Books: My Reading Year

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No reading year that begins with Virginia Woolf (as did 2016) and ends with Katherine Mansfield can be construed as bad. Nor was it, though I found myself – and this, as I’ve suggested before, may be a function of ageing – spending more time with and deriving more pleasure from books from earlier days than those published during the year.

Having started the year with Lawrence and ‘Sons and Lovers’, I moved on to Woolf and, accompanied by the first volume of her diaries and Julia Brigg’s excellent survey of her life and work, reread, with much pleasure and admiration, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To The Lighthouse’, ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Years’ together with, for the first time, ‘Night and Day’. Looking for something, to my mind, equally good but different, I moved on to Hemingway. Well, I was about to start writing a novel and in need of something bracing that moved to a different set of rhythms, one more suitable for my purposes. So, before setting out, I reread for the umpteenth time a generous selection of the short stories, followed by ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. And as I was hovering over chapter one, and thinking to prosper from his excellent example, I read again Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken Shore’ and ‘Truth’, in order to remind myself of the tautness, tension and sense of purpose that can be found in the very best of crime fiction.

Once safely ensconced in front of my computer in the mornings, my novel on course and moving along at a not unreasonble rate, I turned to Graham Greene for the sheer pleasure of good stories well told. ‘The Human Factor’ (under-rated), ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (a tad over-rated?), ‘The Comedians’ and, best of all, ‘The Quiet American’. Later in the year, I read, for the first time – what had I been doing? – Elizabeth Bowen (loved ‘The House in Paris’) and some Willa Cather I’d not yet got around to, ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, ‘The Professor’s House’ and ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’. And yes, okay, in between all of this harking back I was reading newer things, trying and, all too often, finding them lacking. Tired and obvious in some cases, trying too hard in others. I had been knocked sideways by much of Eimar McBride’s first novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, scenes from which are vivid to me still, but didn’t finish ‘The Lesser Bohemians’, in which she managed to make the sexual dalliances and excessive drinking of a young drama student living in Camden about as repetitive and uninteresting (to others) as, looking back, they probably were at the time. As for George Saunder’s much-touted and prize winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ – even for a writer, one of whose fortes is being experimental and clever (and who, especially when he forgets to be both of those things, has written some of the best short stories of the past decade or two) – it was too tricksy and clever by half. Unreadable.

I must have liked something. Well, yes. Woody Haut’s novel, ‘Days of Smoke’, was fascinating in the detailed and knowledgeable way it recreated the cultural and politcial turbulence of San Francisco and L.A. in the late 60s, and Henning Mankel’s ‘After the Fire’ dealt tellingly with issues of ageing and mortality that, to some of us, are becoming increasingly relevant. Jane Harper’s CWA Gold Dagger winning, ‘The Dry’, was compelling and believable until she felt the need to pull a plot twist out of nowhere towards the end, which lost my sympathies but clearly not that of the judges.

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Almost more than any other, I enjoyed and admired Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’, a skilfully crafted and in some ways old-fashioned novel, which follows the connections and disconnections of two American families from the 60s to the present, and which I found totally absorbing. I also very much liked two of the novels that were short listed for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize: Sarah Baume’s ‘A Line Made By Walking’, which traces a young woman’s deliberate retreat into solitude in prose that is clear and direct yet evocative and moving; and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, which is set in a Derbyshire village where a teenage girl has gone missing.

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McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers and three of his books – ’So Many Ways to Begin’, ‘Even the Dogs’ & ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You’ – are amongst my favourites of the past twenty or so years. I read ‘Reservoir 13’ the moment I got my hands on a copy and then, almost without a break, read it again, the second time to remind myself of what I’d liked, but also because I was hoping to find whatever it was I’d been missing – not the facts about whatever happened to the missing girl, I didn’t need that, nor did I read with an expectation the mystery would be solved; what I’d missed was more about her family, more about the people of the village – in exchange for which I would quite happily have settled for less about the cyclical life of bats, birds and the bloody foxes.

