Category Archives: Music – Jazz

1970: All things must pass

I’ve just finished reading David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’, a lengthy volume which attempts to explain many aspects of why the 1960’s Hippie Dream turned sour and does so by concentrating on one year – 1970 – and on 4 groups or artists for whom 1970 was a big year; Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Beatles and James Taylor.

All 4 released albums in 1970 – Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over troubled water‘,  CSNY’s ‘Déjà Vu ‘,  James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ and The Beatles’ ‘Let it be’.  Each of those albums were important inasmuch as they signified the end of the road for both The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel,  whilst Déjà Vu demonstrated how the addition of Neil Young to the mix completely destroyed the huge promise of the first ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’ album from the previous year.  With hindsight,  only James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ can be seen in a positive light; after all, it was the template for Taylor’s hugely successful career which still endures to this day.

CrosbyStillsNashYoung 1970CSNY in 1970 – falling apart before they ever really got together

All of these albums – particularly ‘Bridge over troubled water’  – were highly successful in terms of sales but all except for the Taylor album are freighted with negative connotations.

Simon & Garfunkel’s final album was patchy.  The title track was a monster hit everywhere and became an instant ‘standard’ and there were other fine moments like the quirky ‘So long Frank Lloyd Wright’, but there were some patchy moments as well.  Overall,  the album lacked the homogeneity of 1968’s  ‘Bookends’ and, as Browne points out, many of the tracks featured either Garfunkel’s voice or Simon’s – there weren’t many moments where we were treated to the sweet joint harmonies of yesteryear.

‘Let  it be‘ was a ragbag mess of a record after the smooth fluidity of its predecessor, ‘Abbey Road’.  Few of the songs were of a quality that matched The Beatles’ achievements  at their ‘Revolver’/’Sgt Pepper‘ peak.  ‘Let it be’ revealed a band falling apart.  The only surprise is that it was released at all; few other bands would have got away with it.

Déjà Vuand the US concert tour that followed it turned Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into the world’s biggest band by the summer of 1970.  Yet the record – like the band –  is deeply flawed, lacking the unity of mood, purpose and underlying philosophy which made the 1969 ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash‘ album one of the finest début albums of all time.  By contrast, ‘Déjà Vu’ sounds like the work of 4 solo artists, which as Browne’s book reveals was pretty much the case.  Only Crosby’s hippie potboiler ‘Almost cut my hair’ avoids this label as he insisted the whole band record it live in the studio.  Looking back, it’s clear that Young only joined the CSN collective in order to further his own solo career.  It’s of some significance that Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’, another 1970 release, leaves ‘Déjà Vu’ standing – and I say this as someone for whom Neil Young’s lengthy solo career is largely a monument to self-indulgence and tedium.  All in all, it has to be said that whilst  ‘Déjà Vu’ has its momentsStills’ ‘Carry On’ and Crosby’s title track maintain the quality of the first album –  the rest is pretty forgettable.

So, for Browne’s chosen artistes, we have two bands who disintegrated in 1970 plus one who were hardly together at all and all of this came in the wake of the Woodstock dream being soured by the events at the Altamont Speedway at the end of 1969.  Even  for Taylor, who was well on his way to becoming a major artist by the end of 1970,  success was curdled by lengthy episodes of drug abuse and flirtations with the mental instability that informed some of his lyrics.   All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, but the thing is, it’s also a distorted one, because in many other ways, 1970 was a time of harvest for many of the bands and performers who had been developing their music over the previous few years.

Even a perfunctory glance at a list of the albums that were released in 1970 show an extraordinary diversity and range of talent.  This was the year of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ , of  Santana’s ‘Abraxas’, of Pink Floyd’s  ‘Atom Heart Mother’, Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn must die’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’.  How different, how much more positive could Browne’s story have been if he’d chosen these albums and artists instead of the ones already mentioned?

TrafficTraffic in 1970;  (L-R) Wood, Winwood & Capaldi

Well, of course, Browne chose the artists and albums he did because they illustrated the specific point he was trying to make about the death of 1960’s idealism and the encroachment of greed, ego and narcotics upon the hippie heartlands of yesteryear.  To be honest, his points are well-made, but I have to ask myself which of the artists he covered were on my personal ‘playlist’ in 1970.  Maybe Déjà Vu‘ – though I usually reverted to the first ‘CSN’
album by preference – and from time to time later on in the year, Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ once it strayed across my radar.  The other two were not albums I listened to at all – I always felt that ‘Let it be‘ was rubbish aside from a couple of the tracks and I found ‘Bridge over troubled water‘ too syrupy and bland.  Some people found the title track magnificent; I just found it overblown.

I’ve already mentioned a few of the top albums released in 1970 – here’s a more comprehensive list:

Derek & the Dominos – ‘Layla and other assorted love songs’

The Mothers of Invention – ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ / ‘Chunga’s Revenge’

Free – ‘Fire & Water’/’Highway’

George Harrison – ‘All things must pass’

Grateful Dead – ‘Workingman’s Dead’ / ‘American Beauty’

Jimmy Webb – ‘Words & Music’

Joni Mitchell – ‘Ladies of the Canyon’

IABD - Marrying Maiden

King Crimson – ‘In  the wake of Poseidon’ / ‘Lizard’

Led Zeppelin – ‘III’

Neil Young – ‘After the Goldrush’

Pink Floyd – ‘Atom Heart Mother’

Rod Stewart – ‘Gasoline Alley’

Ry Cooder – ‘Ry Cooder’

Santana – ‘Abraxas’

Soft Machine – ‘Third’

Supertramp – First Album (‘Supertramp’)

Allman Brothers Band – ‘Idlewild South’

The Band – ‘Stage Fright’

The Byrds – ‘Untitled’

The Doors – ‘Morrison Hotel’

The Rolling Stones – ‘Get yer ya-ya’s out’

Todd Rundgren – ‘Runt’

Mountain climbing

Traffic – ‘John Barleycorn must die’

Yes – ‘Time and a Word’

Family – A Song for Me’

Mountain – Climbing!

Egg – ‘Egg’

Miles Davis – ‘Bitches’ Brew’

The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘Burrito Deluxe’

Country Joe and the Fish – ‘C.J. Fish.’

Blodwyn Pig – ‘Getting to this’


The Who – ‘Live at Leeds’

Ginger Baker’s Air Force – First Album

Dave Mason – ‘Alone Together’

Fotheringay – First Album (‘Fotheringay’)

Quicksilver Messenger Service – ‘Just for Love’ / ‘What about me?’

Nick Drake – ‘Bryter Later’

Tim Buckley – ‘Starsailor’

Quintessence 1970

Spirit – ‘The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’

Roy Harper – ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’

If – First Album & ‘If 2’

It’s a Beautiful Day – ‘Marrying Maiden’

John McLaughlin – ‘My Goal’s Beyond’

Quintessence – ‘Quintessence ‘ (Second album)

John & Beverley Martyn – ‘The Road to Ruin’

OK,  so here are close to 50 LP’s which also saw the light of day in 1970 and might paint a rather less negative picture than Browne offers in his book.  People often talk of 1967 as being the magical year for music  but for me, 1970 is the year that really counts.  You can make your own mind up about that.

After this, of course, there was Bowie and The Eagles and  Little Feat and  Steely Dan – overall,  something new.  Whilst the 60’s was a fading dream , the 70’s offered something different.  1970 was a year that marked the dividing line between the two decades and gave us a whole new set of possibilities.

Truths, half-truths & convenient fictions in Mitteleuropa……

After the social whirl of March’s Sri Lanka extravaganza, the end of April  saw me embarked on a solo outing to the place where the new Europe and the old one overlap – Berlin – with onward connections to Poland and the journey I have wanted to make for many, many years now, to Krakow, Auschwitz and Mitteleuropa’s particular ‘heart of darkness’.

Travelling alone is something I used to do a lot of back in the days when I used to work in the travel biz;  I would be tasked with checking out a particular area of (usually) Scandinavia and would meet with hoteliers,  transport companies and the like, whilst investigating potential attractions to be woven into a 7-, 10- or 14 day programme that could be incorporated into the following year’s brochures – ‘Finnish Panorama’, ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ etc ; you get the general drift.

However, the thing is that although I travelled alone between destinations, I always had people to meet and appointments to keep once I got to wherever I was headed.  With this trip, the only schedule was the one I decided on and with flights, trains, hotels and suchlike all booked in advance, I simply had to show up and meander through my own self-devised itinerary, visiting the sights and hitting the hotspots that interested me.  Deciding where to  have dinner was sometimes the only real variable in my day and having always been comfortable in my own skin, the prospect of wandering round central Europe on my own didn’t bother me that much, but I suspect I underestimated the impact of a programme with such a minimal level of social contact built in.  Certainly, I  didn’t take into account the emotional  impact of some of what I would experience.

ESG Wall

One of the images from the East Side Gallery in Berlin

It wasn’t  even that this was a trip that I wanted to do alone and with the benefit of hindsight , I wish I’d worked a little harder to find a travelling companion or two.  It’s just a simple fact that most of my family and friends are caught up in a cocktail of work or financial or (even) grand-parenting issues that would have made it impossible for them to join me for one or more reasons.  However, the thing that really drove me out the door on this occasion was news of the imminent arrival of an Aussie friend of the Partner’s – let’s call her Matilda – whose mere presence is enough to inspire paroxysms of mild nausea and loathing in me – I have my reasons, believe me.  Matilda and her ex-husband were part of the social flotsam and jetsam with which the Partner chose to populate her life in her free & easy late 20’s.  Most of this lot have now thankfully disappeared into the mists of history, but not Matilda, who although she lives in Perth, waltzes into Europe  far too frequently for my liking.

When this happens, I take the view that it’s better and simpler for everyone if I just get out of Dodge.  Normally, I might visit mates in Shropshire or Derby, but on this occasion, I decided to make a virtue out of what I perceived to be a necessity and orchestrated a week-long trip to Berlin and Krakow.  This did not meet with universal approval; the Partner’s attitude combining anger at my ongoing disdain for her Aussie friend and irritation that I am able to just clear off for a week at the drop of a hat when she is still shackled to the workplace.

Predictably, all of this  domestic sturm und drang came floating to the surface like so much unwelcome scum the night before my departure, by  which point it was in any case far too late for me to do anything about it – even if I’d cared to.  Under the circumstances, I guess I can only take pride in my unwavering knack for consistently locating that ‘sour spot’ that exists somewhere between ‘deeply flawed’ and ‘completely wrong’.  Sad but true, folks;  I’m  reliably and regularly informed that I’m no angel and having been told this for well over 20 years, I guess it must be true.

And so to Berlin, where the sun was fighting to get through a grey blanket of cloud and I was soon fighting to get to grips with the highly-touted public transport system.  Airport Bus to some place the other side of Tiergarten, then U-Bahn (or was it S-Bahn – and what’s the difference anyway?) to Potsdamer Platz with its glass towers and forest of pink piping and a tedious walk down the road to my hotel; a clean functional Ibis with staff who were efficient and friendly in that impersonal corporate manner we are all supposed to applaud.

