‘Aslant’ in review …

ASLANT COVER10

Aslant by John Harvey (poetry) and Molly E. Boiling (photography). £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524099

Review from THE HIGH WINDOW by Robin Thomas https://thehighwindowpress.com

John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count.   Here’s a sample from ‘Christmas Day’:

soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes
and make their way through the quiet streets
to early morning mass

It is descriptive, patient and redolent of the slowness of the aged.  It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going.  Elsewhere in this poem this mood is enacted in memories of the daughter before she flew the nest, of the mother when she was well, of the lost certainties of life, a time when prayers might mean something. This poem takes its place against other elegiac poems, poems about love, loss, belief, truth and death along with a couple of ekphrastic poems and several finding their origin in jazz.

Another fine poem is ‘Monk at the 5 Spot’.  There are two separate threads to this poem: one involving legendary jazz musicians in performance, the other some famous listeners.  Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane leap off the page in Harvey’s enactment, their closely observed behaviour culminating in a marvellous image for Monk:

… an angular arpeggio
which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance

Meanwhile poet Frank O’Hara is at a table with his friends, talking, laughing, drinking, apparently unstoppable.  The poem ends with the two threads brought together:

[a] final double handed chord, so sudden,
so emphatic, that the crowd, almost as one,
catches its breath and even Frank O’Hara
is stunned into silence.

The music and O’Hara stop, the poem ends.

To my mind ‘The Curve’, which makes reference to Bridget Riley’s sequence of that name, does exactly what an ekphrastic poem should do – responds rather than describes – you don’t need the painting to enjoy the poem.  In this poem Riley’s abstract sequence brings to the narrator’s mind a suburban street evoked as a canyon, an absent daughter ‘dreaming of becoming seventeen’, a train journey in which a painting is briefly returned to and brought in as metaphor:

the light oscillating
on the water’s surface
patterning across the painter’s canvas

There are memories of the beginning and continuation of love and another strong ending:

then you turn and come back to where I’m waiting
small shells like keepsakes tight
in the palm of your hand.

It’s a stream of consciousness, just the kind of thing that might go through your mind when you look at abstract art.

There are many good things in these poems:  memories as ghosts in ‘Voyage’, the slow build up of the extended metaphor in ‘Bailey’s Mistake (Again)’, the discussion of epitaphs in the eponymous poem, the way Harvey can condense meaning, for example, in ‘The US Botanical Gardens’:

… I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand;
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart’.

These are real plants to be found in the Botanical Gardens, with a historic symbolic meaning but they stand also directly for the narrator’s own emotional situation (and perhaps for the bodily state of the loved one).

I began with a reference to Harvey’s measured style.  Occasionally the close control wavers and the poetry meanders into something prose-like, where too much is said, as in ‘Lester Young’, but this is a minor complaint.

The photos by Molly E.Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art.  They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.

 

Music of the Year, 2018

LIVE …

I’ve seen even less live music this past year than previously, something I hope to put right in 2019. But of those performances I have been fortunate enough to see, these are the most memorable.

Ethan’s Last Rent Party at Kings Place. Ethan Iverson, aided and abetted by fellow-pianists Alexander Hawkins and Adam Fairhall, exploring the links between British music in the first decades of the twentieth century and Black American music, syncopation and jazz.

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Kairos 4tet at Rich Mix. Saxophonist Adam Waldman, leading a quartet through his own compositions, with Emilia Martensson and Alice Zawadski on vocals.

Amy Rigby at The Betsy Trotwood. A joyous and generous solo performance of Amy’s songs, with readings from her prose and poetry to match. Great evening!

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Shostakovich 6th Symphony – LPO / Vladimir Jurowski at the Royal Festival Hall.

Shostakovich 1st Violin Concerto. Nicola Benedetti with the LSO /Gianandrea Noseda at the Barbican.

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 & Beethoven String Quartet No. 7. Emerson String Quartet at Milton Court.

And, pre-recorded, but very much a living experience, the Forty Part Motet (Spem in Alium – Tallis) arranged by Janet Cardiff at the Richmond Chapel, Penzance.

