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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Testing For Buzz XXIII: William Blake

Blake had visions all his life. His first, when he was only a child, of angelic beings in the tree outside his house, nearly cost him a beating when he reported it to his parents.

My favourite is when he saw what he called the ghost of a flea. The spirit roamed around the house whilst he sketched its grotesque features. Peter Ackroyd’s marvellous biography relates the conversation between Blake and his ethereal visitor as recounted by Blake’s friend, John Varley.

“During the time occupied in completing the drawing, the Flea told him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men, as were by nature blood-thirsty to excess, and were therefore providentially confined to the size and form of insects; otherwise, were he himself for instance the size of a horse, he would depopulate a great portion of the country. He added, that if in attempting to leap from one island to another, he should fall into the sea, he could swim, and should not be lost.”

The Ghost of a Flea

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Testing For Buzz XXII: William Blake III

Blake’s ubiquity continued unabated as I grew up through the 70s and beyond. In music, there was ELP’s horrendously pomped-up rendition of “Jerusalem”, and a more suitably spectral name-check in Van Morrison’s sublime 1974 album, Veedon Fleece and the moving “You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push The River.”

However, in the 80s it was Mike Westbrook’s The Westbrook Blake Bright As Fire that stopped me in my tracks. This collection of inspired settings contained the devastating “Price of Experience” declaimed (I think) by Phil Minton.

What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither'd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.

From more recent times, Andrew Keeling’s “O Ignis Spiritus” from his 2000 album, Quickening The Dead, contains a beautiful setting of Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Performed by the renowned Hilliard Ensemble, this had a profound effect upon me when I first heard it. Here’s a short extract from this eleven minute long track. If this doesn’t beguile your ears then I suggest you may actually be dead.

Given the date today, some might argue that a chorus of "Happy Birthday" would be more appropriate. However, the above piece is to my ears the most perfect marriage of Blake's words and the sense that lies behind them. It makes the goosebumps rise to attention every single time I hear it.

Andrew Keeling Blue Dawn

Making light work

Blue Dawn
Andrew Keeling
Burning Shed

“Follow nature!” cries Paracelsus in the notes for Blue Dawn, advice which Andrew Keeling has acted upon for several years. Going against the prevailing direction, his writing has been steering a path from egg-headed complexities associated with much of the clatter of the contemporary classical scene, to a pared-back approach unconcerned with knotty grandstanding or intertextual SFX.

Opening with a single attention-gathering piano note, “Distant Skies, Mountains And Shadows” delicately unfurls into the ruminative ambience of the Kerzo Chapel in The Hague. The particular pathway Keeling charts for the piano flute and clarinet of the Het Trio maybe angled and occasionally steep, but throughout the piece radiates lyrical warmth.

However the real heart of the album is to be found in “Blue Dawn”. Written between 2005/6 it consists of seven solo piano pieces touchingly played by Steven Wray. Though each is individually titled they work best when listened to in one sitting.

Occupying the hushed spaces from which Pärt’s “Für Alina” resonates, the themes gently see-saw between light and dark, between hope and fear, constructing a solemn reverie from starkly-drawn materials. Yet the effect of these halting, sensitive movements is anything but austere or simple. Over the course of a half hour, “Blue Dawn” creates a soundtrack to haunting dreams that touch upon the losses we experience and the gains which may be found arising from them.

The dawn of a new day can be viewed as a mere set of physical reactions within the natural world, or something, despite its repetition, that is resplendently unique. With a luminous clarity, Keeling probes for that startling, fresh beauty residing within the mundane, and which leaves us breathless when we find it. Magnificent.

Buy it here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Young Person's Perspective

It’s been a weird kind of day. On the one hand I feel simultaneously weighed down and light-headed. This is a result of a doozy of a chest infection which has left me feeling as weak as a kitten.

Tonight I heroically dragged myself to The Cluny to see Theo Travis in concert. He was performing with the line-up that recorded Double Talk, his new album which has been occupying a lot of rotation-time here in the Yellow Room.