Much of what I wanted is there in the fifteen short stories of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ that are currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and are available both as a download and, now, a book. If, instead of being issued as a companion piece, all – or most – of that material had been included in the original novel, I think it would have been a more complete and satisfying work. But even as I write this, I know (or think I know) that kind of completeness is not what McGregor is after in ‘Reservoir 13’, what he’s setting out to achieve; this is more a narrative that darts its way in and out, giving us a moment here, a moment there; a voice raised, a sudden sharpened glance; a mosaic from which we build our portrait of these lives. And the writing, the prose is so skillfully handled; like Sarah Baume’s in some regards, it is delicate but strong. Push it and it may bend but not break.

And next year, once I’ve finished rereading Katherine Mansfield’s excellent short stories for the fourth or fifth time … ? Well, with the gorgeous new Vintage Classics editions to hand, all with beautiful covers created by Aino-Maija Metsola, it may be the third year in succession I turn to Virginia Woolf to begin …

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Dalloway

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Art Chronicles: Impulse

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© Courtesy Pace Gallery. Images Damian Griffiths

Make your way to the rear of the Royal Academy, where the absorbing Jasper Johns retrospective has recently closed [who would have thought there were so many shades of grey?]  and, amongst the extension work in progress along Burlington Gardens, worm your way to the entrance to Pace London, which is hosting Impulse, a small – 13 pieces – well displayed, interesting and enjoyable show of post-painterly abstraction. [A journey almost as tortuous, perhaps, as getting to the end of that sentence – language as metaphor? Enough!]

Dating back to the 1960s and 70s, and seen as coming out of, as well as in opposition to, the first generation abstract expressionist work of Pollock and DeKooning, there’s an oft-told story of the moment that this later variation of (mostly) American abstract painting – also known as Colour Field painting – was born. The critic Clement Greenberg had taken the artist Helen Frankenthaler [they were at item] to Jackson Pollock’s studio to see him at work, and, inspired by this, Frankenthaler adapted what she had seen to her own ends.

“The method I used developed and departed essentially from Pollock. I did use his technique of putting the canvas on the floor. But in method and material, Pollock’s enamel rested on the surface as a skin that sat on top of the canvas. My paint, because of the turpentine mixed with the pigment, soaked into the woof and weave of the surface of the canvas and became one with it.”
Helen Frankenthaler in an interview with Gene Baro, Art International, 1967

The first notable result for Frankenthaler of using this technique was the 1952 painting, Mountains and Sea, which was, in turn, instrumental in the two leading Colour Field artists, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland [both present in this show] changing artistic direction – a Saul-to-Damascus moment engineered, once again, by Greenberg [well, he’s the person telling most of the story].

“The first sight of the middle period Pollocks and of a large and extraordinary painting done in 1952 by Helen Frankenthaler, called ‘Mountains and Sea’, led Louis to change his direction abruptly. Abandoning Cubism with a completeness for which there was no precedent in either influence, he began to feel, think, and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open colour.”

“The more closely colour could be identified with its ground, the freer would it be from the interference of tactile associations; the way to achieve this closer identification was by adopting watercolour techniques to oil and using thin paint on an absorbent surface.”
Clement Greenberg: “Louis and Noland” 1960

‘Tactile’, that’s the key word here, along with ‘interference’: this is a movement away from those vigorous lines that skipped across a Pollock canvas, those  mostly deliberate, semi-instinctive whirls and splotches that engendered energy and rhythm, they’ve had their day. The new art, Greenberg decreed, shall be the art without artist, without the artist’s tangible, visible presence made plain though his or her marks; somehow, it will be “purely visual” and open and “relatively anonymous” in its execution. A visual experience that is somehow purer and more all-encompassing.

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© Courtesy Pace Gallery. Images Damian Griffiths.

