New Year Playlist

My first solo walk of the New Year on Hampstead Heath today, cold with perfect blue skies, a miserly 8,000 steps that took me, nevertheless, around a couple of ponds and up a couple of slow inclines, careful to watch out for what remained of the treacherous iced-over water that had run down onto the concrete paths.

Whichever route I take – and there are several – I usually aim to take a rest on one of the benches that surround the Tumulus, knowing that I’m now some 30/40 minutes from home.

View through the trees on the Tumulus

If I’ve remembered to slip a book into my pocket, I’ll spend a little time there reading – today it was The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara – and before setting off on that last leg, take my little MP3 player from another pocket, set ear buds in place and press shuffle …

From which comes this first playlist of the year …

Leonard Cohen
Chelsea Hotel

Louis Armstrong
Chantez Les Bas
from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy

Bill Morissey
Inside

Bonnie Raitt
Not ‘Cause I Wanted To

Joni Mitchell
Blue

Jimmy LeVave
For Everyman
from Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Brown

Billie Holiday
On the Sentimental Side
with Lester Young and the Teddy Wilson Orchestra

Gretchen Peters
When All You Got is a Hammer

Rosemary Clooney

As Long As I Live
with (I think) Scott Hamilton (tenor) & Warren Vaché (tpt/c’net)

Frank Sinatra
Nice Work If You Can Get It

John Prine
Morning Train

Two Takes on Lester Young … 2. Lester in Paris

It used to be there under Birthdays, some years at least. The daily listing in the paper, the Guardian, occasionally the Times. September 18th. Valentine Collins, jazz musician. And then his age: 27, 35, 39. Not 40. Val never reached 40.

So begins one of my short stories, Minor Key, concerning a British saxophonist hoping to keep his life – and his playing – together by accepting a residency in a Paris jazz club, at the same time that one his idols, Lester Young, is in Paris trying to do the self-same thing. Though to an outsider – or to anyone who cares, such as Val’s long-time friend Anna – it might not seem as if either man is trying very hard. Rather, the opposite.

Here’s a taste, involving both men …

“Minor Key”: First published in Paris Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2007. Reprinted in Minor Key, Five Leaves, Nottingham, 2009. Reprinted in A Darker Shade of Blue, William Heinemann, London, 2010.

Two Takes on Lester Young … 1. Lester, Resnick & the cats …

Listening to a selection of recordings by Lester Young the other day reminded me of several occasions on which he crops up in my writing – quite frequently, in fact, in the Charlie Resnick novels – if not as frequently as Thelonius Monk.

Here’s one occasion, from the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment

Lester Young photographed by Herman Leonard

September Playlist

Another set of tracks thrown up by my excellent little Victure MP3 player on my morning walk on Hampstead Heath – warm this morning, without being overwhelming, and not an ominous cloud in the sky, unlike Friday, when they darkened, circled and finally unleashed a downpour that half-drowned me.

  1. Stars Fell On Alabama : Billie Holiday
  2. (If They Asked Me) I Could Write a Book : Ella Fitzgerald
  3. P. F. Sloane : Rumer
  4. My Next Thirty Years : Tim McGraw
  5. Never No Lament (Don’t Get Around Much Anymore) Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
  6. Late For the Sky : Joan Osborne
  7. Guitar : Tracey Thorne
  8. Hard Promises to Keep : Kimmie Rhodes & Willie Nelson
  9. She’s Got You : Rosanne Cash
  10. Parchman Farm : Mose Allison
  11. Old Time Feeling : Guy Clark
  12. Alison : Elvis Costello
  13. Boulder to Birmingham : Emmylou Harris
  14. So Cold in Vietnam : Johnny Shines
  15. What’s New : Louis Armstrong w. Oscar Peterson
  16. As Long As I Live : Rosemary Clooney w. Scott Hamilton & Warren Vaché
  17. For Everyman : Jimmy LaVave
  18. Central Reservation : Beth Orton
  19. Runaway : Bonnie Raitt
  20. Talkin’ at the Texaco : James McMurtry

Nanci Griffith, 1953 – 2021

There used to be a record store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street, across the street from Selfridges, and if I were down in London from where I was then living in Nottingham, I’d make a point of calling in. Good and varied stock; friendly and knowlegeable staff. Can’t remember what it was called. But there I was – autumn of ’86? early ’87? – leafing through the racks of albums when one of the guys who worked there came over and asked if I was looking for anything special.