The band was in top form with the first set being given over to pretty much all of Double Talk. “And So It Seemed” was an absolute stonker with outstanding soloing from Travis and guitarist Mike Outram. Recently Michael Madden emailed me with this query:

“Seeing as you are the only person I know who has a copy of the album, can you hear any similarity to the track “And So It Seemed’ and KC’s “One More Red Nightmare”? Just noticed it on the way home in the car.”

Yes is the answer to that one. It shares the feel and spirit of slowly ascending / descending arpeggio section after the verses, and it certainly provided a great platform for the players to really shine.

Theo kindly autographed the two copies of Double Talk which are going to be given away as prizes over on DGMLive. He also gave me an update on the forthcoming Travis & Fripp release which has been produced by Porcupine Tree’s, Steve Wilson. Theo’s really excited by it, and so he should be based on the brief excerpt I’ve heard.

The second half of the set was drawn from Theo’s back catalogue and a lively cover of Traffic’s “Glad.” Theo is operating somewhere that veers between straight jazz, rock and Prog. Although I’m sure there are lots of other artists doing something similar, I’ve not heard it done as assuredly as it is with Travis.

For me, the key difference in making Soft Machine Legacy’s latest album, Steam, a success was the kind of fluency and external understanding of that very legacy itself was Theo.

Similarly when the 21st Century Schizoid Band were first operating, as I watched them in rehearsals discussing the music, it often seemed as though the only person who really “got” what it was that made things Crimson was Jakko Jakszyk, who like Theo, was never involved in the creation of the original material but grasped it from an entirely different perspective.

The concert happened to coincide with brother-in-law Bernard’s birthday, who enjoyed the Double Talk gig as well.

Here's Lesley, Bernard and Issac, who wasn't impressed by anything he heard that tonight. "I had Stevie Wonder on my brain for the whole evening" he declared as we drove back to Whitley." I can't recall who said that youth was wasted on young people but they were right on the money.

Testing For Buzz XXI: William Blake II

Suddenly, Blake seemed to be everywhere all at once in my life. Yet “Tyger,” and the patriotic chorale of “Jerusalem” appeared to represent the establishment, and certainly didn’t seem to square with his emblematic use by the counter-culture into which I was determinately baptising myself.

Then I realised that not only was he everywhere, he was everything to everyone.

This book was the one that made me look at Blake’s world as the connective tissue from the ancient to the modern, the “hip” poetry that was the very antithesis of Elliot’s bone-dry academia. It spoke of the moment, and of raptures, it got lost, it stumbled into old legends and railed against conformity. It reads very stilted now but in the mid-70s, it it spoke very loudly to me.

However, the most important thing about this book is that it got me reading Blake himself. Well, not so much reading Blake, as wrestling with him, trying to make some kind of sense of it all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Testing For Buzz XX: William Blake I

William Blake came into my life as part of the cultural explosion I experienced in the late 60s/ early 70s. His posters were found in places like Newcastle’s Handyside arcade next to day-glo A3 sheets featuring Frank Zappa’s mug, Bob Dylan, and the rest. Album sleeves such as Atomic Rooster’s Death Walks Behind You and Grave New World by The Strawbs reinforced Blake’s counter-cultural currency and general hipness. It came as something as a shock to learn that this geezer wasn’t designing album covers and painting boutique walls with his drug-induced ker-aziness for a living but was in fact, er, dead for living.

Street Life XCVII

Sunday, November 25, 2007

This Sporting Life II

I spent most of Sunday morning on the touchline at Rockcliff Rugby Club. The morning light was held firmly at bay by a heavy quilt of cloud.

The large structure you can see in the picture is the roof of the Whitley Bay Ice Rink, the venue for AWBH (with Tony Levin) on the 20th October 1989.

I wasn't here however to reflect upon the merits of such dubious proggy noodlage but to lend my vocal support to Rockcliff's U14 squad. Which I did until I was hoarse.

