Looking at Lester

There are several, often conflicted, ways of looking at Lester Young, the American tenor player who was born, one of six children, in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1909, and who died, a crumpled, sick man, in March 1959.

One comes from the poet, William Matthews, in an interview with Dave Johnson, originally published in the  High Plains Literary Review in 1995.

Young was the Donald Barthelme of saxophone storytellers. The work is elliptical, funny, smart, blithe surfaced, and endlessly sad.

Another, quite opposite, comes from another tenor saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins -tonally Young’s opposite, broad and hustling, where Young was leaner and less assertive, the two of them vying for prominence in the 40s & 50s.

That Lester Young, how does he get away with it? He’s stoned half the time, he’s always late, and he can’t play.

Planted myself pretty firmly in the Matthews camp [though I can stand a good amount of Hawk, too] I’ve always listened to quite a bit of Lester – 14 CDs worth at a quick count – and so it’s no surprise comes across as a favourite of Charlie Resnick, also,

He makes a first, fleeting appearance in book one of the series, Lonely Hearts, the first paragraph of chapter four.

The sandwich was tuna fish and egg mayonnaise with some small slices of pickled gherkin and a crumbling of blue cheese; the mayonnaise kept dripping over the edges of the bread and down on to his fingers so that Dizzy twisted and stretched from his lap in order to lick it off. Billie Holiday and Lester Young were doing it through the headphones, making love to music without ever holding hands. Resnick couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that he had lied to Skelton, wondering why.

After that, it’s chapter nine of the second book, Rough Treatment, in which Resnick refers to a photograph taken by the great photographer, Herman Leonard in 1956, three years before Lester’s death,

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Lester Young in France, 1956: Photo, Herman Leonard

Anyone in possession of a copy of Rough Treatment and keen (or sad) enough to want to check, will find a number of changes from the original; some of these have been made over the years, usually ahead of a reading – pencilled marginalia, underlinings and crossings-out – some were made an hour or so ago. A piece of work is (almost) never finished.

Miles met Resnick the instant his feet hit the pavement; the cat had recognised the sound of the car’s engine from the end of the street and come running. Now he made his welcoming cry from the irregular stones atop the wall, strutting, tail hoisted high as he presented, turn upon turn, his fine backside. Resnick reached up a hand and stroked the smooth fur of the cat’s head, behind and below the ear.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get something to eat.”

Once indoors, the other cats came running: Pepper, Dizzy and Bud. Resnick forked cat food from a tin into four bowls, green, blue, yellow, red, then added a shower of dried heaven-knows-what to each. Good, he’d once been told, for their teeth. There had been the usual mish-mash of junk mail inside the front door. From it he withdrew a single white envelope, card-shaped, and slid it between the containers for flour and sugar. The remainder he dropped into the bin. Next, he ground beans ready for coffee and, that done, felt relaxed enough to remove his coat, loosen his already loose tie, unfasten and ease off his shoes. In the living room he selected some Lester Young from the shelf and switched the stereo on low. Sides the tenor man had cut with Johnny Guarnieri in New York City, three days past Christmas ’43 and just shy of New Year. Back when everything must have still seemed possible: the future shining and plump like a fat, silver apple.

“I Never Knew”.

“Sometimes I’m Happy”.

Back in the kitchen Resnick lifted Dizzy away from Bud’s bowl before slicing bread, dark rye with caraway. He scooped the contents from a tin of sardines in soya oil, sliced a small onion and spread the rings across the fish; there was a large enough piece of feta cheese to be worth crumbling over the top. “Tried to get hold of you last night,” Jack Skelton had said earlier, the superintendent barely breaking his stride on his way back to his office. “Time you got yourself an answerphone, Charlie. One that works.”

Resnick stopped to listen as Lester bounced his way through “Just You, Just Me”, the first chorus almost straight, a trio of those trademark honks marking his place near the end of the middle eight, each perfectly placed, perfectly spaced, rivets driven in a perfect line. An intake of breath, just audible, smooth and quick over the brushes against Sid Catlett’s snare, and then, with relaxed confidence and the ease of a man with perfect trust in both fingers and mind, he made from that same sequence another song, another tune, tied to the first and utterly his own.

What are these arms for?

What are these charms for?

Use your imagination.

The reason Resnick didn’t get an answerphone: how else to keep bad news at bay? The messages that you didn’t want to hear.