Both Louis and Noland are represented here at Pace London, Louis with two pieces including, centrally, his vast 1958 work Plentitude [shown in the both installation views above] and Noland with the two smaller pieces seen immediately above, both from a period in the late 70s when he was experimenting  with abruptly angled canvases. Indo, from 1977, is quite mesmeric in its central grounding of mauvish blue, bordered and accentuated by thin strips of brighter, contrasting colours.

Frank Bowling, a British artist born in Guyana, moved to New York in the late 60s, whereupon his work moved increasingly towards abstraction; but, for me, the most interesting of his three pieces here is the beautiful 1978 At Swim Two Manatee, which leans back towards his earlier, more figurative work, and takes on, in its borders, an almost Pre-Raphaelite delight in intricate decoration.

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‘At Swim Two Manatee’ Frank Bowling, 1978

For me, though, the most impressive artist on show is Sam Gilliam, whose work I came across for the first time [shame on me] in the groundbreaking Tate Modern show, Soul of a Nation, which also featured Bowling and the fifth artist showing at Pace, Ed Clark.

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‘After Micro W #2’, Sam Gilliam, 1982 © ARS, NY & DACS, London 2017. 

From the late 60s, apparently, while still working on canvas in a regular way, Gilliam had begun soaking canvasses in paint and then folding and hanging them to make work that was part-painting, part-sculpture [Think Eva Hesse, think Barry Flanagan]. The three-dimensional nature of After Micro W, exhibited here, and Carousel Change, from Soul of a Nation, is such that you want not just to look, to soak up, as it were, the glorious movement and agglomeration of colour, but to reach out, if one were allowed, and touch. ‘Purely visual’, but ‘tactile’ too.

Noland had linked his practice and that of his fellow abstractionists with that of jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk – “what was new was the idea that something you painted could be like something you heard.” An idea taken up and progressed by Mark Godfrey in his essay, “Notes on Black Abstraction” from the Soul of a Nation catalogue.

“These artists may well have sensed that Coltrane’s ability to take apart the conventions of melody and rhythm found a parallel in their own interest in abandoning stretcher bars, flat surfaces and  brushes. To put it another way, what Coltrane did to ‘My Favourite Things’ and ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ equals what Gilliam and Loving did to Morris Louis and Frank Stella.”

The other piece of Gilliam’s on show that I love and kept returning to is Onion Skin from 1975, a large canvas which seems to reach back towards the abstract expressionism of the late 50s and early 60s, while having a progressive sense of rhythm and colour that is its own. There’s more than a hint of Jackson Pollock here, and in its organic use of line and colour you can see something, I think, of Sam Francis, but it’s a satisfying whole and Gilliam through and through.

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‘Onion Skin’ Sam Gilliam, 1976. © ARS, NY & DACS, London 2017. Photograph Damian Griffiths

 

[In his excellent review of the show for Wall Street International, William Davie, describing this piece, draws a comparison with the paint-splattered floor of Pollock’s studio, and, fearing I’d stolen the idea, had to go back to my hastily scribbled notes to find a scribbled ‘artist’s floor’ in the margins. I don’t have that many vaguely original thoughts, I can discard them willy-nilly]

Impulse at Pace London finishes on Friday, 22nd December.

 

December iPod Shuffle

After a series of grim days, brightened only by the occasional striking sunset and the election news from Alabama, today was nicely crisp and cold and I was able to restore my regime of a post-coffee mid-morning walk around Parliament Hill Fields and  Hampstead Heath. [And since you ask, 3.12 miles, 6615 steps.]

Sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast of In Our Time, at others Private Passions or Desert Island Discs; or I’ll set my trusty little iPod on shuffle and see what comes. The sun had mostly cleared the paths of ice, save for one treacherous stretch beside the old boating pond, where the ice spread wide and long, invisible as glass. Up on the slopes, stumps of snow stood haphazardly amongst the grass like the stunted columns of some scattered Stonehenge. And this is what I heard …