They were playing a crack team from Sunderland who tamped them into the ground like tent pegs when they last met.

Somewhere in that pic above Joe is being brought down by two lads from Sunderland. However, he still managed to score a much needed try. Sunderland did beat Rockcliff but only by five points. Joe tells me that his team are now starting to knit together and next time they meet Sunderland they will beat them.

Here's a couple of clips from Joe's press scrapbook rendered from the pages of the News Guardian:
published 15th November 2007

published 22nd November 2007

Fame is not the only reward for Joe. He gets to be popular with the girls as well, who kindly brought along a blanket to keep Joe warm before his next match against Scarborough.

l-r Libby, Charlotte, Hannah and the cat who got the cream.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Reports From The Domestic Front

Joe's school report arrived this morning. He approached with some trepidation.

However, he needn't have worried. It's all good stuff in there, and certainly better than anything I ever achieved at school at his age.

Debra's sister, Dude, is our current houseguest. For reasons which now escape me, as we cooked up a storm in the kitchen, we all joined hands.

And after the dance of plenty, a very nice meal with Doris (mother of Deb & Dude) in attendance.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Street Life XCVI

Today is my mother’s birthday. I was thinking about her this morning as I walked down to the seafront. On the news there was a report from the Marie Curie cancer charity arguing for more resources so that terminally ill patients can die at home.

Even at the best of times, hospitals are grim places to be. Despite the very best efforts of individuals working on wards, the needs of the organisation itself very often works against the needs and interests of the patient.

Had Doreen been taken into hospital there’s no doubt in our minds the anxiety caused by simply being in unfamiliar surroundings (no matter how benign or caring) would have added to Doreen’s distress (and consequently our own) when trying to meet the greatest hurdle it’s possible for any of us to face up to.

Doreen was adamant that she wanted to die in the house where she’d lived most of her adult life, and the Macmillan nurses did everything possible to enable her to do just that.

When the time came for Doreen to leave us, she did so with her children beside her, in the rooms where we’d all laughed and cried, where she played with her grandchildren, listened to her radio, coped with her own losses and regrets, and shared her triumphs and her love with friends and family.

Happy birthday, Doreen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Drawing Conclusions

Whitley Bay is cold and very wet at the moment. At various times of the day I can hear the various creaks and groans of the house as the wind lashes in heavy and hard.

Listening-wise my morning is happily occupied by Great Lake Swimmers and their new album Ongiara. The opening track, "Your Rocky Spine"is a gorgeous singalong. I really liked this lyric:

And the mountains said I could find you here
They whispered the snow and the leaves in my ear

I traced my finger along your trails

Your body was the map I was lost in it

Here’s a video of the song in action although I think it actually works better without the visuals but I haven’t figured out how to run an mp3 of the thing on here.

The elements had to braved in order to feed the troops and once back in the warmth, I fired up a pot of tea and buy a packet of biscuits in time for Bernard’s arrival. We know how to live the high life we do.

We’re discussing developments in The Scent Of Cinnamon project. It’s always exciting at the start of the project. My worry is that I’m writing a script that’s too detailed and will hem Bernard in. He seems fairly relaxed about that at the moment, and I think we’re just going to have to get on with the thing in order to find out what the best way of working will be.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Yet More Reasons To Be Cheerful

Firstly, Ed Reardon is back on the air. If, like me, you have a long standing love affair with radio comedy, Ed Reardon’s Week is very good news indeed.

It’s not just the in-jokes about the book trade and writing in general, it’s not just the devastatingly pixilated penguin-style (ask yer mam or dad) performance of John Fortune as Ed’s agent, Felix, it’s not just Ed railing against a world which has been taken over by 12 year olds – it’s just brilliantly funny from beginning to end. This aspect has been sadly lacking of late in the BBC’s comedy slot. The manifestation of Ed has restored the natural balance of the universe.