There was enough of the afternoon left for me to explore my immediate surroundings, which were, specifically, the area between Potsdamer Platz and Kreuzberg.  This is an area of no great architectural merit with only the remaining section of the  facade of the old Anhalter Banhof and the soaring white spires of the Tempodrom concert hall to enliven things.  In the end I wandered up to Potsdamer Platz to photograph the pink piping –   there to pump away ground water as Berlin apparently has a very high water table.IMG_1180

Pink pipes in Potsdamer Platz

Later, I walked down into Kreuzberg and had a pleasant dinner at a Nepalese/Tibetan restaurant called ‘Tibet Haus’, recommended to me by the Princess;  another of the sundry weirdnesses connected with this excursion was that all 3 members of this household have now visited Berlin within the last 2 years, but we have all done the trip independently of one another.  Did I hear somebody say ‘dysfunctional’?

I didn’t anticipate leading a wild nocturnal existence on this trip, but I did check out a few Berlin websites to see if there were any gigs or exhibitions I could go to during my stay.  It was a pleasure to find that promising young Norwegian nu-jazz trio, In the Country, were playing at a jazz club called A-Trane across to the west of the city in Charlottenburg, so after my Nepalese curry I cabbed over to A-Trane to see them play.  And what a delight that turned out to be!

In the Country

In the Country

Pianist Morten Qvenild has the highest profile due to his role as ‘the Magical Orchestra’ behind Susanna (Wallumrød), but In the Country have been active for 8 years now and  are touring around their fifth album, ‘Sunset Sunrise‘,  so-called because they recorded it at Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Sound last summer during a few days downtime whilst on tour in the States.  Qvenild has also been involved with other Norwegian nu-jazz bands like Shining and even an early incarnation of Jaga Jazzist.  He gets great support from drummer Pål Hausken and bassist Roger Arntzen and there’s never any suggestion that this is merely Qvenild’s band.  To some extent, they have taken ideas originally explored by the Esbjörn Svensson Trio;  notably the discreet usage of  synthesiser, electronics and  vocals to boost the basic trio sound – and they do it brilliantly.

They played 2 marvellous sets to a pretty packed club and I cabbed home some time after 1 am feeling happy with my first day.

For the next 3 days, I went into full tourist mode, wandering the city at some length and visiting sites that were obvious choices like Checkpoint Charlie,  the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag plus others that were recommended to me like the DDR and Jewish Museums.  The weather was pretty good and I got better at navigating my way around.  I found a great Malaysian/Filipino restaurant called Mabuhay, located in the most unpromising of back street car parks with a Lidl supermarket next door – the food was good, though.  I swiftly became very taken with Berlin’s quirky feel and tried to preserve enough energy to explore areas like Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg.  On Bergmannstrasse, I ate the best wienerschnitzel I have ever had but had less positive experiences with the local wurst and kebab stalls.

If my experiences with the local cuisine were mixed, the same could definitely be said of the local history and politics, which gave me the same kind of unsettled feeling as that ill-chosen bratwurst I ate one lunchtime.

Even though the Wall is gone, its ghost dominates Berlin in so many ways and though Berlin’s location in the centre of Europe reveals  a city that might look just as readily to the west as to the east, you sense that the shadow in the east predominates.  The elegant avenues of Charlottenburg and the glitzy shops of Kurfürstendamm might wish to emulate Paris, but some of the grim concrete plazas around Alexanderplatz seem more representative of the city’s recent Stalinist past.  War, whether cold or hot,  is the dominant motif in the city’s geography and history – the further east you go the clearer that becomes.  It’s really quite difficult to understand how West Berlin survived as an island of capitalist excess in East Germany’s  grim backwaters, but it did for over 40 years and nowadays the U-bahn and S-bahn trains sweep through former ‘ghost stations’  like Bernauerstrasse with no indication of past problems.  Above ground it’s a different story and the city makes the most of what the Wall left behind.  Most notably, the East Side Gallery on Mühlenstrasse offers us 105 paintings along a 1.3 km long section of the Wall.  These were painted in 1990 when euphoria levels about German reunification were still high, but many of the images now look tired and have been besmirched with mindless graffiti by people who really ought to have a bit more respect.


 Detail from a section of Wall at the East Side Gallery

Further north in Prenzlauer Berg, a section of the ‘Death Strip’ between the East & West Walls has been maintained in its original configuration.  Stretching between Nordbanhof and Bernauerstrasse stations, the site offers a memorial to those who died trying to get across as well as photographic records of how different the site looked at the height of the Cold War.  Further north still is the Mauerparken – a strip park built along the line of the Wall where a huge flea market takes place every Sunday.

I wandered round the flea market, finding  myself curiously unmoved by its bewildering variety of offerings, but other people were heading back along Bernauerstrasse with small cabinets, stuffed animals, metal tractor seats and the like.  I took the U-bahn from Bernauerstrasse station and a guy came and sat next to me nursing a huge framed print of the worst kind of 1970’s sub-Pink Floyd ‘space art’.  He looked very pleased with his purchase, but then again, hopefully he just wanted it for the frame .


The Mauerparken

 The DDR Museum offered a wry thumbnail sketch of what life might have been like in the old East Germany but the Jewish Museum was a different matter altogether.  Daniel Liebeskind’s design is deliberately intended to produce a disorientating and emotional effect with its angled floors and voids, to say nothing of the actual content of the exhibits.  Let’s just say that with me it succeeded admirably.  I have in the past visited both of London’s Jewish Museums and never found either of them as troubling.  In the end, I became almost panic-stricken in trying to find a way out of the place. Here was all the evidence of a vibrant culture destroyed, here were the touchstones of a way of life that has been forever lost.  In a very direct way, Berlin’s Jewish Museum was signposting my way to Auschwitz.

Jewish Musem Berln

Inside Berlin’s Jewish Museum 

The last site I visited on my final day in Berlin was in many ways the most troubling of all.  To the south-east of the city centre, the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park is both a mass grave for the 80,000 Red Army soldiers who died in 1945’s climactic Battle of Berlin and a memorial to their sacrifice.  The monument was built in 1949 and is rendered in the usual Soviet/Heroic fashion.  It’s a huge site with- as its centrepiece – a 12m high statue of a Soviet soldier holding a child in his arms whilst lording it over the broken swastika at his feet.

Whatever my feelings about the vanished world of Soviet Russia, there is no doubting the suffering that country underwent at the hands of the Nazi invaders during Operation Barbarossa and its successors.  The Nazis saw the Slavs as being an inferior race suitable only as slave labour and they despoiled the towns, cities and local populations of the lands they conquered in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.  As the Russians headed west in late 1944,  it was time for a little revenge and whilst Russian historians dispute this, there seems little doubt that the invading Red Army were responsible for massive reprisals against the German population as they drove westwards towards Berlin.  In particular, Soviet soldiers are said to have been responsible for as many as 2 million cases of rape in Germany, with victims ranging from 8 to 80 years old.  About 100,000 of these rapes were said to have occurred during the Battle for Berlin.  So much for the heroic Soviet Army, but it seems that French, American and British soldiers were also getting in on the act as they invaded from the West, so to point the finger at the Russians alone would be hypocritical indeed.


The Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park

I found this ‘credibility gap’ between the narrative of War as portrayed through its memorials and museums and the underlying stories of ordinary people whose suffering was on a different level altogether to be a recurring motif on this trip and the more I saw of it,  the more disturbing  I found it.    The ‘grand narratives’ of generals and statesmen and war heroes don’t seem to make any sense here – the Jews of Berlin were reviled, ostracised, then dispossessed and exterminated, the heroic Red Army were not the liberators of myth, but simply  an armed rabble who raped and pillaged their way through Poland and Eastern Germany until they met up with the Allies at the Elbe, the women of Berlin (many of them) paid a terrible price for Hitler’s racism. arrogance and deranged fascist ideologies…..what’s wrong with this picture?

Before this trip, I would have said that I knew quite a bit about all of this, having read a number of books about it and seen quite a few documentaries – certainly I felt that the blinkers were off as far as I was concerned, but I still found the growing gap between the official viewpoint and what ordinary people actually experienced somewhat alarming.  More to the point, it was not something I had been able to discover through books or films, but something I picked up simply from wandering round Berlin’s monuments and museums.  How much more of a shock would Poland prove to be?

I was soon to find out. The next morning I took a cab to Berlin’s magnificent glass and steel Hauptbanhof, opened in 2006 and one of my favourite modern structures.  Anyway you look at it, it’s a magnificent building and must make arriving in Berlin by train a truly uplifting experience.

Berlin Hauptbanhof

Berlin’s Hauptbanhof 

However, I was leaving, not arriving and I boarded the 9:37 train to Warsaw and found myself sharing a compartment with a Russo-German family of 4 and a German girl in her 20’s who bore a disconcerting resemblance to my next-door neighbour.  Ordinarily, I would have been able to travel directly to my final destination, Krakow,  rather then go via Warsaw, but the track between Berlin and Krakow is apparently being upgraded to take high-speed trains, so a detour through central Poland to Warsaw was the first stage of a 10-hour journey.  There was no small talk with my neighbours – the German girl was ploughing through a hefty John Irving novel and the Russo-German parents were busy with their infants.  I played my iPod to shut out some of the noise and concentrated on the unravelling view outside the window. It’s only 50 miles from Berlin to the River Oder which forms the international boundary with Poland and an awful lot of that territory is covered with pine forest – planted rather than natural, I assume.  Once across the river and into Poland, however, the landscape began to change to a gently undulating landscape of fields, copses and low hills.  With the first flush of springtime green on the land, it looked incredibly attractive in a kind of ‘Nymphs & Shepherds come away‘ fashion.  Given the ‘Volkish‘, back-to-nature ideologies of the Nazis, it’s easy to see the attraction of these bucolic landscapes with their gingerbread cottages and echoes of a simpler, nobler past, free from the corruption of the big cities with their Jewish predators waiting to pounce on simple Aryan country boys.

On the way to Warsaw, we passed through a number of provincial towns and one major city – Poznań –  none of which looked particularly noteworthy.  By 3 pm I had reached Warsaw Zachodnia station (formerly Warsaw West), a satellite station some miles from the centre of the city.  Quite why I needed to change there rather than in the centre of the city is something I couldn’t explain to you.  From the platforms at Zachodnia I had a good view of Warsaw’s central landmarks, notably the near-800 foot high Palace of Culture & Science, built between 1952 and 1955 and donated to the people of Poland by the people of the USSR.  Locally, it’s sometimes referred to as Stalin’s Syringe and can be seen just left of centre in the picture below.