RECORDED …

Just as Shostakovich tends to dominate the live music selection, so Thelonious Monk [no surprise!] dominates my selection of music on CD. Monk features a live session recorded in Copenhagen in March, 1963 and previously thought lost, and, similarly, Monk: The Lost Recordings, captures a 1967 concert in Rotterdam. Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo: Reflections & Meditations on Monk mixes his solo interpretations on trumpet of five Monk compositions with three of his own.

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Monk

Smith

Tracey Thorn’s Record contains a number of beautifully written and crafted songs ,exploring the life of a  woman not too far distant from, one imagines, herself. And the 14th Volume of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, More Blood, More Tracks, presents the original, stripped down versions of the songs from one of his best albums, Blood on the Tracks and encourages you to listen to them afresh.

RecordThe Bootleg Series Vol. 14_ More Blood, More Tracks

 

 

Not so Private Passions …

Four years ago, not so long after the final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, was published, I was invited to be a guest on the BBC Radio 3 programme, Private Passions – a sort of (mainly) classical version of Desert Island Discs, only, since this was to be broadcast alongside the London Jazz Festival, there was to be a somewhat higher jazz content than is often the case.

I was delighted to be asked [understatement!] and thoroughly enjoyed the process, from making the choice of music to be featured to the interview itself, which was conducted with little or no preamble or rehearsal, the presenter, Michael Berkeley, making me feel immediately at my ease. The pair of us sat in a relatively small studio space, listening together to the pieces as they were played on air, which meant that one’s immediate response was, well, immediate.

I wanted to choose music that meant something in particular to me, while being conscious of delivering a broad ranging selection I thought people might respond to, and which might include some pieces with which listeners might be less than familiar with – Jocelyn Pook’s Tango with Corrugated Iron, for instance, or James P. Johnson’s Victory March.

Here’s the full list …

Mean to Me  [Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk]
Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra inc. Lester Young (tenor sax)

Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) [Mendelssohn]
Maxim Dmitrievich Shostakovich  & Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra

Victory Stride [James P. Johnson]
Marin Alsop & The Concordia Orchestra

Shipbuilding [Elvis Costello]
Elvis Costello with Chet Baker (trumpet)

Cello Concerto No. 2 [Shostakovich]
Sol Gabetta with Marc Albrecht & Munich Philharmonic Orchestra

Tango with Corrugated Iron [Jocelyn Pook]
Electra Strings & Jocelyn Pook

Rhythm-a-ning [Thelonious Monk]
Thelonious Monk Trio

And, somewhere in there, I was asked to read my poem about Chet Baker, which, of course, I was more than happy to do.

The programme is now available to listen to for 29 days …

November Music …

Before the first of my radiotherapy sessions at UCLH yesterday, the nurse asked me what kind of music I would like played from Spotify while the treatment was in progress. Oh, just some jazz, I said. What I got was James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison. I trust they’re targeting of my prostate was more accurate.

Two playlists this month … the first, the more usual selection from the good old iPod Shuffle …

  • Tell It Like It Is : Aaron Neville
  • Honky Tonk [Pt. 2] : Bill Doggett
  • Suite #4 in E Flat Minor/Bach Six French Suites : Joanna MacGregor
  • Beale Street Blues : Alex Welsh & His Dixielanders
  • Tea For Two : Lester Young w. the Nat King Cole Trio
  • Crow Jane : Skip James
  • Variations on a Theme by Thelonious Monk #1 : Eric Dolphy
  • String Qt #22 in B Flat – Menuetto/Mozart : Talich Quartet
  • Too Far Gone : Emmylou Harris
  • Getting Ready : Patty Griffin

And here is the newly chosen for the month of November playlist labelled simply New Stuff

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  • Body & Soul : Thelonious Monk [from Monk (Live)]
  • Fallen Leaves : Neneh Cherry [from Broken Politics]
  • Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues : Danny O’Keefe
  • Ken Bayne : Aster Aweke
  • Need a Little Time : Courtney Barnett
  • Peace Piece : Igor Levit [from Igor Levit, Life]
  • Sendelela : Aster Aweke
  • Shouting in a Bucket Blues : Kevin Ayers
  • Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes : Kevin Ayers
  • 7 Seconds : Youssou N’Dour & Neneh Cherry