Ed Reardon's Week

Secondly, Burning Shed are releasing The Metronomical Society, a collection of live and studio recordings made by the band between 1969 and 1972.

Thirdly, Burning Shed are releasing Arzachel Collectors Edition - Steve Hillage plus the above trio in their pre-Egg days.

Order your copy now by clicking here
and whet your appetite by going here.

This Is Just So Bad On So Many Levels

Sent to me by a friend...

...the phrase "with friends like this who needs enemies" springs to mind!

My Favourite Myspace II: Jenny Owen Youngs

I recently saw the totally fabbo Jim White in concert, he of the mega-big Wrong Eyed Jesus Transnormal Skiperoo vibe. The support slot was provided by Jenny Owen Youngs who sang a superbly crafted set. One song stuck out in particular. “Fuck Was I” describes the highs and lows of being in love although the chorus means that airplay is likely to be fairly meagre. A pity because it’s really such a great song.

The version on Youtube has strategically placed drop-outs but you get a sense of elegance of her lyric and style. Her myspace site has the full version along with other numbers of equally high calibre including my other JOY favourite, “Drinking Song.” I’ll be running a review of her album Batten The Hatches in a few days but in the meantime enjoy “Fuck Was I”

Monday, November 19, 2007

Testing For Buzz XIX: La Nuit American

This is the one that hooked me into French cinema. An utterly enchanting movie about making a movie from Francois Truffaut. I first saw this film at the cinema in the mid-70s and fell head over heels with it, prompting a lifelong obsession with Truffaut. Day For Night, (as I knew it at the time) captures the highs and lows of the crew, the petty jealousies, rivalries and camaraderie of the crew. A magical film about things not being as they might appear to be, and the pitfalls of taking things at face value. Plus a fantastic soaring score by Georges Delerue. I never tire of seeing this gem of a movie.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Question Of Taste

A day off from the computer (well almost) tending to things in the house and tidying the bedroom. Out of the corner of one eye I watched How To Murder Your Wife starring Jack Lemon. I first saw this when I was very young and thought it was absolutely hilarious. It's one of those crappy "battle of the sexes" comedies that were all the rage in the late 50s and 60s. The scripts casual misogyny means it has not travelled well. However, Lemon is great and Terry-Thomas is brilliant as ever.

So there I was in the kitchen...

When I was interupted by the arrival of...

Joe and two of his mates on their way to a fancy dress party...

or at least that's where they said they were going.

Back to cooking.

Risotto rice with mushrooms, onion, red pepper, mange tout and griddle-seared chicken breast. Very tasty.

Later, after the food was long gone, another phone call from Robert Fripp (we had spoken on the blower on Friday). This call was confirming all the news about King Crimson's return to active service in 2008, and Gavin Harrison's addition to the ranks. Also very tasty!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Double Talk Theo Travis

Adventures In Prog-Jazz

Double Talk
Theo Travis

Theo Travis seems to delight in changing his musical skin with every album he releases. This is no surprise for a player who is at ease in the worlds of blistering tenor work-outs in straight ahead jazz, progressive rock (with The Tangent, Gong) post-rock (David Sylvian), jazz-rock (Soft Machine Legacy) and ambient excursions via Cipher and now Robert Fripp.

If you want to know why Travis is in such demand then the soprano sax solo on “Ascending” tells you all you need to know. His talent for finding the very heart of a melody is reminiscent at times of the steely poise of Jan Garbarek in places, and certainly just as rewarding. That canny sense of judgement is reflected in his choice of the core group.

Pete Whittaker’s ethereal Hammond organ provides a flowing backdrop for Travis and guitarist Mike Outram. The latter’s contributions are simply outstanding – offering splenetic David Torn-like outbursts on “The Relegation of Pluto” and sublimely limpid echo-drenched arcs on “Oblivionville.” Along with Roy Dodds’ shrewd drumming, they fuse into a magnificent unit on the epic “And So It Seemed,” a breath-taking assault played to perfection.