 After some 45 minutes or so, my train to Krakow duly appeared and once aboard I settled back for another unravelling panorama of Polish farmlands outside my window.  This express didn’t stop at all and after just over 3 hours we pulled into Krakow’s modern station.  One overpriced cab ride later and I was at the Globetroter (with just one ‘t’) Guesthouse in the Old Town.

It was the 29th April when I arrived in Krakow.  The most urgent question I had to answer was when to visit Auschwitz.  Should I go the following day or have an easier day in Krakow?  I was inclined to follow the latter course, but that would mean deferring my Auschwitz trip for a further day, which would mean trying to go there on 01 May, a well-established public holiday.  I knew that the Museum itself would be open on May Day, but would getting there be a problem?

The (unpronounceable) modern town of Oswiecim is (depending on the route you take) just over 40 miles west of Krakow and because of the logistics of visiting the Auschwitz sites,  an early start is essential if you wish to avoid the crowds and find your own way around the place.  Essentially, if you arrive after 10 am, you are compelled to join a guided tour around the museum and this was something I was keen to avoid for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, I am probably a bit too well-informed about the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’  and wouldn’t really need to hear all the ‘back-story’.  For another, I knew that this was likely to be my one and only visit to Auschwitz, so I wanted it to make sense for me and the only way that could happen would be for me to be in charge of my own itinerary, so to speak.

After popping out to a nearby restaurant, I returned to Globetroter to check out the weather forecast on BBC World.  The 30th was set fair, but the 1st promised rain for Western Poland, so my decision was made for me.

I was in bed by about 9:15 pm,  awake well before 6 the following morning and on my way to the Bus Station before 7.  Once there, I managed to find a place on the 7:50 minibus, along with a ragbag collection of half-asleep tourists and young Poles on their way to work at intermediate stops along the way.  The journey took about an hour and 20 minutes and we were eventually dropped off in a featureless suburban street on the outskirts of Oswiecim.  A sign saying ‘Museum’ which led off down a footpath towards a fenced enclosure was the only clue to our whereabouts.  Following this footpath, I soon found myself in the Museum’s main car park and was surprised to see how busy it was given that it was only about 9:15 am.

Entry to the Auschwitz site is free (as it should be) so I avoided a few groups that were gathering and simply walked through into the approach to the camp.  First impressions were how small, compact and neat it looked – and then you spot the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ sign…..  The word ‘iconic’ is overused these days, but there is no denying the power of that cynical piece of signage.


The gate into the Auschwitz 1 camp as you first see it

And then….just a few steps for a man, as Neil Armstrong might have said and you are inside.  How easy it would have been for me to about face and walk out again and how many uncounted thousands would have liked to be able to do the same and yet could never do so? I don’t – as far as I know – have an iota of Jewish blood in me, but just stepping across that threshold made my WASP plasma run cold.

Auschwitz 1 is an unnerving place on numerous levels.  Yet again I found myself assailed by those feelings of dislocation between the evidence before my eyes and the reality of what went on in this dreadful place.  The original site was a way station or transit camp  for migratory farm workers who every year travelled the roads of  Bohemia, Moravia, Poland, Silesia and Germany in search of employment.  Similarly, landowners would travel to Auschwitz in order to recruit labourers.  If you look at a map, you will see that Auschwitz lies  at the crossroads of Europe and well before the railways were built, the high roads from Berlin to Prague and from Krakow to Vienna passed nearby.  Later it became  a Polish army barracks and then the Nazis took over.  The excellent communications links from Auschwitz to both east and west found favour with the architects of the ‘Final Solution’ and the proximity of the Silesian coalfields meant that big companies like I G Farben were prepared to open chemical factories there – resulting in Auschwitz 3 or Monowitz where Farben used inmates from the camps as workers.

Inside Auschwitz 1, the trees are showing new growth, the roads and walkways are tidy – the calm is eerie.  Only when you look up to the wire and the watchtowers do you get a true sense of what this place was really about.

Auschwitz 1

A number of the 20-odd barrack blocks have been converted – some for use as office space, others as homes for the site’s permanent exhibits and for individual national displays from Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and so on.  Knowing that a long and trying day lay ahead of me, I chose to focus on the permanent displays because it is really only here that the spick-and-span barracks are revealed as the houses of horror they really were.  The exhibits that reveal Auschwitz’s true nature are those that focus on daily life within the camps and the way in which the incoming millions were exploited and abused by their captors.

I have often remarked to people that there are some ‘sights’ – the Taj Mahal, the Manhattan skyline and the Eiffel Tower are 3 that spring to mind – that retain their power to impress,  even though you have inevitably  seen them hundreds of thousands of times on TV and in books.  For me, Auschwitz has a few of these and the first are the monstrous display cases full of human hair and suitcases and shoes in the barracks that deals with the Nazis ideas about ‘harvesting the dead’. Particularly grim is the case full of small shoes taken from the feet of innumerable dead children; the point is that all of this stuff is just a fraction of the total volume of such items generated during the life of Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps.

Auschwitz 1 Childrens shoes

Children’s shoes in the museum at Auschwitz 1.

I concluded my visit to Auschwitz 1 by visiting the ‘Punishment Block’  in Block 11 and the adjoining yard where the Nazis put at least 20,000 people up against the so-called ‘Black Wall’ and shot them.  Inside  Cell Block 11 were the basement cells where prisoners were often left to starve to death or forced to crawl into miniscule 4-person ‘standing cells’, so small that there was no possibility of the inmates being able to sit, let alone lie down.  It was also in this basement in September of 1941 that the Nazis first trialled Zyklon B as a killing gas on 600 Soviet prisoners and 250 ill and injured prisoners in a makeshift gas chamber.  The ‘Black Wall’ has been reconstructed in the sealed yard between Cell Blocks 10 & 11  and the windows of Block 10 that faced on to the yard  shielded to prevent the inmates from seeing what was happening outside, though they could no doubt guess from the sound of gunfire.  In any case, they had troubles of their own as Block 10 was where the infamous Josef Mengele carried out his barbaric medical experiments on twins, pregnant women and the like.

To be honest, I was shocked by the impact of all this on me; after all I knew most of this stuff, but it’s one thing to read about it or watch an elegantly-constructed BBC documentary or even Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour epic film ‘Shoah’, but to be there and see these things in person just floored me.

Something else that floored me were some of the exhibits that dealt specifically with the role of the local population in the affairs of Auschwitz.  We all know that Poland was over-run by both Soviet & Nazi armies during World War II and we know that the Nazis were responsible for the forced deportation of huge numbers of Poles to work as slave labour in the mines and factories of the Third Reich.  What we also know is that whilst the Poles as a race were disinclined to collaborate with the Nazis, they were also largely indifferent to the fate of the (nearly) 4 million Jews living in their country at the start of the War.  Despite all the fine talk of how few Poles actively collaborated with the Nazis, most Poles would probably argue that they had problems enough of their own without taking up the fight on behalf of the Jews.  For all this, the spectre of Polish anti-Semitism hangs over some of the exhibits at Auschwitz 1, particularly those ‘visiting’ exhibitions (usually Polish-sponsored) that deal with Resistance to the Nazis and the way in which the Poles found common cause with Jews, Roma and other oppressed minorities.  For me, a lot of this stuff just didn’t ring true.  Apparently, the current Chief Rabbi of Poland is pleased that the percentage of Poles who harbour anti-Semitic feelings is now down to 45%.  How high must it have been in the early 1940’s  – a time, where if you believe some of the stuff I saw at Auschwitz,  heroic Polish freedom fighters were finding common cause with their Jewish brothers to fight the shared Nazi enemy?  No, I don’t believe it either….yet again, I found myself teetering on the brink of a credibility gap between the revisionist history that will make us all feel comfortable with one another in the 21st Century EU and the evidence of my own eyes and ears….and brain.

Auschwitz 1 main gate

 All of the horror of what had been done here, allied to the half-truths and reassuring balm that the Polish-born, Polish-trained multilingual guides were no doubt feeding into the headphones worn by the incoming groups of impressionable but subdued teenagers from Sweden and Italy and America…well, it all just caught up with me, frankly.  45% of Poles still have anti-Semitic views, despite the largest genocide of all time happening right on their doorstep.  How bad would things have to have got before we could get that figure down to 25%?  How many more millions would have to have died in the gas chambers?

Like Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.   Roll over Pol Pot and tell Rwanda the news…..

Of course, visiting Auschwitz without going on to the second camp at Birkenau is to surely miss the point completely.  At Auschwitz 1, the victims were a mixture of Soviet Prisoners, Polish dissenters, Roma, homosexuals, political prisoners  and so on.  At Birkenau, it was really all about the Jews.  From the car park outside Auschwitz 1, a free shuttle-bus will take you to Auschwitz 2/Birkenau.  In geographical distance there is only a couple of miles between the camps, but conceptually, it’s a whole new ballgame.

The first thing that gets you is the sky, strangely enough – at Auschwitz 1 you are hemmed in by the red brick barracks and by trees – it’s all  pretty claustrophobic.  At Birkenau though, it’s a different story.  Apart from the (here’s that word again) ‘iconic’ gatehouse which Lanzmann uses as a visual cueing device throughout ‘Shoah’, everything at Birkenau is low to the ground.  Simply put, the site is huge, covering over 150 hectares (or 1.5 million square meters).

There were no existing buildings here so the Nazis threw up basic low barracks buildings – by 1945, there were 300 of them.  Stretching away into the misty distance you can see the fingers of the stove chimneys for each barracks, all that remains of most of the barracks, though some have been rebuilt to show how terrible living conditions were at Birkenau.  However, by the time Birkenau was up and running in 1942, the Nazis were much more concerned about dying conditions than living conditions.    They had  set themselves to exterminate the Jews of Europe and to do the job on an industrial scale.  Birkenau was one of the death camps they set up in Poland in order to carry out this task.

Birkenau gatehouse

The gatehouse at Birkenau  – it still gives me chills….

The railway line that leads into Birkenau is a spur that the Nazis built to increase the efficiency of their Birkenau Death Factory.  Jews could be unloaded directly on to the ‘Ramp’, divested of their possessions, split into male/female  groups and assessed for their ability to work before being marched down the ramp to the delousing showers and their eventual doom.

It’s a long way from the gatehouse to the wreckage of the crematoria at the other end of the site but it’s a journey that everyone takes.  I saw an extended family of Israelis, the children wrapped in Star of  David flags, most of the adults weeping openly.  They marched in line abreast back towards the gatehouse, towards freedom and a country that didn’t even exist when the Nazis set this place up in 1942.  I can only wonder at the complexity and depth of their feelings..

I took that walk as well, down to the anticlimactic ‘International Monument’ and the brick and concrete wreckage of the Crematoria.  Nearby on either side of the wreckage are small pools with gravestone-type memorials in front of them.  A young girl sat in silence next to the southernmost pool.  I wanted to say something to her but wouldn’t have known where to start.


The ‘undressing room’  at Crematorium II at Birkenau

By this point, I was shattered – both physically and emotionally.  I trudged back to the gatehouse and picked up a return shuttlebus to Auschwitz 1, then picked up a minibus back to Krakow.