He remembered a photograph of Lester Young taken by in 1956. Herman Leonard. Lester is in a recording studio, holding his horn, not playing. The suit he is wearing, even for those days’ fashions, seems overlarge, as though, perhaps, he has shrunk within it. His head is down, his cheeks have sunk in on his jaw; whatever he is looking at in those eyes, soft, brown, is not there in the room. His left hand holds the shelf with which he will cover the mouthpiece, as if, maybe, he is thinking he will slip it into place, not play again. It is possible that the veins in his oesophagus have already ruptured and he is bleeding slowly inside.

The coffee would be ready. In the kitchen Resnick picked up the envelope, trying to work out how long it had been since he had seen that writing. How many years? He wanted to tear it, two and four and six and eight, all the multiples until it was like confetti. He left it where it was.

Back in the other room, he balanced the cup of coffee on the broad arm of the chair. Lifted Bud with one hand and set him in his lap. The first take of “I Never Knew” ended abruptly; some saxophone, a piano phrase unfinished. Lester is standing there, tenor close to his mouth, but now he is looking away. As if something has slipped suddenly through that door in 1943, unbidden, out of time. A premonition. A ghost.

It doesn’t end there. Much of the writing about Lester Young made its way, sometimes barely changed, into the poem “Ghost of a Chance”, which can be found in Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014).

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Annotated iPod Shuffle, April 2018

1  Saucer Eyes : Eric Dolphy

from Where? (1961) Dolphy (flute) w. Mal Waldron (p) Ron Carter (bs) Charlie Persip  (dr). Great,fluent flute from Dolphy and scintillating brushwork from Persip.

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2 Slider : John Stewart

from The Day the River Sang (2006) one of Stewart’s final albums prior to his death two years later. The voice, even with some handy reverb, isn’t what it was, but it does take on a deep, bluesy feel that’s appropriate for this song about a wayward young woman, reminiscent in some ways of the sad and lovely Crazy [”I will drive you, Crazy”] from the 1971 album Lonesome Picker Rides Again. Some nice licks by Stewart himself on electric guitar, too.

The Day The River Sang

3 Milk Shake Stand : The Three Barons

from Still Stomping’ at the Savoy, a fine selection of Jazz & R&B tracks from the 50s & 60s, including Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Errol Garner, Art Pepper, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, H-Bomb Ferguson, Joe Turner, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Little Esther and this track by the Three Barons, a doo-wop group who are still performing, in one guise or another, and will to travel to gigs up to ten miles from their base in Stamford, CT – well, you gotta slow down some time.

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4 Shostakovich String Quartet No. 6 – Allegretto : Emerson Quartet

What can I say … ?

Shostakovich_ String Quartets [Disc 1]

5 Just One More Chance : Alex Welsh Band

Featuring Alex’s trumpet, more broad-toned than usual, on this BBC Sounds of Jazz broadcast from 1981, just a year before he died; Roy Crimmins is on trombone, back in the band after a long break, Al Gay on tenor, Fred Hunt at the piano.

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6 Sandwood Down to Kyle : John Renbourn

from Live it Italy (2006) about which Renbourn had this to say …

 Anyway one place that still holds fond if blurred memories is Roma’s Folkstudio – a basement club that reminded me of the Cousins, only funkier. I’d go over and play there for a week or so, staying in a room down a little alley leading into the square of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The square at night was utterly beautiful and even the bare room had a certain charm. With the pleasure of good company and the wine from Sacrofano it was a productive time for me.

How this recording came to be made I honestly have no idea. To describe the p.a. in the Folkstudio as a curiosity would be charitable in the extreme. It wouldn’t have been out of place in Frankinstein’s laboratory. Somehow the benign boss Giancarlo Cesaroni engineered it on the quiet. And the result is documented evidence.

Live In Italy

7 As Tears Go By : Rolling Stones

The Jagger/Richards song their manager Andrew Loog Oldham passed on to Marianne Faithfull for her 1964 hit; Mick himself recorded it with the Stones a year later [sounding oddly like Marianne].

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8 Right Moves : Josh Ritter

from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007). Has a great chorus, which my daughter, Molly, and I sang along to heartily at his Kings Place gig a few years back.

The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

9 These Foolish Things : Thelonious Monk

Recorded in New York, on December 18th, 1952, with Gary Mapp (bs) & Max Roach (dr)

Thelonious Monk Trio

10 $1000 Dollar Wedding : Gram Parsons

from Parson’s second solo album, Grievous Angel (1974), with James Burton on guitar and Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals and close to keeping Gram in tune. I remember buying my copy for £1.00 from a student at the Stevenage school where I was teaching; she’d got it as a freebee at the Gary Glitter show at Stevenage Mecca the night before.