I was alerted to the music of the Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke when I heard in playing in  Engocha, the Ethiopian vegan restaurant conveniently just around the corner in Tufnell Park. And I’m grateful to Tim Adkin, of Counterpoint fame, for reminding me of the pleasures to be gained from listening to Kevin Ayres – a bit of a favourite in my long-off Stevenage days.

neneh cherry_broken politics

CrimeMag on “Body & Soul”

BODY&SOUL

Alf Mayer’s review of Body & Soul appeared online in the June 2018 edition of CrimeMag.
Anyone wishing to read it in the original German, can do so here, otherwise you must contend with my faltering, but, I hope, basically accurate translation …

Here goes …

Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

On April 19, William Heinemann published John Harvey’s novel Body & Soul, the fourth and last book featuring former police detective Frank Elder. It is a swan song – in several ways. Harvey confirmed on his blog that this would be his last book. “Jump of your own accord,” he said, “before being pushed.”

Harvey will be 80 on December 21st of this year – something to be clearly stated and celebrated. In March, he made public that he is being treated for aggressive prostate cancer, and does not want to hide the fact that he receiving chemotherapy. “It’s important,” he wrote to me, “that you’re not ashamed of that. We need a different way of dealing with illness in our society, that is my clear opinion.”

Before Elder there was his detective Charlie Resnick, whom Harvey followed through twelve novels, one of which, Darkness, Darkness [Unter Tage, 2017], he adapted for the stage in Nottingham – see my CrimeMag interview from 2016.

Darkness, Darkness 1

 

Cover_Harvey_Unter Tage

Playhouse

But having set Elder aside, as he had thought for good, Harvey mentioned that he had a new idea for him which he wanted to develop in order to see what happened. And now that idea has become a farewell that has everything.

A hammer of a book!
Had John Harvey only written this one, we would remember him forever.
Jump before being pushed indeed!
Old and tattered but still full of juice.
Not a gram of fat too much.
Poetic and brutal.
An ending that freezes the blood.
Chords that reverberate for a long time. Like a masterly piece of jazz that will not be forgotten and which one knows on first encountering will always return.
Body & Soul.

John Harvey, like Elmore Leonard, began his career with Westerns. It’s been over 40 years now. He talked about it In his first column on CrimeMag. He was one of the “Piccadilly Cowboys”, with, amongst others, a series called Hart the Regulator, ten volumes published by Pan in paperback between 1980 and 1983. “In those days we wrote ‘em fast!” Hard, short, fast stuff. Pulp.

hart

But not only that. Not many crime writers, like him, have published three volumes of poetry. Not many people know and understand as much jazz and can write about it. [Recently here at CrimeMag: “Looking at Lester”] And not all of them have such slender-beautiful language. Pulp. Poetry. And jazz.

Ghosts

Whooosh, the brushes dabbed across the drum skin. Broiing, the deepest string on the double bass. And then the tenor saxophone. All this is Body & Soul. Harvey knows how to pluck strings, when to use which instrument. When and how the resonance chamber of his novel fills with strength-grief-pain-beauty-hardness-heart. Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

“Oh Frank, it’s just a song.”

Frank Elder is the dark side of Charlie Resnick. His somewhat short-tempered patience tears easily. After a police career in London, a demoralizing divorce and a fierce family tragedy, he has retreated to far-off Cornwall, where he occasionally helps the local police. When his alienated 23-year-old daughter Katherine comes to visit – “No questions, Daddy! Otherwise I’ll be gone,” – he has to control himself so as not to stare at the bandages on her wrists. Even more, not to ask. He goes to a pub with her, maybe there’s music there. What kind? Jazz, probably, he says. But you don’t even like jazz, says the daughter.

Frank Elder is not Charlie Resnick, sitting on a park bench at the end of Darkness, Darkness, pondering on Thelonious Monk and how well he can paint pictures on the piano. Instead, Harvey gives Elder a scene in which he walks away from a bar singer called Vicki, who has taken an interest in him, and who sings, as if just to him, the Billie Holiday version of the book’s title, Body & Soul.