In the evening, I ventured out into the streets of Krakow’s Old Town and found a bar overlooking the enormous Market Square.  I suppose I needed to talk to someone about all that I’d seen, but that was denied me.   No friendly faces appeared and I probably looked extremely grumpy anyway.   I had a beer and watched the world go by, then ate a perfunctory dinner before returning to the Globetroter to sleep.  It had been enough of a day.

The following day was my final full day in Poland and I wanted to see as many of Krakow’s sights as I could.  Based on what my guidebook was telling me I immediately set off for Wawel – a huge rock on a bend in the River Vistula to the immediate south of the Old Town where the original settlement of Krakow was set up.  These days Wawel is dominated by Krakow’s cathedral and castle and I was keen to see both.  I had suffered enough doom and gloom the previous day so I was hoping to experience something that would lift my spirits.  It would have been great, but it just didn’t happen and again the disparity between what is and what people would like to believe in just came back to bite me in the ass.

One of the main problems I had with Krakow is that for all that the Old Town has some spectacular sights – especially the Market Square and the Church of the Virgin Mary – the architecture is overwhelmingly Italianate in character.  In some ways, it’s like being in Lucca or Pisa or Rome – or even Budapest.   Architecturally, there is little in the Old Town that makes you want to shout ‘Wow! That’s pretty damned Polish!’ – and the buildings on the Wawel rock are very much of the same style.  The cathedral has  green copper spires that reminded me of Copenhagen and  fairly minimalistic golden domes that were like parts of Helsinki’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  Inside, the cathedral was dim,  poky and with a multitude of side chapels, all filled with groups of Poles for whom Wawel has become a touchstone of the new Polish nationalism which has come along in the wake of joining the EU and co-hosting last year’s European Football Championships.  For the first time since the early 1920’s or maybe even earlier, Poland is under the thrall of neither the Russians to the east or the Germans to the west and they are eyeing the future with renewed confidence.

Well, good for them, I guess, but I’m afraid that the buildings on Wawel did nothing for me really.  A ragbag of architectural styles and a castle of which little of the original structure remains.  Sorry Poland…..

I moved on into the Kazimierz district, just the other side of the Wawel rock and the home of the original Jewish ghetto in Krakow.  Like a restaurant with no food, Kazimierz seems to be doing reasonably well considering that there are minimal numbers of Jews living there.  The area gained some status due to the fact that Steven Spielberg filmed much of ‘Schindler’s List’ there in 1993 and there have been festivals and the reopening of synagogues and cultural centres designed to renew Kazimierz’s Jewish heritage.  It’s a scruffy area with narrow car-choked streets and a good deal of ‘yuppie-fication’  going on; signs advertising the sale of apartments in both Polish &  English – in 10 years you won’t recognise the place.  Even so, ‘Fascist Krakow’ stickers adorn some of the lamp-posts and anti-Jewish graffiti has been inadequately painted over at the rear of one of the synagogues.  No wonder most of the survivors opted to go elsewhere at the end of the War.

It was time to go home.  A cab ride through prosperous-looking suburbs took me out to the airport the following lunchtime.  Krakow Airport is unequal to dealing with more than a handful of flights every day – the queues for the EasyJet check in were ridiculous because we were all in the queue for the Belfast flight, unable – due to poor ergonomics and design – to see that the lane for the Bristol flight was completely empty.

I dozed my way across Germany and the North Sea coastline, vaguely considering that I would soon be home and able to discuss what I had seen with someone at least.  On the whole, Berlin had been great, Krakow a bit of a disappointment  and Auschwitz completely overwhelming.  I wish that I’d had some company but things don’t always work out the way you’d hoped.


Burning down the house….

It would seem that living in this part of Birmingham is rapidly becoming a hazardous business.  Going way back, the old Indoor Market in Kings Heath burned down under suspicious circumstances and only a year or so back, the old Kingsway cinema went up, yet again under similarly dodgy circumstances.

Now, a landmark of the Birmingham music scene, the former Ritz Ballroom in York Road;  most recently a branch of grasping pawnshop chain Cash Converters has also pretty much burned to the ground under – you guessed it –  the proverbial ‘suspicious circumstances’.

KHeath fire

You say ‘Hello’, I say ‘Goodbye’ – the Ritz goes up in flames

So is Kings Heath now ‘Arson Central’?  Should we go to bed with a bucket of water and a fire blanket?  Just what is going on?  As far as I am aware, neither the Indoor Market fire or the Kingsway fire were ever adequately explained and though the local Fire Department are talking of ‘suspicious circumstances’ no-one seems quite sure what they mean.

Did they find an empty firelighters box and a trail of spent matches in the vicinity?  Perhaps some shellsuited denizen of the  wretched Stalinist banlieues further out of the city loudly and publicly threatened to rain down doom and disaster on Cash Converters because they would only give him £3 for his extensive collection of PS3 games or maybe it was just some dodgy wiring in an old building which, I suspect, was never terribly well-maintained.

Whatever the case, the BBC were quick to dig up some rentamouth Brummy social historian – though not Carl Chinn for once – who deplored the city’s lack of care & attention where its musical heritage was concerned.  This bloke suggested that both Manchester & Liverpool have been much more adept at preserving their musical heritage.  Hmmm, well I’m not sure about Liverpool and that whole ersatz Beatles thing in Mathew Street, but I do know that Manchester has been equally careless with the Electric Circus, the original Factory/Russell Club and the Haçienda all now demolished.

Hooky at the Hac

Hooky at the site of The Haçienda; from yacht showroom to iconic venue to a block of yuppie flats……is nothing sacred?

Ho hum, sic transit gloria swanson, but there is a certain irony in the fact that the people behind the (ahem) ‘Kings Heath Walk of Fame’ – first to be honoured, Toyah Willcox, next up (apparently) The Move’s Trevor Burton – had staged an event in Fletcher’s bar opposite The Ritz in February to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles playing The Ritz.


The Ritz as it was back in the day. Note bizarre multi-coloured plastic checkerboard tiled frontage.  Groovy!

The Ritz was one of 4 ‘ballrooms’ owned and run by the Regan family in this area.  In addition, there were 2 Plazas – one in Handsworth and one in Old Hill plus the notorious Garryowen club in Small Heath.  I can recall visiting the ‘Garry’  a few times back in the 80’s and it was pretty wild.  As far as I know,  it, too. was either demolished or burned down a while back .  Hmm, bit of a pattern developing here……

According to  ic Birmingham back in 2005:  “The Small Heath club, a cornerstone of Birmingham’s Irish community since 1946, was labelled by police as a hot-spot of crime, disorder, alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour….Insp David McCrone  said there had been 223 call-outs to the club in two years, even though it was only open two nights a week, and closing time deadlines were flouted.”  That sounds about right…my strategy in the Garry was keep drinking and keep your head down.  How bad things got in there generally depended on the respective results for the Blues (Birmingham City) and the Villa (Aston Villa) on any given Saturday.  A win for Villa and a defeat for the Blues meant maximum aggravation and you might be wiser to spend your evening in an alternative cocktail bar unless you were ‘in’ with the central core of drinkers.

Anyway, the Regans are gone, the ‘Garry’ is gone and now so is The Ritz.  As I stood at the corner of York Road yesterday surveying the still-smouldering remains, an old dear next to me said ” I met my husband in there ; we used to go dancing there nearly every weekend”


The Fab Four – allegedly taken out the back of The Ritz in 1962

There is a sense of loss locally; after all it wasn’t just The Beatles who played at The Ritz – the place also played host to the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones and even Pink Floyd.  However, I think it’s dubious to start moaning and groaning about how poor this city is at preserving its musical heritage – apart from Manchester, a quick look around will show that the Rainbow (née Finsbury Park Astoria) became a Happy-Clappy Church in the 1980’s and now seems to be closed/derelict.


The former Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park

Maybe the USA does this kind of thing better;  Harlem’s  ‘Apollo’ is still open for business whilst there is a ‘ Fillmore Club’ on the site of the old Carousel / Fillmore in San Francisco.  However,  CBGB in The Bowery is now a clothes shop and whilst long-standing  jazz clubs like  Birdland and the Village Vanguard are still around,  none of them are in the same premises where they began.  Seen from this point of view, the whole thing just becomes a kind of franchise and authenticity becomes a question of branding rather than geographical  location.


The original Carousel Ballroom / Fillmore West in 1970…


…and the same intersection today

When I lived in Copenhagen in the late 1970’s, I can recall witnessing a plethora of top-flight jazz gigs at the Montmartre Jazz Club, a venue known – by reputation at least – to all European jazz fans.  In just a couple of years I saw some fantastic gigs featuring the likes of the nascent Pat Metheny Group, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Dollar Brand, Gil Evans and perhaps best of all, the 1977  McCoy Tyner Sextet.  However, I knew well and good that the club on Nørregade was by no means the original Montmartre location.  Earlier in the 70’s I had been to Montmartre on Store Regnegade to see Ben Webster, but even that wasn’t the club’s original location.

So, what does it really matter?  I guess we only really miss these places when they are gone.  After its heyday, the Regans turned The Ritz into a bingo hall and it then stood derelict for quite a while before it was tarted up by Cash Converters.  Can’t say as I noticed the doyens and doyennes of Birmingham’s music scene trying to reclaim it for posterity at any time during this period.  The Ritz now joins the long and honourable roll-call of venues we have loved and lost.  And maybe they are best preserved in our memories rather than being regurgitated via places like the formulaic Hard Rock Cafés and their ilk.

Ironically, Montmartre closed down in 1995, but has now reopened back in the same Store Regnegade location it occupied for nearly 15 years.  Wonder if they have revived the red-check tablecloths that were the club’s trademark?  Doesn’t seem very likely…..


Dexter Gordon, Lars Gullin and Sahib Shihab plus rhythm section  filmed at Montmartre in 1962

Wayne Shorter Quartet @ Birmingham Town Hall, 01 November 2012

Been mulling this one over for nearly a fortnight now, not really knowing what to say.  Wayne Shorter is clearly a major name in postwar jazz, having contrived to be in the right place at the right time in terms of being a member of three hugely influential bands – Art Blakey’s  Jazz Messengers, the mid-60’s Miles Davis Quintet and the peerless Weather Report.  This would probably be my fifth or sixth encounter with Mr Shorter in a live context and I have to say that, like each of the previous encounters, this one left me disappointed in some ways, though this time, I think we can excuse him to a large extent.

Wayne Shorter 

Shorter’s recorded legacy up to the dissolution of Weather Report in the late 1980’s is pretty impressive.  Musical partners like Blakey,  Miles and Zawinul always seemed to be able to get the best out of him in the studio and apart from his work with them, there was an impressive run of solo albums with Blue Note, beginning with 1964’s ‘Night Dreamer’ .