Grievous Angel

Amy Rigby in the UK

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Amy Rigby’s brief UK tour begins tonight at O’Riley’s in Hull. Following that, she’s at the Prince Albert in Brighton on Tuesday, 27th and the Musician Pub in Leicester on Wednesday, 29th; on Thursday she’s at the Thunderbolt in Bristol and, finally, Friday 30th, she plays the Betsy Trotwood in London. After which it’s smartly back to the US and  Hoboken, Cleveland, Knoxville, San Francisco et cetera.

Oh, but before that she’s recording a guest spot for the Mark Riley Radio Show on BBC6 Music on Monday, 26th. Actually, it may be live, I really don’t know.

If you’re unsure who she is, haven’t come across her before, this is from her website

Amy Rigby has made a life out of writing and singing about life. With bands Last Roundup and the Shams in eighties NYC East Village to her solo debut Diary Of A Mod Housewife out of nineties Williamsburg; through a songwriting career in 2000s Nashville and during the past decade with duo partner Wreckless Eric, she’s released records on visionary independent labels Rounder, Matador, Signature Sounds and reborn Stiff Records as well as her and Eric’s own Southern Domestic Recordings.  For the last twenty years she has toured the US, Canada, UK and Europe, appearing on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, World Cafe, Whad’Ya Know, All Things Considered, BBC Radio 6 Music’s Marc Riley Show and Mountain Stage. She lives with Wreckless Eric in the Hudson Valley. Her record “Dancing With Joey Ramone” is a staple of Little Steven’s Underground Garage radio show, and kitchen sink anthem “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?” is played in cafes and bars around the country by real life mod housewives and husbands.

And here’s what some people have said about her …

“She is smarter, sharper, and maybe even more melodic than she was way back when, when mod housewives kept diaries and danced with Joey Ramone.”
— Dave Thompson, Goldmine
“Her whimsical, often autobiographical songs are masterful. Funny and enticing, she is up there with the likes of Paul Simon and Randy Newman.”
— New York Times
“Rigby combines formidable aural craftsmanship with blunt, self-deprecating honesty.”
— Village Voice

I first came across Amy Rigby thanks to an article in the Guardian magazine about her living deep in the French countryside with her partner, Wreckless Eric. [You remember Eric, don’t you? If for nothing else, for his great Stiff single, “Reconnez Cherie”.] After that, I started listening to her songs and, quite simply, found I wanted to listen to them again and again, which I still do …

 

“Don’t Ever Change” from Till the Wheels Fall Off

“That’s the Time” from Little Fugitive 

“Keep it to Yourself” which I found on the anthology 18 Again. (All rights to the video below belong to the original owners.)

 

Why do I like them so much? Aside from the fact they’re tuneful, the music is uncluttered and I like her voice? It’s because they’re true; direct and true. Amy’s also a writer of short stories and it shows. After getting her permission, I took the liberty of taking the basic idea from “Keep it to Yourself” and making it into a short story of my own. [Titled “Handy Man”, it’s included in a recent collection, Going Down Slow, published by Nottingham’s Five Leave Publications.] And the reason she’s out on tour? A new album, The Old Guys, her first in a good while. This is how it’s described on her website …

The Old Guys, Amy Rigby’s first solo album in a dozen years, measures the weight of heroes, home; family, friends and time. Philip Roth and Bob Dylan, CD/cassette players, touring, the wisdom of age and Walter White, groupies, Robert Altman, egg creams and mentors are paid tribute. Twelve songs written unmistakably by Amy and recorded by Wreckless Eric in upstate New York, The Old Guys is the sound of a good girl grown up, never giving up.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, check her out, go see her, have a listen. I think she’s special.103766-the-old-guys

Now’s the Time … Again

A swift return to the first Resnick story, the opening section of which is reprinted in the previous blog … and here comes the ending. Don’t worry if you still have the whole thing to read and want to avoid spoiling the denouement, the final surprise. There is no surprise. “They’re all dying, Charlie,” is how the story begins and that’s how it ends. How most stories end, I suppose.