My days have grown so lonely
For you I cry, for you dear only
Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you, body and soul …

I spend my days in longing 
I’m wondering why it’s me you’re wronging …

My life a hell you’re making
You know I’m yours for just the taking
I’d gladly surrender
Myself to you body and soul.

A piece about perseverance, about spurned love in defiance. Charlie Resnick would ponder whether the instrumental version by Coleman Hawkings of October 11th, 1939, or the later version by Ben Webster would be better. Elder leaves as Vicki sings the lyrics, goes down to the water, his hands and thoughts numb until Vicki comes and stands beside him. Here is the beautiful passage …

A blues next, then an up-tempo chase through, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, and then … 
 “This is a song I learned from a recording by Billie Holiday that she made way back in nineteen forty and which I first heard when I was eighteen or nineteen and I’ve been plucking up the courage to sing it ever since. So fingers crossed and here goes. ‘Body and Soul.’”
A few bars of sparse piano and the lyric … My days have grown so lonely … Nailing Elder from the first line, a threnody of helplessness, love and despair. Vicki’s voice by the final verse, the final chorus, beaten, defeated, little more than a whisper. Silence. And then the applause. Elder walked out in the night.
Walked towards the harbour, lights on the water.

Oh Frank, Vicki says to him, as she stands beside him and looks for his hand, it’s just a song, it does not have to be true love, at our age. When he puts an arm around her waist, he does not have to look at her to know she is smiling. Shall we go in your car, she says, or mine?

On another occasion, these two life-worn adults talk about how movies, books, and songs tell us about our own broken hearts, how they teach us what we should feel – Ernest fucking Hemingway, as Elder calls him, and all the others who have shaped our ideas of love and pain. And how, in the end, we are alone.

And all the more painfully, we experience through Harvey’s art a young woman being sacrificed again: Frank Elder’s daughter, kidnapped and tortured and raped at sixteen, barely escaping from death, saved by the father, though ultimately that was of little help; now she is twenty three and strangely ambivalent; sometimes seeking help yet dismissing closeness; rugged, leaping, vulnerable. And most importantly: just mute.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!”

From Chapter 5, Harvey changes the narrative more often. We no longer follow only the ex-cop Frank Elder, but also his daughter, and then an increasing number of police officers, men and women, as the narrative strands increase, setting the heart racing. At first, the adrenaline rushes are isolated and controlled until, in Harvey’s hands, this tremendously taut book leaps alive like a wild animal. It is a long time since I have felt my heart beating as strongly when reading as here.

Frank’s daughter, Katherine, has been having an affair with a painter twice her age for whom she has been modelling and this has opened up old psychic wounds, throwing her off balance. Frank Elder travels from Cornwall, five and a half hours by train to London, wanting to be closer to Katherine. He visits an exhibition by this painter, Anthony Winter, and recognizes his daughter. Painted on large format canvasses. Exposed. Spread. Tied up. Like a prisoner. In front of one of these pictures his nausea rises as he stares at a thread of blood running from the young woman’s vagina.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!” He roars, knocking down the painter. A few days later he is under suspicion of murder, the artist having been killed in his own studio. A father who sees his daughter naked like that in a painting – of course, he gets angry, says Elder at his interrogation. “It was the paintings. His. Winter’s. There on display. ”

Then there are new developments. Surveillance cameras show a female figure near the studio; it could be Elder’s daughter, suspicion weighs heavily upon her. The conflicts are piling up. But just half way through the book, when everything is already violent enough, once again there’s a strong drum roll. Adam Keach, the 30-year-old convicted murderer, kidnapper and rapist who previously assualted Katherine, has escaped in an accident involving his transport between prisons. And immediately he is on a mission. He wants to take revenge on Elder, who put him in prison seven years before, and he wants to grab his daughter again. Finish what he did with her then.