Once Weather Report got going around the end of the 60’s,  Shorter  initially seemed an equal partner with Joe Zawinul and they survived a rotating slate of drummers and bassists through the mid-70’s before apparently settling on the ‘classic’ line-up with the extraordinary Jaco Pastorius on bass and the marvellous Peter Erskine on drums towards the end of that decade.

From that point, it seemed to be Jaco who took on the role of Joe Zawinul’s sparring partner in the band and in a succession of Weather Report gigs I attended through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s,  it was noticeable that Wayne Shorter’s presence and contribution appeared to be diminishing.  He would seemingly emerge from his shell only to duet with Zawinul on a medley that usually turned into ‘In a silent way’ and to lead the way on the marvellous  ‘A Remark you made’ .

Increasingly, it was a similar story in the studio,  with Zawinul adding layers of polyphonic synthesiser riffs from which Shorter’s horn emerged only sporadically.  During this era, it could easily be argued that it was the astonishing bass playing of Jaco Pastorius that became the main counterpoint to Zawinul’s huge multi- keyboard concoctions.  Either Wayne had lost his chops or he had lost interest due to the impossibility of competing with the band’s electronic barrage.

The classic Weather Report line-up from 1978;                    (L-R)Pastorius, Erskine, Zawinul, Shorter.

Emerging from the wreckage of Weather Report in the late 1980’s, it surprised no-one to see Shorter opting for  more acoustic settings for his playing.  He made a succession of albums in this style, often collaborating with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams whilst continuing to slum a little with  Steely Dan and  Joni Mitchell.  What really couldn’t be said was that escaping from late-period Weather Report’s electronic world music ghetto had provided Shorter with a new lease on his playing.  The solo cd’s that emerged from this period revealed someone whose playing and style both lacked conviction.  Of course, there had been problems;  Shorter lost his daughter, Iska, to an epileptic seizure in the mid-1970’s and his second wife in the 1996 TWA Flight 800 disaster off Long Island,  but he has been a practising Buddhist for many years, so maybe he was somehow able to come to terms with these awful occurrences.

By the millennium, he had put together a new  acoustic quartet featuring Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez,  multi-talented drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci.  This band have made a number of critically acclaimed albums in the 12 years they’ve been together, but I must confess that whilst I am familiar with Patitucci’s work with others and (in particular) with Blade’s superb Fellowship band, I have heard only snatches of this quartet and was therefore sufficiently intrigued to check out what someone told me – and it may even be true – was their only UK performance at the Town Hall on 1st November.

We had seats quite close to the front of the hall and my first surprise was to see how old Wayne Shorter looks, but then I hadn’t appreciated that he is nearly 80.  As he led the Quartet on to the stage,  it was quite noticeable that Pianist Danilo Perez was close behind him with his arms slightly extended in case the main man was to keel over.  Similarly, Shorter was fenced in with the piano at his back, a music stand in front of him and a stool (unused) to his left.  Seemingly, balance is now an issue and there were a couple of points in the performance where he would grab at the piano, presumably in order to support himself.

Wayne Shorter & Danilo Perez at Birmingham Town Hall, 1/11/12

The band were impressive, particularly Blade, who would play as softly as falling thistledown, then  punctuate proceedings with sporadic explosions from his kit that reminded me of Animal from ‘The Muppet Show’.  Patitucci was muscular and effective, despite intermittent technical problems that had techies crawling about underneath the piano in order to sort out the connections to his bass.  Perez, as might be expected of a pianist with a Latin American background, utilised a highly percussive approach with his left hand whilst plunging into occasional rhapsodic interludes.

In amongst all this, Shorter bobbed and weaved with occasional interjections that could best be summed up as intermittent phrases rather than flowing thematic statements.  Unsurprisingly, he was infinitely more fluent on his soprano sax than on his tenor, but even on the soprano, his presence among the shifting ebb and flow of the music was an ephemeral butterfly which flitted and fluttered and occasionally caught the eye (or the ear) without ever really imposing itself on proceedings.

Shorter is, of course, one of the last representatives of that whole post-bebop generation dominated by the likes of Miles, Mingus and Coltrane. Perhaps because of this, there is perhaps a tendency to allow veneration to overcome common sense.  Since this gig, I have read a number of glowing reviews suggesting that here was something extra-special, but the reality is that Shorter’s extremely accomplished quartet spent much of the gig papering over the cracks in their leader’s contributions;  it wasn’t that he was bad per se, but he is 79 and clearly not in the best of health.  Clearly, despite any financial incentives, he cares enough to get up on stage at an age when most of his peers were either dead or retired and that should be applauded.  However, both his contributions and his inspiration are severely diminished from his heyday and what I heard made me a little sad.

Sad, yes, because I never seem to have heard Wayne Shorter at his best in a live setting.  All the previous Weather Report gigs I saw failed to show him at his best; often drowned out by thundering bass guitar or tsunami keyboard washes.  And now, he just doesn’t have the chops any more, I’m afraid and as I close in on my sixtieth birthday,  I am perhaps more aware of  mortality than ever before.  We spend the first 50-odd years of our lives feeling immortal, then wake up to realise that we have very little time left.  Wayne Shorter is one of the last members of a generation whose musical endeavours and achievements have  stretched a long shadow across my life and now virtually all of them are gone.  Only Shorter, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner come to mind as members of a constituency that have retained their abilities into their late 70’s, but it has to be said that Wayne Shorter is just clinging on by his fingernails.

As I remarked to someone afterwards, the problem with sax players is that when they’re young, you just can’t shut them up and when they get to Wayne Shorter’s age, they don’t really have anything left to say or lack the puff to say it. Like the man said,  sic transit gloria mundi……..

“If Food be the music of love…….Who’s Next?”

Saturday night just gone was both memorable and slightly surreal, hence my re-invention of Shakespeare’s well-known quote about the soothing of savage beasts.  Don’t fret; all will hopefully become clear as we proceed.

Two of the beasts in question were myself and my mate Adrian, out for a night of fun and frolics in the suburban wastelands of south Birmingham.  We’ve become good mates over the last few years and like many blokes of our age and  ilk and to the frequent despair and mystification of our partners, we share a love of decent beer, curry, football and music, though not necessarily in that order.  However, finding common ground on the music front has been trickier than you might think, given that we are ‘of an age’ and grew up listening to the same stuff in the late 60’s and 70’s.  I have a feeling that Adrian drifted away from music a little in the 90’s before his kids re-connected him to it all via the dance music of the rave era.  I, meanwhile, never really drifted away from music altogether, but during the same time went over to a ‘diet’ composed largely of jazz and ‘world music’.  Dance, techno, hip-hop and the like just left me cold – and still does for the most part.

After a certain amount of trial and error and a few misfires, one of the areas where Adrian and I found common cause were the points where technology and experimentation meet. He introduced me to the Thievery Corporation, whilst I got him interested in the kind of ‘Nu Jazz’  personified by people like Nils Petter Molvær and Jaga Jazzist.   We both enthused about the Cinematic Orchestra and I even joined him at a gig by Pendulum. 

We both enjoyed seeing Molvær last time he toured, so, when I saw that Food were playing a gig at the newly-refurbished Midland Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park, I knew that Adrian would be interested.  I had already introduced him to the band via their ‘Quiet Inlet‘ album and I knew he had liked it.  We were all set.

Food at MAC with guests

It’s difficult to believe, but Food have been around for over 10 years now.  The original quartet (with bassist Mats Eilertsen and trumpeter Arve Henriksen) has now been whittled down to a duo of Iain Ballamy and Thomas Strønen, who add guests (Molvær and Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz on the last album) as and when they feel the need to do so.  Saxophonist Ballamy was part of the original Loose Tubes collective and has subsequently compiled a CV that leans toward the ‘freer’ end of the jazz spectrum.  Drummer Thomas Strønen has been involved in numerous projects – often via the Rune Grammofon label – since the turn of the millennium.  His range of current activity sees him working with pianist John Taylor and saxophonist Tore Brunborg in the Garbarek-inspired trio Meadow, playing solo percussion under the Pohlitz banner and in another duo – Humcrush – with Supersilent keyboardist Ståle Storløkken.  Busy boy – he’ll actually be back in Birmingham later this month to do a gig with Meadow.

Adrian picked me up about 8 pm and by common consent, we headed for Balsall Heath and our watering hole of choice, the Old Moseley Arms, known by all as ‘The Old Mo’, an unreconstructed back-street boozer of considerable charm in Tindal Street.  They offer a rotating slate of  micro-brewery real ales, look after them properly and generally work hard to cater for a loyal but demanding clientele.  On Saturday, they were in the throes of one of their intermittent ‘Beer Festivals’ where they lay on an extra range of beers, all served out the back of the pub in the semi-outdoor  ‘smoking area’ with a barbecue and a band.  When we arrived, the band were just setting up but we took little notice, just grabbing a quick pint before heading off to MAC.

The Old Moseley Arms in Balsall Heath

The Midlands Arts Centre has been a fixture in Cannon Hill Park for as long as I have lived in Birmingham.  It was always a focus for film, music and sundry arty stuff, staging everything from yoga classes to photography exhibitions.  The original complex had a slightly ramshackle feel to it;  buildings joined on to one another with a variety of extensions and corridors, so it was no real surprise when it closed down a few years back for  a complete refurbishment. It’s been open again for a while now, but I’d had no occasion to visit before Food rolled into town.  First impressions of the new place were of slight anti-climax; it’s all clean and brightly-lit, with an impressive new entrance, blond wood floors and white walls, but no great sense of innovation.  Signage is poor, too – we weren’t sure whether the Theatre was in its original location or had been moved and there were no signs to enlighten us one way or another.  Also, the bar – quite an engaging space in the old MAC – is now a narrow corridor-type area with the feel of a motorway service station.  Oh well.

Once we got in there, the Theatre had been changed as well, with the stage lowered and a steeper rake to the seats in the auditorium.  The old place felt like a converted cinema, the new one is like a modern lecture theatre.  For some reason, the air was filled with effects-type smoke when we got in there, though this may have been the legacy of a previous performance by someone or other.  Certainly, it didn’t appear to have anything to do with Food;  they took to the stage as a trio, with the addition of Norwegian guitarist Bjørn Klaklegg, who proved to be a kindred spirit in every respect, adding effects-laden drones and chiming chords that enhanced everything else that Messrs Ballamy and Strønen were concocting.  To refer to Thomas Strønen as a drummer is to do him a considerable disservice;  throughout Food’s set – essentially one continuous 70-minute improvisation – he was as busy with a table full of electronic gizmos on the table to the left of his kit as he was with any traditional percussive instruments.  Ballamy, too, whilst alternating on soprano and tenor saxophones, also had a table alongside him with a slightly less impressive collection of gizmos, enabling him to manipulate his sound, adding delays, fades and echo.  Klaklegg, meanwhile, was using what looked to be a reel from a fishing rod affixed to the back end of his guitar.  As he spun this, filaments of fine plastic would brush against the strings, providing an interesting drone effect. 