The maitre d’ at Ronnie Scott’s had trouble seating Resnick because he was stubbornly on his own; finally he slipped him into one of the raised tables at the side, next to a woman who was drinking copious amounts of mineral water and doing her knitting. Spike Robinson was on the stand, stooped and somewhat fragile- looking, Ed Silver’s contemporary, more or less. A little bit of Stan Getz, a lot of Lester Young, Robinson himself had been one of Resnick’s favourite tenor players for quite a while. There was an album of Gershwin tunes that found its way on to the record player an awful lot.

Now Resnick are spaghetti and measured out his beer and listened as Robinson took the tune of ‘I Should Care’ between his teeth and worried at it like a terrier with a favourite ball. At the end of the number, he stepped back to the microphone.”I’d like to dedicate this final tune of the set to the memory of Ed Silver, a very fine jazz musician who this week passed away. Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’.

And when it was over and the musicians had departed backstage and Ronnie Scott himself was standing there encouraging the applause – “Spike Robinson, ladies and gentlemen, Spike Robinson”- Resnick blew his nose and raised his glass and continued to sit there with the tears drying on his face. Seven minutes past eleven, near as made no difference.

That Gershwin album – The Gershwin Collection – was used as background in a number of scenes in the television version of the first Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, one of the two in which Tom Wilkinson played Charlie. [And before you start asking, neither Lonely Hearts nor Rough Treatment are commercially available and the BBC have no plans, apparently, to repeat them. Please don’t ask me why because I don’t know.]

Towards the end of the 1990s, I booked the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street for a Slow Dancer Press publication party and booked Spike Robinson as the evening’s featured guest, sitting in with the Nottingham-based band, Second Nature, in place of their leader, Mel Thorpe. And so came to pass one of my proudest moments, when I got to climb up on stage, take the microphone, and say, “Spike Robinson, ladies and gentlemen, Spike Robinson.”

Spike Robinson died of a heart attack just a few years later, at the age of 71.

My friend Tony Burns, whose band played opposite Second Nature on that occasion, died in 2013 at the age of 72.

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

Spike

 

 

Now’s the Time …

 

Time 2

… borrowed as a title from Charlie Parker, was the first Charlie Resnick short story I wrote – just about the first of any kind. It was first published in London Noir, a collection edited by Maxim Jakubowski for Serpents Tail in 1994; since then it’s been reprinted several times, twice in the States, once in Germany, once in France, and on two more occasions here in the UK, notably in the collection of the same name, first published by Slow Dancer Press in 1999 and then, in an extended edition, by William Heinemann in 2002 and still in print as an Arrow paperback, I believe.

This is how it begins …

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

They had been in the kitchen, burnished tones of Clifford Brown’s trumpet, soft like smoke from down the hall. Dark rye bread sliced and ready, coffee bubbling, Resnick had tilted the omelette pan and let the whisked eggs swirl around before forking the green beans and chopped red pepper into their midst. The smell of garlic and butter permeated the room.

Ed Silver stood watching, trying to ignore the cats that nudged, variously, around his feet. Through wisps of grey hair, a fresh scab showed clearly among the lattice-work of scars. The hand which held his glass was swollen at the knuckles and it shook.

“S’pose you think I owe you one, Charlie? That it?”

Earlier that evening, Resnick had talked Silver out of swinging a butcher’s cleaver through his own bare foot. “What I thought, Charlie, start at the bottom and work your way up, eh?” Resnick had bundled him into a cab and brought him home, stuck a beer in his hand and set to making them both something to eat. He hadn’t seen Ed Silver in ten years or more, a drinking club in Carlton whose owner liked his jazz; Silver had set out his stall early, two choruses of ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ solo, breakneck tempo, bass and drums both dropping out and the pianist grinning, open-mouthed. The speed of thought; those fingers then.

Resnick divided the omelette on to two plates. “You want to bring the bread>” he said. “We’ll eat in the other room.”

The boldest of the cats, Dizzy, followed them hopefully through. The Clifford Brown Memorial album was still playing ‘Theme of No Repeat’.

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

“Who?”

“Every bugger!”

And now it was true.

SILVER Edward Victor. Suddenly at home, on February 16, 1993. Acclaimed jazz musician of the be-bop era. Funeral service and memorial meeting, Friday, February 19 at Golders Green Crematorium at 11.45 a.m. Inquiries to Mason Funeral and Monumental Services, High Lanes, Finchley.