Alongside his own writing, Travis regularly pulls off quality cover versions. 2004’s Earth To Ether breathed life into “21st Century Schizoid Man”, whilst “Here’s That Rainy Day” (2001’s Heart of the Sun) caught the ballad’s eerie air of haunted desolation. His choice of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” is understandable given his affections for the 1960s (evidenced elsewhere on the record by the fabulously catchy “Portobello 67”). Although it doesn’t quite capture the elusive stellar sparkle of the original, it allows Travis to squeeze out some enjoyable old-school wah-wah on the sax.

Guest player Robert Fripp helps Travis’ looped, multi-track flutes create a refined and sensuous gravity-free ballet, adding to the sense of depth, space and stylistic abandonment that transcends the usual conventions and concerns of the jazz album. It’s a difficult tightrope for any jazz player to walk, but the sure-footed progress displayed throughout Double Talk, Theo Travis makes it look and sound effortless.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Joe Zawinul Brown Street

Street Life

Joe Zawinul
Brown Street


Brown Street is a reminder of just how accomplished an artist Joe Zawinul was. The boy who came down from the Austrian mountains had a real ear for melodies that could easily be as light as a feather or pummel you with the kinds of sub-sonic grooves that could shake you to your boots. Being at ease within these two worlds was his secret weapon yet he rarely overplayed either.

Despite his macho posturing and swaggering pronouncements about his own God-given talents, his style of soloing was always more akin to skimming pebbles across incoming waves than surfing for glory in his outfits before and after Weather Report. With the massed ranks of the WDR big band largely liberating him having to provide the textured layers within his compositions, Zawinul is heard constantly sending mischievous, darting runs of notes between the big band breakers, teasing and tugging in all the right places. Though many of these tunes were originally incorporating a brash rock-orientated ambience, you’d never know that from this collection as they sound as though they were always destined for this large-scale brassy setting. That they swing along like there’s no tomorrow can't hurt either.

For all of Zawinul’s ability to move with the times, infusing Miles Davis’ music with a pungent European twist, or hard-wiring electronics into the body of jazz itself, Zawinul never lost touch with either his roots or their traditions. It’s this duality that informs the incendiary arrangements and provides the scorching back-drops for players to shine. In this respect Zawinul always proved an incredibly generous accompanist and writer.

Brown Street resounds triumphantly to these winning facets of his personality. Released last year well before his death he must have been rightly proud of what he achieved here. He couldn't want for a better memorial to his thrilling abilities than this 2 CD set.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Departures & Arrivals

We’ve been playing host this last week to Debra’s dad, Bill and his wife Kath. Plans were hatched and announced for a Raikes-centric family get together next year in foreign climes.

Everyone in the house is down with variant bugs. Alys has acute tonsillitis, Debbie has gripe, nausea and runs (surely a firm of solicitors if ever there was), whilst Tom, Joe and myself have headcolds. Even brother-in-law Bernard has a chest infection. If you’re thinking of coming here, DON’T.

That said, houseguests looming on the horizon include Debbie’s sister Dude, closely followed by the Lord Beige Peter and Kevin – D’s pals from Birmingham. Hopefully, our collective lurgy will have improved by the time folks arrive.

Joseph’s Rugby coach rang tonight telling me that my youngest son is walking wounded after having taken a bad knock to his knee at practice tonight. As I was waiting for the coach to drop Joe home, Matt Seattle rang.

We haven’t talked for a long while and it was good news to hear that he was preparing another album. Our conversation was shortened by Joe’s arrival and my need to tend to his knacked-up knee but it was cheering to hear Matt's chat.

On an entirely different matter entirely…

Here’s a face regular visitors to this site will be seeing a bit more of in the weeks to come. Lady and Gentlemen, please say hello to Nez.

Nez is the star of our forthcoming blog serial, The Scent of Cinnamon, a collaboration featuring the fabulous talents of Bernard Quinn, brother in law and excellent artist to boot, and yours truly. More details as they emerge.


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