When Adrian and I saw Nils Petter Molvær’s band a while back, one of the most extraordinary aspects of the gig was the way in which this use of electronics and effects enables three guys to concoct a huge sound that would suggest a far larger ensemble.  So, it was with Food, whose set built to a series of crescendoes before dropping away to a virtual whisper.  For the last 20 minutes or so, they added two trumpet players – Percy Pursglove and Aaron Diaz – who further ‘beefed up’ the sound.  As improvised music, it was at one and the same time both ephemeral and massively solid – like  waves crashing  on to a rocky coastline before retreating, reforming  and sweeping in again.

We emerged, energised,  into a warm Indian summer’s evening and decided to head back to the pub.  Pulling up in Tindal Street, we could hear the band battering away at ‘Born to be wild’ or something similar and plunged into the fray.  They were doing good business, too; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in the place.  Out the back, the joint was jumping, so we grabbed a couple of beers and found a place in the garden where we could hear ourselves think.  At this point, the band, who featured a wizened lead singer with a mop of greying curls and a goatee beard, launched into what became an elongated trawl through The Who’s back catalogue.  As far as I can recall, over the next hour or so, they played virtually every well-known Who song apart from ‘Pictures of Lily’ and,  I have to say, they did a pretty good job of it as well.  Sure, the aged singer lacked the explosive bellow of  ‘Dodgy Poultry’ as he referred to him, but the drummer had Keith Moon’s contrapuntal thrashing off to a tee and the bassist and guitarist also did a fair job of reproducing the band’s trademark sound. My next door neighbour wandered over to say hello – not only is he Canadian, but he also plays in a Neil Young tribute band – double jeopardy for me.  He handed me a flyer for a forthcoming gig for his band and I again failed to come clean with him by telling him that I would sooner eat my own head than attend.  God knows, I find listening to the real Neil Young difficult enough, so the prospect of a Neil Young tribute band  just fills me with horror.  I really must get round to telling him the truth; he’s fundamentally a nice guy and I think he deserves that much.

The night wore on and the barrels of beer rapidly emptied as the whole event turned into a good-natured Brummie piss-up.  Out in the garden Adrian and I surveyed the clear night sky and the glittering skyline of the City Centre as the band hurtled into a selection from ‘Quadrophenia’ and people threw themselves around the improvised dancefloor.  This was about as far removed from the cerebral electronic mélange of Food as it was possible to get.

Wonder what Pete makes of it all….?

The whole tribute band thing is something I have consciously shunned – too much of a musical snob I guess.  A woman I worked with used to go off with a bunch of her mates to an open-air festival in North Wales that takes place every summer where the line-up is composed entirely of tribute bands.  She thought it was great and always seemed to have a ball but I just felt that the whole process somehow devalued the original.  Inevitably the lines began to blur when heavy metal band Judas Priest replaced their departing lead singer with a guy who was the lead singer in a Judas Priest tribute band.  Life imitating art imitating life?  Who knows?  Who’s next? Who are you?

What is clear,  listening to this highly competent band and their lovingly crafted renditions of 45-year old pop songs is that I need to lighten up a bit.  There were a bunch of young girls standing just near us who undoubtedly weren’t born when The Who had their last chart single and they were singing along with each song with enormous gusto; for them it was just a good night out and the purist lurking inside me can at least take comfort from the fact that whilst two of the band have shuffled off to Buffalo and the remaining duo have become marginal figures at best, the songs they created all those years ago live on.

Listening to Tigran Hamasyan

“The piano’s world encompasses glass-nerved virtuosi and stomping barrel-housers in fedoras; it is a world of pasture and storm, of perfumed smoke, of liquid mathematics.” (Kenneth Miller)

I’ve blogged previously (1/4/10 about Espen Eriksen’s Trio and also on 16/4/11 about the Esbjörn Svensson Trio in a piece about Magnus Öström) about the relative explosion of piano trios in modern jazz that took place from about 1995 onwards. 

Seems that things have gone a bit quieter of late; Esbjörn has, sadly, left the building whilst the likes of Brad Mehldau have settled in nicely alongside established forces such as Keith Jarrett, John Taylor and Bobo Stenson.

It was, therefore, probably time for a ‘new kid on the block’, so the arrival of the prodigiously-talented Tigran Hamasyan is perhaps opportune.  Hamasyan is just 25 and born in Armenia, though he is now based in the USA.  In appearance he resembles a disshevelled elf after a night on the tiles; a mop of unruly curls evoking memories of Tim Buckley and mid-60’s Dylan.  To date, he has produced 4 studio albums, the most recent of which, ‘A Fable’, is an album of solo pieces issued this year.   He has also lent his distinctive talents to the oud player Dhafer Youssef’s latest quartet.

Returning to Kenneth Miller’s quote at the top of this piece, Hamasyan would definitely come under the ‘glass-nerved virtuosi’ sub-heading.  First and foremost, what you hear on his recordings is his formidable technique.  Now, I barely know one end of a piano from the other, but Hamasyan’s playing on ‘A Fable’ seems to look more to the likes of Liszt, Scriabin and Debussy than it does to Monk, Ellington or Tyner.  The guy plays with steel fingers, producing rolling arpeggios and ostinati that seem to owe far more to the classical tradition than they do to jazz.

Then, there’s the Armenian factor; Hamasyan happily embroiders his playing with the folk-tunes of his ancestral homeland, something that again evokes the Russian classical composers – Borodin, Balakirev, Mussorgsky – who in the 19th century popularised Russian folk music in the same way that Vaughan Williams did in this country.

 ‘A Fable’ is in any case some way from being a by-the-book solo jazz piano outing; Hamasyan adds percussion and also sings on several cuts – either wordless vocals to embroider the melody or, in the case of ‘Longing’, a proper vocal performance of a poem by the Armenian writer Hovhannes Tumanyan.  There is only one bona fide ‘jazz’ tune on ‘A Fable’ and that is ‘Someday my prince will come’,  played as a lilting waltz, but one that looks to Vienna rather than Manhattan.

To hear Hamasyan in a more conventional ‘jazz’ setting, we have to backtrack to his 2007 album, ‘New Era’, recorded in Paris for Nocturne Records and featuring Francois and Louis Moutin (presumably brothers) on double bass and drums respectively.  ‘New Era’ also features a couple of standards – ‘Well you needn’t’ and ‘Solar’ but whilst Hamasyan copes easily with the technical demands of the pieces, he adds little to our understanding of these venerable chestnuts, conspicuously failing to find any nuances  that haven’t been visited a thousand times by players infinitely less adept. Where ‘New Era’ comes to life is on the two overtly Armenian pieces, ‘Zada Es’ and ‘Aparani Par’, both of which feature the Armenian reeds player Vardan Grigoryan on duduk, shvi and zurna.  I only recognise the first of these, as Didier Malherbe has made the duduk a central voice in the music of the Hadouk Trio, but what is beyond doubt is that the addition of these instruments connects Hamasyan with a tradition where he clearly feels more at ease.  Hmmm… Hamasyan playing alongside the Hadouk Trio; that would be a mouthwatering prospect……

The cover of ‘New Era’ with Tigran Hamasyan looking uncannily like either (or both) Rafael & Fabio da Silva of Manchester United

The other Tigran Hamasyan recording I have been listening to is  a French radio broadcast from a jazz club in Dunkerque in June of this year.  This sees him collaborating with 2 fellow travellers on the ‘World Jazz’ expressway, French/Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê and Swedish bassist/cellist Lars Danielsson.  This is clearly a comfortable fit for Hamasyan and it’s to be hoped that someone drags these three into a recording studio sometime soon.  Perhaps someone will tell him that he doesn’t need to throw in the odd jazz standard to prove his worth. 

Sitting on the hard drive right now are two further Hamasyan recordings – a recording he made in California about three years ago with a band called Red Hail.  I’ve dipped into this and it certainly offers an indication of where Hamasyan may be coming from, if not where he’s headed.  ‘Aratta Rebirth’ seems – at a first and cursory listening – to be a mixture of Armenian folk songs, heavy metal and even Prog Rock, with Hamasyan deploying a full arsenal of electric keyboards alongside his grand piano, with  Areni Agabian’s vocalising, scorching electric guitar from Sam Minaie and thoughtful reed-playing from Ben Wendel.

Yet to be investigated is ‘World Passion’, Hamasyan’s first album, again on Nocturne and recorded with a quartet involving Wendel on saxophones back in 2004. 

From what I’ve heard so far, it would seem that Tigran Hamasyan is almost too talented and eclectic for his own good.  In less than 10 years, he has already explored a wide variety of genres and has seemingly yet to find his own distinctive ‘voice’.  When he does, I suspect that the retreads of old post-bop standards will be consigned to the dustbin of history – and, when he does, I suspect that the results will be spectacular.

Listening to Pat Metheny

The release of a new Pat Metheny album would once have been enough to have me scurrying down to my local record shop to snag a copy and it’s a testimony to my views on his recent output that I’ve had a download of his 2011 release, ‘What’s it all about’  sitting unaired on my hard drive for several weeks now.

Now that I have got round to listening to it, I have to say that it’s pretty much as advertised – a 10-track collection of cover versions played solo on a variety of acoustic guitars; beautifully recorded, played with restraint, affection and great technique.  It’s also bland, anodyne and devoid of any of the wit and invention that characterises his best work.  OK – to be fair, this can probably be seen as a ‘hommage’ to a collection of tunes that have great personal meaning for Metheny, but it does extend a worrying streak of indifferent recordings that stretches back to the 1990’s.

 Aptly titled……

There are probably at least 3 different Pat Methenys; all of them reflecting a distinct aspect of his character.  Metheny the Jazzer has made everything from industrial noise/free jazz (‘Song X’ – 1986, ‘ Zero Tolerance for Silence’ -1994) with the likes of  Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins to post-bop  guitar trio jazz (‘ Day Trip’ – 2005, ‘Question & Answer’ – 1989) with musicians such as Roy Haynes, Bill Stewart, Dave Holland and Larry Grenadier.  Dependent on your taste, some of these albums are top-notch whilst others are just noise.  Rather like The Black Crowes wanting to work with Jimmy Page, Metheny’s free jazz/Ornette  moments reflect his desire for a balls-out harmolodic thrash with an early hero, but in truth, it’s not really him.  What Ornette actually thought about what was essentially a Metheny ‘vanity project’ is open to speculation.  In recent years, Metheny has also produced two albums alongside pianist Brad Mehldau that are impressive on numerous levels but don’t exactly push the envelope for this type of jazz. 