‘John Stewart?’

‘You’ve got the Kennedy one?’

The Last Campaign. Yes, I had.

‘Nothing newer than that, I’m afraid. But look …’ Reaching in amongst the albums. ‘If you like John Stewart, you might like this. Give it a listen.’

This was The Last of the True Believers by someone called Nanci Griffith. Presumably that was her on the front cover in a polka dot dress standing outside Woolworth’s, a fat hardback cradled in both hands. [On later investigation it turns out to be Donald Spoto’s biogrpahy of Tennessee Williams, The Kindness of Strangers.] And over to her right there’s a couple who might be just holding hands or maybe even dancing and the man is Lyle Lovett, surely?

I turn the cover over. Yes, Lovett’s on the record, singing harmony. And there are a couple of other names I know, Bela Fleck on banjo, Phil Donnelly, guitar. Plus another picture of Nanci Griffith with yet another book and this time it’s clearly Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a novel I’d only recently read and liked a great deal. 

And as if that weren’t enough in the way of little markers of temptation, there’s a note saying the album is dedicated to Count Basie. Count Basie?

“This album is dedicated to the memory of Count Basie because he once made my clumsy feet dance upon the University of Texas ballroom floor as if on wing …”

Lovett, McMurtry, Basie – something interesting was going on here. Passing up the invitation to listen before buying, I paid up and was on my way. Perhaps I was in a hurry. It wasn’t till several days later, back home in Lenton, that I gave it a listen. 

Side one begins with The Last of the True Believers and Love at the Five & Dime – two tracks still high among my favourites. Maybe all the songs weren’t equally strong and in the higher register her voice took a little getting used to, but with the next album, Lone Star State of Mind, which followed soon after, I was totally hooked. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds; Ford Econoline; Trouble in the Fields. Great songs. She even manages to purge some of the sentimentality from Julie Gold’s From a Distance

It wasn’t so much later – the spring of ’88 and I was in New York, visiting a friend – when I noticed that Nanci Griffith was playing at a small club in Greenwich Village – I like to think it was The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, but can’t be sure – whatever it was called both Griffith and her band were on terrific form and what sounded very good on record was even more so live. 

I didn’t know then that not long after I returned to England she would be appearing at Nottingham’s Rock City. Monday, 2nd May, 1988. Tickets £5.00 in advance. [My friend, David Belbin, saved his ticket, which is how I know.] It was as good as New York had been, if not better. Another friend who was there that evening, the singer/songwriter Liz Simcock, describes it as a key moment in her life. 

Liz was with me again a few years later when Nanci Griffith and her Blue Moon Orchestra played a concert in London – and this is where the wheels of coincidence start turning – because who should she invite to join her on stage but John Stewart – over here on tour himself – to play lead guitar and sing duet vocal on Stewart’s song which closes the Little Love Affairs album, Sweet Dreams Will Come.

Just one more connection. The last time I saw Nanci Griffith was at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall and a change in the personnel of her band had brought in the English guitarist – and singer/songwriter – Clive Gregson. The same Clive Gregson who would record and tour with Liz Simcock not so many years later. 

Small world or what … ?

July Playlist

Setting off on my Hampstead Heath walk this morning, the rain was falling quite strongly – but not strongly enough to prevent me calling in at the Lido Café for one of Allesio’s excellent flat whites – and by the time I was close to half way round my usual Sunday route – three miles or so in total – and passing Kenwood House, it had more or less ceased.

I don’t know what it is with these algorithms, but the third song that shuffled its way into my headphones and out of my MP3 player was Creedence Clearwater’s Who’ll Stop the Rain ? … Spooky.

  1. Body & Soul : Lester Young w. Oscar Peterson Trio
  2. Across the Border : Linda Rondstadt & Emmylou Harris
  3. Who’ll Stop the Rain? : Creedence Clearwater Revival
  4. St. Olav’s Gate : Tom Russell w. Shawn Colvin
  5. In the Ghetto : Elvis Presley
  6. Old Chunk of Coal : Billy Joe Shaver
  7. You Win Again : Mary Chapin Carpenter
  8. Daniel : Elton John
  9. Hard Livin’ : Martha Redbone
  10. L. A. Freeway : Guy Clark
  11. I’ve Got It Bad & That Ain’t Good : Thelonious Monk
  12. American Tune : Allen Toussaint