  1. My Kind of Girls’ Night : Girlboy
  2. Useless Desires : Patty Griffin
  3. Hollywood Bass Player : Josh Rouse
  4. Hitting You : Loudon Wainwright III
  5. America : Paul Simon
  6. There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, Mary Margaret : Nanci Griffith
  7. I Saw Her Again Last Night : The Mamas & The Papas
  8. How Long Blues : Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
  9. Jack the Bear : Duke Ellington Orchestra
  10. I Can Hear Music : The Beach Boys
  11. Ko-Ko : Charlie Parker
  12. The Pretender : Jackson Browne
  13. Arcana (Varese) : Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
  14. Stabat Mater – Duetto: Grave, “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” (Pergolesi) : Margaret Marshall & Lucia Terrani w. London Symphony Orchestra
  15. Things Ain’t What They Used To Be : Charlie Mingus

Music Matters: Graham Fitkin

If memory serves [and, increasingly, I fear, it doesn’t quite] I first came across the music of Graham Fitkin, like so much other interesting and occasionally testing music, on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction; this back in the days when I could stay awake late enough to listen. I can’t recall the particular piece that was played, but it might well have been Flak, written for and performed on two pianos, or one of the composer’s more reflective piano pieces, titled simply Piano Piece followed by the date. Whichever it was, the name stuck and it wouldn’t have been much later, browsing the CD racks in the classical department of the late and lamented (by me, anyway) Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, that I came across the album Flak, released by Manchester’s Factory Records in 1990, and featuring ten compositions, arranged, as the sleeve note disarmingly states, into two groups: “Numbers 1 – 4 are written for two pianos/eight hands and are generally fast. Numbers 5 – 10 are for solo piano and are generally slow.”

Flak

Although those are Laurence Crane’s words and not those of Fitkin himself, they serve to indicate the straightforwardness of Graham Fitkin’s approach to both the music and its audience: okay, this is contemporary classical music and while it may sometimes be intricate and difficult to play it is not difficult to listen to and enjoy. One thing that immediately becomes clear when you see Fitkin in concert is his concern for communicating with his audience. Shock, horror, he even talks to us; and talks in an engaging, sell-deprecating, slightly bumbling manner that has the desired effect of breaking down any imagined barriers. Not only that, he has been known to cook for us too! Meringues at a recent band gig in Kings Place’s smaller hall and last night, in the main auditorium, dish after dish of small and richly delicious chocolate truffles.

Fitkin was born in West Cornwall – the Penwith Peninsula – where he lives with his partner and frequent collaborator, the harpist Ruth Wall, and studied first with Nigel Osborne and Peter Nicholson at the University of Nottingham [Penwith & Nottingham, perhaps the perfect combination!] and later with Louis Andriessen in Holland. Andriessen aside, his style owes much to the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and, although that is never really left behind, there is a restlessness that pushes the music into exciting and sometimes surprising areas – the audio-enhanced duets with Ruth Wall; the as-close-to-jazz-as-damn-it gigs by the Graham Fitkin Band; and, memorably, the 2016 London Jazz Festival evening at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, which quite thrillingly merged minimalism with disco and featured two counter tenors singing girl group back-up.

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Last night’s concert at Kings Place was arranged around the launch of a new album on which the Sacconi Quartet, who have been collaborating with Fitkin for some ten years, play all six of his existing pieces for string quartet. Nicely programmed, the evening featured three of those compositions – concluding with Servant, my personal favourite and, I would guess, also theirs – four pieces of solo piano, including Running & Breathing and two beautifully reflective Piano Pieces, 00 & 95; these interspersed with Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 and Arvo Part’s Summa [irrevocably linked in my mind with my radio dramatisation of A. S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet, for which it was the theme music.] All in all, a warm, engaging, enthralling evening of music … and chocolate truffles.

You can find out more about Graham Fitkin and listen to some of music on his web site.