Metheny the Fusion Fan has – since about 1977 –  largely operated via his ‘Pat Metheny Group’ aggregation alongside long-term collaborator Lyle Mays and a rotating crew of top players.  Routinely derided by hair-shirted jazz purists as ‘fusion-lite’, the PMG  gave Metheny an outlet for his rock god aspirations and for about 10 or 12  years from the mid-80’s acted as a focus for his most dynamic and inventive playing and composing.  They were also terrific on stage. The PMG probably reached their zenith in the late 80’s, but continued to deliver the goods at a high level until 1997’s ‘Imaginary Day’.  That album incorporated a wealth of different strands of jazz, rock. funk, techno and world music. to the extent that there was probably nowhere left for them to turn afterwards.  Subsequent albums – only 2 in 14 years – have suggested that this is a seam of ideas that Metheny has now worked out.

Pat Metheny – a bit too tasteful

The third Pat Metheny is something of a sentimentalist and this version has tended to sneak out via his acoustic ballad recordings over the years.  He has made albums with Charlie Haden, Jim Hall, Gary Burton and on his own that reflect a cardigan and slippers performer sliding into middle-aged spread.  ‘What’s it all about’ comes under this heading and is one of the more explicitly mainstream of Metheny’s projects.  Of course, not all of this stuff is worthless fluff; 1997’s ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ with Charlie Haden is a terrific album, but – let’s face it – was bought by an awful lot of people who would generally not be considered  jazz aficionados.  Like ‘What’s it all about’, it’s the kind of CD you can slip on between the crudités and the tapenade at any well-mannered dinner party and will happily snuggle up to both ‘Kind of Blue’ or ‘Aja’ with equal fondness.

Pat Metheny is a couple of years younger than me, but in common with many people in their mid-fifties, he’s perhaps tending to opt more frequently for the comfortable option rather than the challenge of the new.  His problem is that whilst he has produced a body of work within the jazz mainstream, he’s also a child of The Beatles generation and additionally grew up with the twang of midwest country guitars in his ears.  This means that he’s subject to a raft of different influences and sometimes struggles to choose between them.  ‘What’s it all about’ is clearly an attempt to create an album with a specific ‘late-night’ mood that draws on his many influences, but unfortunately lacks the dynamism and clarity that characterises his best work.  Let’s hope he opts for something a little more challenging in future.

Listening to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both sides,now’ & ‘Travelogue’

Joni Mitchell’s songs have been part of my life for over 40 years now, but I will confess that I found her output from the mid-1980’s onwards subject to the law of diminishing returns.  If I look at the careers of artists whose work I have followed over a similarly extended period – Dylan, Steve Winwood, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison, David Crosby, Pat Metheny, John Surman , Richard Thompson, to name but a few –  none of them have maintained an unerring finger on the creative pulse without blips or fallow periods or downright screw-ups, so it’s probably unreasonable to expect Joni to reach the heights every time she sits down at the piano or sets foot in the studio.

I wouldn’t claim to be as conversant with Joni’s post-1983 output as I am with the stuff she did beforehand, but my impression  of post ‘Mingus’ Joni was of a performer who was at times trying to re-invent herself as a rock & roller and at other times taking on major issues of the day like  Native American rights, Third World poverty and tele-evangelism.  Not that these chameleonesque changes  were anything new; Joni had previously gone through a serious ‘jazz’ phase between 1973 and 1980 – from the urban funk of the L.A. Express recordings to the full-on bebop of ‘Mingus‘.   Then, just as she threw herself from the introspective singer-songwriter of ‘Blue‘ into the hip jazz queen of the mid-70’s, she re-invented herself after ‘Mingus’ with a new band, a new husband and a rockier approach. 

Problem was that whilst Joni might have wanted to re-invent herself as a rock singer, her audience never manifested much enthusiasm for  the idea.  As she retreated from live performance, painting more and playing less, so we retreated in turn, replacing our battered vinyl copies of ‘Hejira’ and ‘Song for a seagull’ with new CD copies that only re-emphasised how far she had travelled and how we had travelled our own roads in parallel.  Albums like ‘Chalk mark in a rainstorm‘ (1988) and ‘Turbulent Indigo’ (1994) drew reasonable sales and some critical acclaim, but there was a sense that Joni Mitchell was embarked on a ‘Sunset Boulevard’ type retreat from the public eye and might never engage as fully with her career as a singer again, especially when she seemed preoccupied with her painting and – in the late 90’s – with reuniting with her long-lost daughter Kilauren Gibb.  Having always had a fraught relationship with the media, Joni’s occasional disdainful pronouncements and public appearances took on an increasingly diva-esque quality.  She collaborated with a wide range of performers – Brian Blade, Willie Nelson and Peter Gabriel to name but three – but then announced after 1998’s ‘Taming the Tiger’ that she would not be producing any more original songs and that her next two albums would feature ‘cover versions’ and would be recorded purely to see out her contract with Warners. 

Which brings me -finally – to ‘Both sides, now’ from 2000 and ‘Travelogue’ from 2002.  Both are distinguished by orchestral arrangements by the highly-talented Vince Mendoza and also feature some top-of-the-heap jazz players – Herbie Hancock, Kenny Wheeler, Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade, Stan Sulzmann, Peter Erskine and Chris Laurence to name but a few.

‘Both sides, now’ is an interlinked series of jazz standards with a couple of Mitchell’s old chestnuts thrown in.  The songs  chart the course of a love affair from initial passion to terminal disillusionment.  ‘Travelogue‘, meanwhile, is drawn entirely from the breadth of  Joni’s back catalogue.  Neither album featured her on anything other than vocals; to my knowledge, there is no guitar on either album and Herbie Hancock plays such piano as there is.  Mendoza’s arrangements are both lush and dramatic, whilst Mitchell’s voice has a husky alto quality (particularly on ‘The Last Time I saw Richard’ on ‘Travelogue‘) that differs appreciably from the pure soprano of her 1970’s albums.  Too many packs of ‘American Spirit’ maybe, though Joni spikily denied this, citing nodules on her vocal cords and the ongoing after-effects of the polio that afflicted her as a child.

Joni the Jazz Diva – she’s been here before, of course, with parts of  ‘Court and Spark’ and the ‘Mingus‘ project, but somehow Mendoza’s romantic flourishes suit her better than the bebop stylings of songs like ‘The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines‘ or the earlier, irritating sub-Annie Ross clever-cleverness of ‘Twisted’.

These arrangements differ, inasmuch as they are actually shaped to Mitchell’s voice and lyrics rather than her having to fight with the band and/or the lyric to gain a foothold – and it generally suits her far better.  The mood is elegaic for the most part, the ‘standards’ are OK-ish and of her own songs, few suffer any profound damage.  In fact, some songs – notably ‘For the roses’ and ‘Refuge of the roads’ actually profit from their re-imagining compared to the originals.

The fact that Joni made a public pronouncement to the effect that these would be her final albums adds a further layer of nostalgia to proceedings.  Ten years down the line, we know that she re-emerged 5 years after ‘Travelogue‘ with a new album of new Mitchell compositions (‘Shine‘ 2007), but one has to assume that at the time these recordings were made, she was sincere in her assertion that this was ‘it’ for her and that there would be no more.  That being the case, these albums can be seen, variously,  as an empty exercise to fulfil a contract, a coda to gloriously encapsulate a glittering 35-year career or a well-dressed vanity project; my vote would be largely for the lattermost of these with perhaps just a tinge of the foremost.

Re-recording of landmark ‘hits’ is usually frowned upon by the Woodstock Generation unless this is done in the context of a concert performance, but in the jazz era, it used to happen on a regular basis.  Whenever Duke Ellington signed up to a new record label, it was almost axiomatic that he would go into the studio and record a new version of ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ or ‘Mood Indigo’ or ‘Solitude’.  People will inevitably compare the re-recorded Mitchell compositions on these two albums with the originals and are likely to conclude that the latter-day recordings are generally more sombre than their forbears.  The child of God she came across on the road to Woodstock some 40 years ago probably now has fallen arches, liver-spotted hands and high blood pressure, so perhaps sombre is an appropriate mood for her to aim for here.

They say that you should never go back, but Joni is only one of a number of artists who have done just that in recent years.  Brian Wilson (with ‘Pet Sounds’) and Arthur Lee (with ‘Forever Changes’) actually did so to great effect – only Van Morrison’s abysmal retread of ‘Astral Weeks’ comes to mind as a real catastrophe.  ‘Both sides, now’ and ‘Travelogue’  probably fall somewhere in the middle – not really a triumphant culmination of a great career, but sufficiently well-recorded and produced that they cannot be dismissed entirely.

Listening to Magnus Öström (via E.S.T)

It’s been on my mind to do a series of posts under the heading of ‘Great Albums by Drummers’; something that for some people would either be a cause for mirth and/or a very short series of posts along the lines of ‘A History of Swiss Naval Battles’.

I’m not sure why this should be the case but  it’s possibly because so many of my generation grew up with the template of Ringo Starr, the epitome of the (essentially) non-musical drummer – good for solid, no-nonsense tub-thumping and the occasional novelty tune like ‘Yellow Submarine‘, but not much otherwise.  The conceit underlying this outlook, of course, is that drummers just need some sense of rhythm; they don’t need to be able to write or read music and they don’t have to be able to sing. 

“I like to be, beside the sea….”

So it is, that when a drummer emerges from behind his kit, I’m still often  slightly surprised.   The rock bands of the 60’s and 70’s  very occasionally produced someone like Mickey Hart, Don Henley, Levon Helm or Bill Bruford, who appeared to have a little more to offer.  Then there was Phil Collins, but I think I’ll take a raincheck on him for now, if it’s all the same to you.  By and large, though, the Great Albums by Drummers list was looking pretty sparse.

In jazz, during the same general era,  Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Max Roach led bands that achieved varying degrees of prominence and distinction, but these were bands where the focus was never specifically on the drummer, but more on the ‘collective’ or even on the other participants.  Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, for example, were celebrated chiefly for the ‘Who’s Who’ of emergent players (from Wayne Shorter to Wynton Marsalis) who got their first serious exposure in Blakey’s ever-shifting line-ups.  It was the same story with Tony Williams; his Lifetime band probably gave more prominence to players like Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin than to Williams himself and his mid-80’s band that made several impressive albums for Blue Note was as well-known for the involvement of players like Bobby Hutcherson and Wallace Roney as it was for Williams’ own contributions.

For me, the drummer who began to change things around was Jack de Johnette.  His 1970’s solo albums for ECM revealed him to be a consummate player, of course, but they also saw him stepping out to play piano on a few really impressive tunes like ‘Blue’ and ‘Silver Hollow’.  JdJ really hit his stride in the late 80’s with ‘Parallel Realities’ a solo album made with A-List collaborators in Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny and later  translated to a live context with the addition of Dave Holland on bass.  The almost infinite possibilities of a modern studio allowed de Johnette to really cut loose with layers of keyboards and multiple percussion, bringing in Hancock and Metheny to add their own distinctive contributions like cherries on top of the cake.