June is Jumpin’

… mostly in a laid back, sometimes bluesy kind of way. These CDs, for instance, propped up close to the stereo and playing in a kind of rotation … Yes, that’s right, the stereo …

And these are the first tracks to leap into my headphones from my MP3 player as I walked from pond to pond, hill to hill, bench to bench …

  1. Shiny Toys : Joni Mitchell
  2. Cottontail : Ben Webster w. Oscar Peterson Quartet
  3. Make Me Down a Pallet : J. D.Short
  4. Drive-in Movies & Dashboard Lights : Nanci Griffith
  5. Late for the Sky : Joan Osborne
  6. Freedom for the Stallion : Elvis Costello w. Allen Toussaint
  7. If I Were a Carpenter : Ramblin’ Jack Elliot
  8. Never Not You (Remember to Breath) : GirlBoy
  9. Poor Side of Town : Eels
  10. String Reprise/Treaty : Leonard Cohen
  11. Sister Mercy : John Stewart
  12. These Foolish Things : Thelonious Monk (solo)
  13. Chelsea Hotel : Me’Shell Ndegéocello
  14. Cajun Woman : Fairport Convention
  15. Blue Suede Shoes : Elvis Presley
  16. Love & Happiness : Al Green
  17. Wild Wild Life : Talking Heads
  18. Jumpin’ At The Woodside : Count Basie Orchestra
  19. It’s a Mean Old World : Otis Spann
  20. When My Left Eye Jumps : Buddy Guy

Joy Spring : current playlists

JAZZ

Joy Spring : Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet
I Remember Clifford : John Lewis
You Go To My Head : Lennie Tristano & Lee Konitz
Rhythm-a-Ning : Thelonious Monk
[Part of the unused soundtrack for “Les Liaisons Dangereuses“]
Blues For a Reason : Chet Baker & Warne Marsh
South Street Exit : Eric Dolphy
[From The Illinois Concert with Herbie Hancock, piano]
Diga Diga Do : Chris Barber Band
[From the Ellington-flavoured “Echoes of Harlem” – one of the late Henning Mankel’s favourite records]
Getting Sentimental Over You : Charles Mingus [solo piano]
Festival Junction : Acker Bilk w. Stan Tracey Big Band
Hackensack : The Pee Wee Russell Quartet
Groover Wailin’ : Al Fairweather & Sandy Brown’s All Stars
Going Out the Back Way : Johnny Hodges

Singers/Songs

Inside : Bill Morrissey
You All Over Me : Taylor Swift
Tried to Tell You : The Weather Station
If Not I’ll Just Die : Lambchop
Face : Tracey Thorn
Wichita : Gretchen Peters
New Orleans : John Stewart
Highway 61 Revisited : Dave Alvin
Gimme An Inch Girl : Iain Mathews
Flowers on Valentine’s Day : Liz Simcock
Down To The Station : Nicola Hitchcock
Last to Leave : Arlo Guthrie

Duke 5-Ways

Classical

The Road to Oradea

For quite a while now, it’s been my habit to begin the year – my reading year – with either Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf, occasionally both: one of Woolf’s novels, most often To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway; two or three of Mansfield’s short stories – ‘The Garden Party’, say, or ‘Prelude’; ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ or ‘At the Bay’. This time around, everything else being different, I felt like a change. Though nothing radical. Something from roughly the same period, the early 20th century.

England, My England, a collection of ten short stories by D. H. Lawrence, was first published in 1922; the copy that I have – one of Penguin’s uniform edition with tastefully rural photographs by Harri Peccinootti – I bought at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly in 1974. Still a long way from Oradea, which, if you were uncertain, is a university town in the north west of Romania, close to the Hungarian border. But I urge patience. No sooner had I finished reading the second story – ‘Tickets, Please’, which begins with a bravura description of the journey made by a Midlands tram into the industrial countryside and back again: two jostling, skittering 11-line sentences with a pair of shorter sentences applying the brake in between – than I thought the perfect companion for my reprise of Lawrence would be Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, in which he does everything possible not to follow his alleged purpose of writing about Lawrence and ends up writing about him with perception and a great deal of humour. A quote from Lawrence himself, at the beginning of the book, gives us the idea …

“Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.”
D. H. Lawrence, 5 September, 1914

The title page of my copy was signed by Geoff – in green ink – matching the cover – with a sprawling dedication which refers to the “many memories … of our Romanian quest … especially of your drumming.” Drumming? Okay, take a step or so back. Try to explain.