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Orphans

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I’ve been reading, and very much enjoying, Ann Patchett’s novel, Commonwealth, which follows, in well-articulated but deliberately haphazard order, the inter-connecting lives of two families based in Los Angeles and Virginia. I reminded me, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, of John Updike’s Rabbit novels, though it manages, I think to be both more sympathetic and, in places, harder-edged; also of the John Irving of Garp and The Cider House Rules. Which, in turn, reminded me of a poem of mine, dating back to the late ’80s, early ’90s, “Goodnight, Fuzzy Stone”. A connection made all the stronger last night, watching part of a Channel 4 programme called Finding Me a Family, in which young children waiting to be adopted meet and interact with prospective parents looking to adopt. Here’s the poem …

GOODNIGHT, FUZZY STONE

“Orphans are notorious for interior games”
John Irving: The Cider House Rules

Inside the folds of his box Fuzzy Stone has a dream:
when he picks up the phone she says she will be home
from work a little late; she arrives and there are
flowers in her arms, so many flowers.
They sit at either end of the sofa while she
tells him about her day; they have not kissed yet –
he has learnt not to claim too much too soon.

He believes in Santa Claus, the power of love,
the tooth fairy, the folk that play happy families
at the end of the rainbow. He believes
if he picks up the phone it will be her:
always.

When he was four his mother packed him off
with his own fork and spoon to find the party.

“Fuzzy is a loveable child who would benefit
from a warm and caring family, preferably one
with brothers and sisters of a similar age.”

Slowly fingering lines
mouth moving to the words,
Fuzzy recognises himself and smiles.

Cars come slowly over the hill,
even in the worst of winter there are cars,
singly or in convoy, and when they leave
another face stares back at Fuzzy
through a blur of moving glass.

When he was sixteen they gave him a new pair
of second-hand shoes, a travel warrant
and a testimonial” “Fuzzy is a pleasant
enough young man, decent and honest,
but when things become too stressful
he likes to climb back inside his boss.”

In the bus station he sleeps with on ear open
close to the bank of telephones.
There are other places: the launderette,
the air ducts out at the bakery,
behind the curtains in the camera booth –
colour photos three for a pound –
he loves to watch them slip into sight,
always when you have given up hoping,
there! Like magic. Like dreams.

The phone rings and he picks it up:
he climbs back inside his box.

What he really wants to do is drive
the wet miles till she holds him tight
in her arms (as he is certain she would).
“Turn over and let me snuggle you up.”
Isn’t that the kind of thing lovers say?

Say good night, Fuzzy Stone.

This poem first appeared in Ghosts of a Chance, Smith/Doorstop, 1992

 

 

Reading at Ray’s Jazz

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The John Lake Band: John (piano) Phil Paton (sax) Matt Casterton (bass) Simon Cambers (drums) Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

Continuing what has, in recent posts, become a theme, there was more Thelonious Monk in evidence this Friday just passed when I joined the John Lake Band for an evening session organised by Ray’s Jazz at Foyles flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Though the band didn’t actually play “Evidence”. The first piece I read, a poem called ‘Saturday’ from ‘Out of Silence’ was accompanied by a rocking version of ‘Rhythm-a-ning’ and, towards the end, ‘Blue Monk’ featured both ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Blue Monk’ itself.

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That’s me paying attention to the words while Simon keeps his eyes on the dots. Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

What seemed to be a major incident – possibly, a terrorist attack – fairly close by, resulting in the closing of Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube stations, with customers being locked into stores and armed police deployed in the streets while a helicopter hovered overhead, meant that attendance was not what it might have been, numbers of ticket holders opting – not unreasonably – for the sensible option of sticking indoors. Those that were present, however, seemed to be having a pretty good time – not least the 5/6 year old young lady bopping away down near the front row – and we were, somewhat to our surprise, on the receiving end, not just of applause, but whoops of delight.

You should, as the saying goes, have been there.

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Reading one of the stories from the recently published “Going Down Slow” while John looks anxiously on. Photo: Sonny Marr

And if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Eastbourne on the South Coast on the final Friday of the year, you can hear us doing it all again – and more. Details here …

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Hand in pocket, not Hand in Glove. Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

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.

SLOW cover

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.

now_s the time

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.

Tom W 2

 

Tom W

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