Jack de Johnette

Since then, we seem to have seen a range of drummers who lead bands but bring more to the table than just their rhythmic sense.  Jim Black has produced a series of excellent albums for Winter & Winter with his Alasnoaxis band, Joey Baron has produced two excellent solo albums – ‘Down Home’ and ‘We’ll soon find out’ (Intuition), Peter Erskine has led a marvellous acoustic trio with John Taylor and Palle Danielsson on a series of ECM releases , the multi-talented  Thomas Strønen is involved in a series of Rune Grammofon bands, not to mention  Food (with Iain Ballamy) – there are no doubt other nominees for this list.

Most impressive of all for me though are the three albums made since 1998 by drummer Brian Blade with his Fellowship ensemble.  This is a band that combines an unusual instrumentation – two saxes, steel guitar, guitar, piano, bass and drums with a repertory of tunes, often composed by Blade himself, that tap into an extraordinarily rich vein of music that references  the jazz-meets Americana style of Pat Metheny, ECM-style ‘chamber’ jazz,  and even progressive rock.  In particular, the first two albums they made for Blue Note – ‘Brian Blade Fellowship’ (1998) and ‘Perceptual’ (1999)  are quite magnificent.  Their 2008 ‘reunion’ album ‘Season of Changes’ wasn’t quite as impressive, but better than most of its type.

The Brian Blade Fellowship on stage

And so to Magnus Öström, formerly the drummer with the most successful European jazz group of all time, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.), whose stellar progress was abruptly halted in 2008, when pianist Svensson was tragically killed in a scuba-diving accident in the Stockholm Archipelago. 

E.S.T.’s career path had been on an upward curve since the late 90’s when their album ‘From Gagarin’s point of view’ began to make waves for the band outside of their home territory.  Up until that point, they had been a sturdy but unremarkable piano trio, dutifully trotting out Thelonious Monk covers and commanding a respectable following in Scandinavia at least.  ‘Gagarin’ showed a shift towards more (and more interesting) self-penned numbers and a conscious attempt to break down the conventions surrounding piano trios.  Production values changed, with the band opting for a harder edged sound more often associated with rock bands, the occasional vocal interlude crept in and all three players began to use electronic effects that boosted the volume and the range of the band. 

This was no longer Bill Evans territory.   Öström’s drum style began to adopt the fast-paced choppy style hinting at drum & bass and other non-jazz stylings, Bassist Dan Berglund began to use all manner of effects to amplify his bass, evoking the spirit of everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Jaco Pastorius, whilst Svensson himself manipulated the sound of his grand piano, producing notes that -once put through the electronic wringer – would ‘decay’ far more quickly or spiral and echo away to nothing.

The Esbjörn Svensson Trio on stage

Between 2000 and 2003, E.S.T. produced a trio of albums that essentially defined their sound and their appeal.  ‘Good morning Susie Soho’, ‘Strange place for snow’ and ‘Seven days of falling’  each raised the bar another notch and showed a band who had locked on to a highly persuasive and effective style.  These three CD’s and the ensuing tours gave the band a higher profile than was customary and brought a quite different and much younger audience than most jazz gigs were capable of attracting.

On stage, E.S.T. were as dynamic and upfront as any rock band; no dry ice, but plenty of snazzy lighting and excellent sound – they played loud as well!  However, by 2005’s ‘Viaticum’ the band were on the horns of a dilemma; clearly Svensson had no desire to broaden his palette by using electronic keyboards, so there was a feeling with this album and its successor, ‘Leucocyte‘ that the band were starting to repeat themselves and were running out of ideas.

If electronic instruments were out, then another possible path they could follow would be to bring in more players.  At Germany’s ‘Jazz Baltica’ festival in 2003, they collaborated with both Pat Metheny and an orchestra and they also worked briefly with Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius.

Svensson’s sudden death put a stop to any such speculation and after 15 years of E.S.T.,  both Berglund and Öström were effectively left high and dry.  Inevitably, they both took time off to regroup but with E.S.T’s label, ACT signing them both to solo deals, it was always going to be interesting to see what they would do next.

Bassist Dan Berglund was the first to break cover with an album and a band called ‘Tonbruket’, literally a ‘tone factory’.  Tonbruket (the band) are a quartet that utilises steel guitar, pump organ and electronic keyboards.  They sound nothing like E.S.T. but their debut CD would probably have to be classed as a mild disappointment.

That just left Magnus Öström, who has finally emerged from the shadows with a terrific album called ‘Thread of Life’.   Öström has put together a quartet of his own, featuring Andreas Hourdakis on guitars, Gustaf Karlöf on keyboards, and Thobias Gabrielson on bass; all musicians from Stockholm. 

Whilst Tonbruket seemed consciously to shy away from sounding like E.S.T., Öström’s band have taken the jazz-into-rock pathways that E.S.T. were carving out and made them much more overt.  In some respects, this is more of a prog rock album than a jazz album, evoking fellow travellers like Norway’s Jaga Jazzist or In the Country.  Whilst not an unqualified success, it’s a massively promising debut and reflects well on Öström’s qualities as a writer.  Most of the talk about this album has centred on ‘Ballad for E.’, a tribute to  Esbjörn Svensson.  It’s a ten-minute long ballad played by Öström in company with Dan Berglund and Pat Metheny on acoustic guitar.  Recorded in New York, it is pleasant enough, but Metheny is in his comfort zone here; he’s been playing these plangent ballads for thirty years now and seems to me to have  little new to offer in this area.  Nonetheless, it’s clearly a heartfelt tribute and should be respected as such; E.S.T. were obviously friends as well as bandmates and Öström still  feels a sense of loss.

Even so, the rest of the album is much more adventurous and exciting on the whole.  They are touring Europe at the moment and it will be interesting to see how their sound devlops.

Listening to Torbjørn Sunde

When my friends are being kind about me – and thankfully, they usually are – most of them, I think, would take the view that I am reasonably well-informed about huge swathes of the musical landscapes that are available to us spoiled Westerners.  Years of major- label reissues, the emergence of niche labels which focus on specific sub-genres and the availability of internet downloads mean that pretty much everything is out there if you delve long and hard enough and exercise a degree of patience about these things.  Hard to say where a ‘healthy interest’ tips over into an obsession but I would acknowledge that I sail pretty close to that line at times.  I should probably get out more….
Of course, my interest isn’t totally comprehensive.  Like everyone else I have my blind spots; to offer just three examples,  I have no time whatsoever for Rap, Hip-Hop and its adjuncts, Heavy Metal and its multiple variations is a place I have no wish to visit and MOR Rock of the Elton John/ Rod Stewart/Queen ilk just makes me nauseous.
However, when it comes to jazz – and jazz from Scandinavia in particular – I would see myself as being particularly well-versed in what’s been going on there since the 1970’s.  In this very blog, I have written about the likes of the Espen Eriksen Trio, Huntsville, Susanna Wallumrød, Food, Jesper Bodilsen, the Michael Aadal Group, Hilmar Jensson…and so on.  By any normal reckoning, most of these performers would be reckoned ‘obscure’ to non-Scandinavians and perhaps to many who live over there.  For me, it’s a pure delight to be able to write about the wonderful music that has emanated from Scandinavia over the last 30-odd years and hopefully encourage some of those who visit here to check it out.
The problem is that there’s really too much of it for even my ears to take on board; the music isn’t always easy to come by, with some of the more obscure stuff available only via limited and arcane outlets.  Even so, when it comes to Torbjørn Sunde’s brilliant album ‘Meridians’  (ACT Music, 1998), I have to hold my hands up and confess to being completely blindsided.  Here’s a guy who I know of from his presence in some of those glorious Terje Rypdal bands of the mid to late 1970’s and as such, just the kind of artist I would normally keep a weather eye on.
Furthermore, he’s a great trombonist and I was blogging only recently about Curtis Fuller and how the trombone has almost become an exotic instrument in recent years.  I mentioned contemporary trombonists like Robin Eubanks and Annie Whitehead, yet neglected this guy,  whose brilliant, atmospheric playing was a key feature of Rypdal albums like ‘Odyssey’ (1975).  Also, it’s not as though ‘Meridians’ found its way into the world via some obscure Norwegian label from Ytre Langvekkistan specialising in Sami reindeer-herding songs.  The album came out on Siggi Loch’s ACT label, now a major player on the European jazz scene.  OK, so ACT maybe wasn’t such a big deal until the Esbjörn Svensson Trio began to reinvent the European Jazz wheel around the Millennium.  Even so, ‘Meridians’ is an album that really should have cropped up on my radar before now.

There are a number of factors  that make ‘Meridians’ such an effective album.  Firstly and most importantly, it features some very fine playing by an ensemble who are generally far better known now than they were then.  Back in 1998, it’s doubtful whether too many  Eurojazz aficionados had heard of players like Rune Arnesen or Eivind Aarset, though they would certainly have heard of Terje Rypdal.  He guests on one track here and it’s probably the pick of the bunch; a near-10 minute long epic called ‘Kjære Maren’  which beautifully revisits the synth and cymbal-driven grooves of late 70’s Rypdal albums like ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Waves’. Bassist Bjørn Kellemyr, another Rypdal alumnus,  is also on board for this one  and Arnesen’s drumming effortlessly evokes the style of Jon Christensen.  The synth backdrop comes from  Bugge Wesseltoft who, back in 1998, was just beginning to make waves with his New Conceptions of Jazz ensemble and who features on keyboards throughout the album.

Another, more recent mainstay of Norwegian jazz is evoked in the funk-driven ‘Confronting Hemispheres’, where Sunde’s electronically manipulated trombone sounds not a million miles away from Nils Petter Molvær’s trumpet stylings.
Perhaps more surprising are ‘Vertigo’  and  ‘Imensidão Do Mar’, two tracks, where Sunde, apart from playing beautifully, also adds wordless vocals – I think it must be him as no other vocalist is credited.  These two tunes have the music of Brazil in their DNA  and this, plus the aforementioned wordless vocal immediately puts you in mind of what was, for me,  the ‘golden age’ of  the Pat Metheny Group  in the late 80’s ,where David Blamires and the late Mark Ledford contributed so much to the sound and mood of classic albums like ‘(Still) Life Talking’ and ‘Letter from Home’.  Ex-Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena also features on ‘Imensidão Do Mar’, managing to sound like an entire rainforest.
I offer these points of comparison – Metheny, Molvær, Rypdal – simply to provide some context.  ‘Meridians’ borrows from these sources, but manages to be considerably more than the sum of its parts. 

As far as I can ascertain, Torbjørn Sunde continues to work actively as a sideman – principally with Norwegian artists – and also gigs with his own band in Norway from time to time.  Finding exact information can be difficult even when you can decipher Norwegian-language websites; perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong place.  Since ‘Meridians’ there seems to have been just one Sunde CD – a Chet Baker tribute – but sadly, no sign of any projects with the same scope as this.

Perhaps someone out there can offer some updated information?  In the meantime, do try to track down a copy of ‘Meridians’ – it should still be available via the usual outlets.