“No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

So the past returns with lightning and thunder. The emotional mutilations of that time overlap with acute lines of conflict; Kate’s rude relationship with the despotic and now dead painter is but one of the unequal power relations in the book. Harvey, however, does not paint everything black and white, he varies his themes within the orchestration of his novel. There are other readings of unequal and uneven relationships, be it the ex-girlfriend of the murdered painter who has returned from Cyprus, be it Elder’s relationship with his own ex-wife or with former colleagues. In many shades the shadows and wounds of the past push into the present, reflecting the psychological costs of crime and the smaller malignancies that one experiences in everyday life. “How do you cope with this, how can you forget what this girl has experienced?” – “You cannot do it.”

In many variants, it is always about how to deal with life. Father-daughter relationships are questioned, and also how parents and children move away from each other. As the epigraph of the book, from Grahams Greene’s Our Man in Havana,  states “The separating years approached them both, like a station down the line, all gain for and all loss for him “.

Charlie Resnick had jazz for such moments of nothingness and Harvey offers this kind of music to Frank Elder as well, but in this dark universe it is only of limited help. “No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

You sit with this book and, as you read, marvel at how John Harvey, master and commander of language that moves between the dust-dry of the everyday and poetic oscillation, achieves his means. There are ultra-tough police interrogations and word battles, the agonizing silence between parents and children, the professional talk of police officers surveying their cases; there is the world of galleries, models and the genius of artists; and there is the sophisticated and soulful police novel – manhunt, thriller. There are discreet and hard sounds. There’s a lot of lacuna. Poetry. There are landscapes, city and provincial. There are many inspiring miniatures. Art galleries, art house cinemas, old colleagues, an investigator who is half of a lesbian  couple: all of these disciplined and economically set in an exciting style.

Glancing at her again, Hadley was struck by an image, a flicker of memory, one of those films from the sixties she and Rachel luxuriated in once in a while – or had before Hadley’s promotion to detective chief inspector cut their leisure time by half. Glistening black-and-white, 35-millimeter prints at the BFI Southbank or the recently refurbished Regent Street cinema, a cocktail in the bar beforehand, supper afterwards. Rachel, a film buff since her university days. Bergman, Bresson, Godard, Kieslowski and Kaurismaki. And Alice, Hadley thought, was almost a dead ringer for Jean Seberg in “À Bout de Souffle” : the wide eyes, the dark eyebrows and off-blonde elfin-cut hair. Alice wearing black as usual, black jumper, black trousers, black shoes. Glancing now at the GPS, two more turns before drawing up outside the Wilton estate.

… Then the two investigators are with Katherine and the tone of the book changes. As it does quite often. Again and again. Like a breathtaking concert with John Harvey as the conductor, guiding our responses.

F&B 1

The Body & Soul UK hardcover also features the first few chapters of Flesh & Blood, John Harvey’s first Frank Elder novel, which is now back in paperback. One will want to re-read everything immediately after finishing this.

Alf Mayer

John Harvey: Body & Soul. William Heinemann, London 2018. 304 pages, GBP 14.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Unknown

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].

iu

 

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

More Wasted Years …

Wasted Years was the first of five radio adaptations based on the Resnick novels and short stories. First broadcast in 1995, it has been repeated several times since, and is about to be broadcast again, in two parts, on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Monday, February 5th and Tuesday, 6th, each episode playing three times – 10.00am, 3.00pm and (for the insomniacs out there) 3.00am the following morning.

Like all of the other dramatisations, Wasted Years was produced by David Hunter [with whom I’m currently working on the Inspector Chen series for Radio 4] and, unlike the others, featured Tom Wilkinson as Resnick. Tom, of course, had played the role in the televised versions of the first two novels, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, which were shown on BBC One in  1992 & 1993. Two other actors also reprised their roles: Kate Eaton as Lynn Kellogg and Daniel Ryan as Kevin Naylor.

The radio version of Wasted Years is also notable for the performance of Gillian Bevan, who plays the singer, Ruth Strange, and sings the title song over the credits. The song was written by singer/songwriter Liz Simcock [recently on tour in a duo with Clive Gregson], the lyrics based on those I came up with for the original novel. Gillian sings it so well that every time the programme is broadcast there are enquiries as to whether it is more generally available – which, sadly, is not the case. Maybe Liz can be persuaded to include it on her next CD.