In the spring of 1997, I was one of a group of writers setting out on a British Council sponsored visit to the University of Oradea to take part in a three day seminar, an exchange of work and views with Romanian (and, as it turned out, Moldovan) colleagues. Myself and Geoff Dyer aside, our group included the poet George Szirtes, the short story writer, Helen Simpson, and the academic and critic, Valentine Cunningham, who had recently written a very positive review of one of the Resnick novels for the Times Literary Supplement and, I suspect, was behind my inclusion. It was Cunningham, also, who had the trumpet. Have horn, will travel. In this case, aboard BA2894 from Gatwick to Bucharest and hence by well-appointed coach across country to Oradea. If he had known there would be a band on hand at our welcoming dinner, I don’t know – perhaps he took his trumpet with him everywhere on the off chance – but once he had discovered that George Szirtes could play the piano – admittedly only 12 bar blues in the key of, I think, C – and that way back in the early 60s I had played drums in a ‘trad’ jazz band at Goldsmiths College, he had no hesitation in leading us up onto the stage the moment the band announced the interval. What occurred for the next thirty minutes or so is something of a blur – much as it was at the time. All I know is that I performed my basic function of keeping time, with only the occasional cymbal flourish or snare drum paradiddle, and Valentine played some decidedly tasty trumpet.

Could our visit get any better? It could, and did, and one of the highlights was listening to Geoff Dyer read from Out of Sheer Rage, which had me – at the appropriate moments – helpless with laughter.

Amongst the writers whose work I enjoyed discovering were the Romanian poet, Romulus Bucur, and a young Moldovan poet, Julian Fruntasu, and thanks to some financial help from the British Council, I was able, through Slow Dancer Press, to publish their poetry in Britain for the first time. Typeset, of course, in Romanian Bookman Light.

The following year, together with a different group of writers, including the poet and novelist, John Burnside, I was pleased to return to Oradea with copies of the two pamphlets, present them to the poets, and listen to their inaugural reading. My only small sadness on this occasion, no welcoming band, no trumpet, no last chance behind the drums.

In a snowy Oradea with Iulian Fruntasu and his friend, whose name, I’m embarrassed to say, I have forgotten.

Best of 2020

BOOKS

Fiction / Non-Fiction

Stand By Me : Wendell Berry
The Falconer : Dana Czapnik
Some Kids I  Taught and  What They Taught Me : Kate Clanchy
All Among the Barley : Melissa Harrison
Long Bright River : Liz Moore
Olive, Again : Elizabeth Strout

Re-reading …

Anne Enright
Kent Haruf
Thomas McGuane

Poetry

Country Music : Will Burns
When the Tree Falls : Jane Clarke
New Hunger : Ella Duffy
Yes But What Is This? What Exactly? : Ian McMillan
How I Learned to Sing : Mark Robinson
Sweet Nothings : Rory Waterman
Squid : Matthew Welton

FILMS

The Perfect Candidate : Haifaa Al-Mansour
Rocks : Sarah Gavron
The County : Grimur Hakonarson
Da 5 Bloods : Spike Lee
A  White,  White Day : Hlynur Palmason 
Portrait of a Lady on Fire : Celine Sciamma
So Long, My Son : Wang Xiaoshuai

MUSIC

Albums

From An Old Guitar : Dave Alvin
Ballads : Paula Cole
Time : Jess Gillam
Piano 2 : Pete Judge
Bach, Goldberg Variations : Pavel Kolesnikov
Monk – Palo Alto : Thelonious Monk
Winter Hill : Liz Simcock
Avenging Angel : Craig Taborn

Tracks

The Oil Rigs at Night : The Delines
All in the Past : Dave Ellis & Boo Howard
Straight Back To You : Everything But the Girl
Angry All the Time : Tim McGraw
Inside : Bill Morrissey
Wichita : Gretchen Peters
Angels & Acrobats : Rod Picott
You Tattooed Me : Tom Robinson
Old Chunk Of Coal : Billy Joe Shaver
Flowers on Valentine’s Day : Liz Simcock
Sister Mercy : John Stewart
Tryin’ To Hold the Wind Up With a Sail : Jerry Jeff Walker

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