Time 1

 

 

Time 4

Time 3

(Annotated) iPod Shuffle, Feb. 2018

  1. Somewhere Over the Rainbow : Buffy Ford *
  2. 44 Vicksburg : Little Brother Montgomery
  3. Lady Day : Rod Stewart **
  4. Joanne : Michael Nesmith***
  5. Arkansas (Part 1) : Bill Frisell
  6. Lights of Laramie : Ian Tyson
  7. If I could be With You (One Hour Tonight) : James P. Johnson
  8. Rosetta : The New York All Stars
  9. Parchman Farm : Mose Allison ****
  10. My Girl : Otis Redding
  11. Now’s the Time : Charlie Parker*****
  12. Me & Paul : Willie Nelson
  13. Going Home : Leonard Cohen ******
  14. Pancho & Lefty : Willie Nelson
  15. Evening Shuffle : Johnny Shines
  16. Gimme An Inch Girl : Ian Matthews
  17. Duke of Earl : Gene Chandler
  18. Billie’s Bounce : Charlie Parker
  19. Time on My Hands : Billie Holiday *******
  20. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds : Nanci Griffith ********
  • * This solo version was recorded by John Stewart’s wife, Buffy Ford, as part of a short-lived project called Darwin’s Army, a four-piece group in which John & Buffy were joined by John Hoke & Dave Crossland sing a mixture of traditional American folk songs, mixed with compositions by the likes of Tim Hardin, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan … and Yip Harburg & Howard Arlen’s all-time classic. Not, in truth, a great album [Appleseed APR 1025] but this, I think, is a lovely version of the song.
  • ** My only other experience of Rod Stewart having been seeing him at the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival in the mid-60s, when, introduced as Rod the Mod, he was a less-than-convincing second vocalist to Long John Baldry in Steampacket, a relatively short lived blues band [the nucleus of which – Brian Auger on organ, Julie Driscoll on vocals – went on to form the more successful Brian Auger & The Trinity] I was almost totally unprepared for Stewart’s first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, (1970) on which, supported by Ronnie Wood & Ian McLagan from the Small Faces amongst others, he uses his rusty voice to great effect on a range of songs, from Jagger & Richards’ “Street Fighting Man” to a rearranged “Maid of Constant Sorrow” (“Man” in this version) and – quite superb this – Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”. Four of the songs, including the title track, were written by Stewart himself, as was this one, “Lady Day”, which comes from the equally fine follow-up album in the same vein, Gasoline Alley41NA4mNgHdL
  • *** Probably the most musically literate of The Monkees, Nesmith [whose mother made a fortune from Liquid Paper – Tippex to you and me] released some good country albums with the First and Second National Bands in the 1970s, the majority of them featuring Red Rhodes on pedal steel guitar. “Joanne” is perhaps the best known of the songs he composed, along with “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” and “Some of Shelley’s Blues”, both of which are on the album, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. I saw him perform a couple of times during this period, once at the Roundhouse in Camden, the other time at a theatre in Victoria, at the end of which evening, in the spirit of something I didn’t quite understand, he told us the evening had been as much about  the way we were communicating with him as he was with us and bade us, therefore, not to applaud after his final number, but to leave in a mood of quiet contemplation. Which, mostly, we did.
  • **** I first heard this in the late 50s/early 60s, and almost certainly bought the album, Local Colour, from Chris Willard’s jazz record shop in New Cross, because it was one of the tracks. Allison was a better-than-average post-bop pianist – he made early recordings with Al Cohn/Zoot Sims and with Stan Getz – and a distinctive singer with a soft and insinuating southern blues-tinged voice that was a clear inspiration to Georgie Fame. When I saw him performing at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho some dozen years ago, it was good to see Georgie sitting in the audience. R-4576302-1368876126-1817.jpeg
  • ***** There are two quintessential sets of early Charlie Parker recordings; those he made for the Savoy label in the mid-40s and those on Dial, mostly slightly later. Both “Now’s the Time” and “Billie’s Bounce”, also included in this shuffle, were recorded in New York City on November 26th, 1945 by a group known as Charlie Parker’s Reboppers, in which Parker’s alto was joined by Miles Davis on trumpet and a rhythm section of Curley Russell on bass, Max Roach on drums and (possibly – there’s some discographical argument, I understand, about this) Dizzy Gillespie at the piano. And talking of the piano, my favourite version of “Now’s the Time”, Parker’s aside, is by John Lewis on his 1960 album, Improvised Meditations and Excursions. Love it! Play it all the time!
  • ****** It’s difficult to listen to any of Cohen’s albums in the last decade of his life – Old Ideas, 2012, Popular Problems, 2014 and You Want It Darker, 2016 – without realising that he had a keen and growing awareness of his own mortality. You Want It Darker, which he was only able to finish with help from his son, Adam, was released just a few weeks before his death and is, to my ageing ears at least, easeful and disturbing to varying degrees. Comfort listening for those about to enter their final decade.Cohen
  • ******* There’s an affecting scene in David Hare’s film for television, Page Eight [the first of what later became The Worricker Trilogy] in which Bill Nighy shows Rachel Weisz a segment  from the 1957 American television programme The Sound of Jazz from 1957, in which Lester Young on tenor sax is among Billie Holiday’s accompanists as she sings “Fine and Mellow”. In the clip Nighy chooses, we see Young, far from well, soloing, then a close up of Billie Holiday listening intently, love, regret and admiration mingling on her face. As Nighy points out, however, the moment the solo is over, she is sharp to the mike to continue singing. For Nighy, it’s both a way, I think, of persuading Weisz into loving him, at the same time as saying that when push comes to shove, as inevitably it must, it’s work that wins. The critic, Nat Hentoff, was in the studio during the filming of The Sound of Jazz, and had this to say about that part of the session: Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.
  • ******* “Time on My Hands” was one of the many songs Billie Holiday recorded with various Teddy Wilson aggregations during the late 30s and early 40s, many of them featuring Lester Young. Here, the tune is played almost painfully slowly, Billie’s voice weary yet knowing; the only solo is from Wilson on piano, and all we hear of Lester is his saxophone behind Billie’s voice more or less throughout, the sound distant and subdued.
  • ******** This begins with two of the best opening lines from a Dear John song that I know … “Bags are waiting in a cab downstairs, Got a ticket in my  pocket says I’ll make it out of here”. Only rivalled, perhaps, by these from “Bittersweet” on the Everything But the Girl 1985 album, Eden. “Don’t talk to me in that familiar way/When the keys are in my hand.”
  • Nanci