Every night I spend waiting
All those dreams and wasted tear,
Every minute, eery second, babe,
The worst of all my fears.
When you walk back through the door again,
All you’ll have for me is empty arms,
And empty promises,
And ten more, ten more, oh baby,
Ten more wasted years.

Wasted 1

People sometimes ask me which of the Resnick novels is my favourite, and, over the years, my answers have varied; but somewhere around the middle of Wasted Years occurs one of my favourite chapters, not least because [like the final speech in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness] it contrives to yoke together Thelonious Monk and Nottingham’s Old Market Square.

In the square, a fifty-year-old man, trousers rolled past his knees, was paddling in one of the fountains, splashing handfuls of water up under the arms of his fraying coat. A young woman with a tattooed face was singing an old English melody to a scattering of grimy pigeons. Resnick stood by one of the benches, listening: a girl in denim shorts and overlapping T-shirts, razored hair, leather waistcoat with a death’s head on the back, standing there, oblivious of everything else, singing, in a voice strangely thin and pure, “She Moved Through the Fair”.

When she had finished and Resnick, wishing to say thanks, tell her how it had sounded, give her, perhaps, money, walked purposefully towards her, she turned her back on him and walked away.

On the steps, in the shadow of the lions, couples were kissing. Young men in short sleeves, leaning from the windows of their cars, slowly circled the square. Across from where Resnick was standing was the bland brick and glass of the store that twenty years before had been the Black Boy, the pub where he and Ben Riley would meet for an early evening pint. The glass that ten years ago was smashed and smashed again as rioters swaggered and roared through the city’s streets.

No way to hold it all back now.

Inside the house, he showered, turning the water as hot as he dared and lifting his face towards it, eyes closed; soaping his body over and over, the way he did after being called out to examine some poor victim, murdered often or not for small change or jealousy, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Steam clouded the bathroom, clogged the air, and still Resnick stood there, back bent now beneath the spray, content to let it wash over him.

In the kitchen, he felt the smoothness of the coffee beans in the small of his hand. He knew already which album he would pull from the shelves, slide on to the turntable from its sleeve.

The purple postage stamp on the cover, Monk’s face in profile at its centre, trilby had sloping forward, angled away, the thrust of the goatee beard rhyming the curve of the hat’s brim. Riverside 12-209: The Unique Thelonious Monk. “If only they’d take away the blindfold and the handcuffs,” Elaine used to say of Monk’s playing, “it might make all the difference.” Resnick would smile. Why play the right notes when the wrong ones will do?

Resnick set his coffee on the table by the chair and cued in the second track.

Monk picks the notes from the piano tentatively, as if it were a tune he once heard long ago and then, indistinctly, through an open window from an apartment down the street. There is more than uncertainty in the way his fingers falter, sliding between half-remembered chords, surprising themselves with fragments of melody, with things he would have preferred to have remained forgotten. “Memories of You”.

Moments when it is easy to imagine he might get up from the piano and walk away – except you know he cannot, any more than when the solo is finally over he can let it go. When you’re sure it’s over, probing with another pair of notes, a jinking run, a fading chord.

At the track’s end, he seems to hear her feet walk across the floor above: door to dressing table to wardrobe, wardrobe to dressing table to bed. If he went now and pushed open the door into the hallway, would he hear her voice?

“Charlie, aren’t you coming up?”

The final weeks when they lay beneath the same sheets, not speaking, not touching, catching at their breath, fearful that in sleep they might be turned inward by some old habit or need.

“Christ, Charlie!” Ben Riley had exclaimed. “What the heck’s the matter with you? You got a face like bloody death!”

And in truth he had – because in truth that’s what it had been like: dying.

A long death and slow, eked out, a little each day.

Fragments.

“Don’t you see, Charlie?”

Once the blindfold had been taken away, it made all the difference.

from Wasted Years, first published, Viking, 1993

Wasted 2

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 …

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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.

 

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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