fredrik is woken by a blaze of light which signals that the house is in flames and he just escapes with his life, the house burning to the ground. It is this event that forces Fredrik out of the carapace into which he has retreated and makes him engage again with the world.

After the Fire is a novel about loneliness, about need; about the fears that come with old age, that of dying most of all. It is a book soaked in mortality. And anger. Frederic is angry with himself – angry at the loss of balance that comes with ageing, at the feelings of lust that still rise up, unbidden and unrequited – angry at the world. He is truculent, standoffish; loses his temper frequently and for little reason, shouts at strangers and at what few friends he has; pursues in embarrassing fashion a woman journalist some thirty years younger.

As the story develops there are other fires, accusations of arson, sudden deaths, and circumstances shake Fredric away from his surly loneliness; his daughter and her partner have a child; the journalist, while still resisting Frederic as a sexual partner, finds in him a salve to ease a loneliness of her own. And gradually, almost against his own inclinations, Fredric comes to a state of equilibrium, of acceptance …

It was already late August.

Soon the autumn would come.

But the darkness no longer frightened me.

Like the winter, death will come.

Mankel has written, of course, about ageing before. In the early Wallander books there is a memorable portrait of Kurt’s father, an obsessive painter driven to put the same scene on canvas after canvas, and, like Fredrik, a man who is quick to anger, slow to reason. Unlike Fredrik (though we may detect, perhaps, early signs) Wallander’s father is suffering from a form of dementia, an illness from which Wallander will suffer himself, the implacable onset of Alzheimer’s Disease chronicled with merciless compassion and understanding in the final novel of the sequence, The Troubled Man.

And, away from the novels themselves, though dependent upon them, there are two, I think, wonderful portrayals on film of ageing men shaking an unsteady fist against the dying of the light: David Warner as Wallander’s father in the British-made series featuring Kenneth Branagh, and the incomparable Krister Henriksson in the final episodes of the Swedish Wallander series.

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Here’s another Whitby poem from Bluer Than This that didn’t make its way into the more recent New & Selected …

The Wrong Wind

The wrong wind
marshals its forces along the channel
and that range of hills we can quite clearly see
against the northern horizon
will within minutes be lost to sight.

Down in the town
a woman bustles across the bridge
with lowered head, plastic shopping bags
bumping and banging against her legs.

Outside the Jolly Sailors
two dogs pause in their robust examination
of each other’s genitalia to sniff the air,
and along the street at number 54, the children’s
crossing guard, once assistant harbour master,
taps his barometer and scowls;
the parrot in its cage is one hundred and five
or one hundred and ten, depending
what you believe.

High on the West Cliff
we squat in the lea of blackened gravestones
and count our blessings: peppermints, lip salve,
four squares of dark chocolate, the return
halves of two supersaver tickets
to Pudset via Leeds and a compass
neither of us can read. A ladybird,
startled, stops its scuttling run along your arm
and braces its wings for flight. Too late now,
too foolish to make a dash across
open ground, we wait, and if our luck holds
the worst of the storm will pass us by.

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North Coast

Once, we stayed here, out of season,
arcades and the Magpie Café closed,
clouds massed like bulkheads in the northern sky
and around the municipal grandstand
only the melismatic cry of gulls.
Close by our feet, winter lay coiled like rope.
At night hope hung across the water like a child.
What is never shared, cannot be lost.

When she was seven or eight,
I brought my daughter here to stay.
Our first time in an old-fashioned B & B,
hot water bottles and flasks of coffee on request.
She laid out her clothes, folded and neat,
each item in its proper drawer,
alarm clock wound and set for seven,
books and diary on the square oak table
nudged against the bed.

There have been other lovers, other nights.
The town, I heard this morning, is falling
rock by rick and day by day into the sea.
Tied up against each forecast,
fishing boats, all colours, rack and slide.
My daughter ran yesterday from France,
she and the man she’s lived with for years
are breaking up. I shall come here again, yes,
I think so, with someone else or on my own.
We cling to what we can, and the rest,
one way or another, clings to us.

from Bluer Than This, Smith/Doorstop, 1998

Whitby 2011

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Monk at the Five Spot

 

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Thelonious Sphere Monk : October 10th, 1917 – February 17th, 1982

One of the regrets of my life [I’ve had a few] is that I never took the opportunity to see Thelonious Monk live; but in my novel, In a True Light, Sloane got to see him in my stead. Closest I got.

Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid short, has stood in line at the 5 Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he’s able to find squashes him close to several others right up against the stage.

Monk is 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 – this man who always wears a 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, 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, skewing wide and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed in the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for an underlying pulse. And alongside him, head down, horn hooked over his shoulder, Coltrane, John Coltrane, focussed, biding his time.

Each night, the same riffs, the same themes torn this way and that – “Ruby, My Dear”, “Round Midnight”, “Blue Monk”. And that evening, Sloane rising awkwardly to let someone squeeze past, and hearing a shout from a table near the side wall – “Jane! Hey, Jane!” – turns his head in time to see a woman near the entrance, dark-haired and smiling at the sound of her name, time enough – just – to see she is beautiful, just how beautiful she is, before Monk launches himself along the keyboard in a clattering arpeggio which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance, not falling but saving himself, miraculously, with an upward swoop and a final, ringing double-handed chord.
“I Mean You”. The 5 Spot, September, 1957: the first time Sloan laid eyes on Jane Graham.

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