Music Matters: Best of 2017

It’s been Monk’s year, his centenary duly celebrated far and wide, up to and including a full five day, five hour Composer of the Week slot on BBC Radio 4. Welcome to the establishment! I listen to Monk’s recordings more than those of any other artist and in this year of all years, the re-discovered recordings he made in 1960 as potential soundtrack material for Roger Vadim’s film version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses have seldom been far from the stereo. Monk is someone whose music I’ve written about on a number of occasion, both in poetry and fiction, and I was delighted (under statement!) when the American critic and commentator Bill Ott chose to highlight my attempts to convey the individuality of both Monk and his music in an article which originally appeared in Booklist and has since been republished on the excellent German web site CulturMag.

Live tributes I’ve been fortunate enough to see and hear include an evening at the Vortex in East London involving students from the Trinity Laban Conservertoire of Music and Dance; John Beasley’s MONK’estra at Ronnie Scott’s; and, best of all, the triple concert celebration at Cadogan Hall, largely organised by Tony Kofi and culminating in a brilliant recreation of the famous Town Hall Concert for Big Band. I’ve written about that in some detail here …

Monk100_CTolliver-1.

Charles Tolliver & Band. Photo Kat Pfeiffer

The other outstanding jazz event for me, also at the Vortex, was a performance by the big band assembled by Hans Koller for the composer and arranger Mike Gibbs to front in his 80th Birthday Tour. Fabulous!

I’ve followed with great interest the burgeoning career of Nottingham-based cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, ever since watching him win the BBC’s contest for Young Musician of the Year, and both the emotional force and warmth of personality that inform his technical ability were very much on show in a recital at Kings Place in which he was accompanied by his equally talented if more restrained sister, Isata, in Shostakovich and Beethoven. Also at Kings Place, the Sacconi Quartet played a selection of Graham Fitkin’s compositions for string quartet, interspersed with several solo pieces by Fitkin himself, Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 and Arvo Part’s ‘Summa’. There was more Glass earlier in the year, when the James McVinnie Ensemble played an exciting and absorbing version on his “Music in 12 Parts’, and brilliantly executed minimalism from the Colin Currie Group playing Steve Reich’s ‘Tehillim’ & ‘Drumming’ at the Royal Festival Hall.

Finally, momentously, two more concerts at the Royal Festival Hall – one at the beginning of the year, one towards the end – that, in their different ways, made the skin tingle and and heart sing: the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir under Nathalie Stutzmann performing Mozart’s Requiem and the LPO again, this time with Orozco-Estrada conducting, pulling out all the stops and then some playing Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.

 

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.

K Place

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.

Fitkin

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