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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eberhard Weber Colours

Colours Eberhard Weber

Though only three albums were recorded under the Colours flag, presented together in this handsome box set, they chronicle a bold time time when elements of jazz and classical sensibilities found common ground, and stylistic boundaries became increasingly porous.

Though some of the lean aesthetics of Eberhard Weber’s Colours owe a partial hat-tip in the direction of Weather Report’s more circumspect moments (1974‘s Mysterious Traveller), Weber and his colleagues opted for a melancholic, Satie-like stillness that was a million miles removed from the fast and furious fusion, or at the other end of the spectrum, the belligerent clatter of the free improvisation scene.

Theirs was above all an elegant sound that took the cool cod-classical implications of the MJQ and packed it off toward tougher, Arctic climes where a glacial poise and chilled-out grace was waiting to be explored and exploited.

Acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and oh-so-subtle synthesiser are combined by Rainer Bruninghaus’s into a shimmering minimalism which haunts rather than dominating. This timbral approach creates plenty of room for the warm pulse of Weber’s bass work to burrow and and groove. Encompassing a lyrical and discursive style, Weber nevertheless keeps things close and tight when he’s backing Charlie Mariano’s incisive soprano sax.

There’s a zen-like clarity and brevity at the heart of the American saxophonist’s playing, having converted his years of playing (Stan Kenton in the 50s and early '60s Mingus) into pure and deceptively simple, cliché-free lines of quicksilver. Like Wayne Shorter, Mariano knows that one note counts just as much as one hundred.

Though drummer Jon Christensen’s playing on the first Colours album, Yellow Fields (1975) is exemplary, it’s not until the addition of John Marshall (still a member of Soft Machine) on Silent Feet (1977) and Little Movements (1980) that the more demonstrative characteristics of Weber’s compositions were fully developed. More than most drummers in the jazz-rock world, Marshall perfectly combines sharp-shooting precision with a rowdy exuberance.

Of this trio Yellow Fields is probably the one that represents a significant point of departure which so many others would seek to emulate. The appeal and popularity of modern-day outfits such as EST, et al, owe something to Weber and Bruninghaus's Spartan-like visions.

With Weber having been unable to play professionally since his stroke in 2007, and the death of Mariano in 2009, the box is both reminder and tribute to some truly powerful voices in the jazz world.

If there’s one complaint, it’s that the individual albums, presented in austere white card sleeves, didn’t come with reproductions of the original folksy artwork. That aside, whether you choose to dive in at the deep fluid centre of Silent Feet, work your way back to the slow-burn beginnings of Yellow Fields or pick up the quick-fire, prosaic world created in Little Movements, recordings are as beautiful as these deserve not only to be celebrated but savoured in equal measure.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Happy Birthday Bernard

Last night Joe, Deb and I joined Lesley,Isaac, Errin and Verity at Il Forno's in Tynemouth to celebrate Bernard's birthday. A grand time was had by all but especially the birthday boy himself.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bookshops. Remember them?

The announcement that Borders is closing down prompted one of those moments of cognitive dissonance that stops you in your tracks.

I loved Borders and have many happy memories of spending hours in various branches from San Francisco to Silverlink and quite a few in between.

And yet...

A couple of weeks ago I was in the nearest branch of Borders with my pal, Tim, looking for a potential birthday present. Despite the somewhat truncated stock (I was unaware of their financial problems at the time), I managed to locate the book in question.

Making my way to the till I looked at the price - £7.99. Unbidden the thought “I bet Amazon do it cheaper” popped up in my mind and, dear reader, to my shame I put the book back.

After Tim had dropped me home I went online and sure enough there was the same book. £5.00 (including postage). I clicked the button and the book arrived at about 7.30 a.m. the next morning.

A while back I read somewhere (I’m sorry I can’t find the reference now) that stores like Borders were really becoming little more than a showroom for Amazon and in this instance it proved to be true.

Whilst the online purchase wins the price war it has yet to come up with a satisfactory system to replicate coming across the unexpected. A search engine is a poor substitute for what is, for me, the most pleasurable part of book buying: not knowing what you’re looking for until you find it.

However, as much as I love the idea of going into a bookshop a cursory glance at my Amazon account’s recent purchase history shows I’m also one of those folks with the metaphorical blood of Borders closure on my hands.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

This Was Not His Finest Hour

I’ve been watching Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain for the last few weeks. For every well-worn and well-known anecdote or milestone there have been several genuinely new bits of information and insights. So, broadly speaking then, a thumbs-up for the show.

Again, broadly speaking I like Andrew Marr. I thought he was a good political correspondent for the beeb back in the day, I think his steering of Radio 4’s Start The Week is exemplary, and he did provide me lots of listening pleasure when they switched on the Large Hadron Collider last year.

However, what has irked me about Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain - to the point where I’m shouting at the television - was the bone-headed assumption by the producers that in order for us to “get” what Marr is on about it's necessary to have him dress up in a bit of period costume.

Take for example the recent tale of debauched going-ons by the upper classes. Marr duly appears on an impeccably dressed set, himself impeccably kitted out in a period penguin suit because the makers have deemed the viewers to be numpties incapable of imagining what 1920s upper class decadent characters must have looked like!

Worse than this though, is the decision to have Marr “do” the voices of certain historical characters.

Whenever there’s been a Winston Churchill quote to be delivered, Marr slips into jowly demeanor, knots his eyebrows, and comes across like some cut-price History Channel Mike Yarwood.

Once again, the producers believe that we proles watching are somehow incapable of imagining or remembering how Churchill actually spoke, and need the multi-talented Andrew to bring the old coves words to life. Please Andrew, stick to the day job!

Rather ominously next week’s episode deals with World War 2. Oh, dear.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Missing Book

It was a dark and stormy morning as I headed off to the Lit & Phil today. It was even darker and stormier by the time I emerged from Rosemary Lane and looked across at the building.

As the dramatic beginning of this blog entry might imply, I've been thinking about fiction and my attempt at writing something as part of the National Novel Writing Month.

I realised several days ago that as I was so far behind the daily word count that I was never going to be able to complete the thing in time. I'd been kidding myself that I'd be able to catch-up in an magnificently creative kamikaze attempt.

Today however, I acknowledged that it wasn't going to happen.

However, although I only managed a couple of thousand words of the process I liked the outcome and will continue to poke the piece around in between trying to earn a living.

Books under scrutiny today included a biography of Mussolini, Uki Goni's account of the ex-nazi's in South America, Michael Shelden's biography of George Orwell, Peter Ackroyd's slim volume on the life and death of Edgar Allan Poe, and a trawl through the catalogue to see if Paul Auster's latest novel might be available. It wasn't.

Upon leaving the Lit & Phil, the weather had cheered up considerably, and me with it...

Upon leaving the Lit & Phil you come out onto the bottom of Westgate Road and immediately catch sight of the old Union Club (a lovely grade II building) which now houses a pub,

and then onto Neville Street and the Metro at Central Station in the gathering dusk...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No-Man Mixtaped


Having began as a live act back in the late 80s, No-Man’s natural habitat would prove to be the small suburban living room otherwise known as No Mans Land studios. From this unlikely setting Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness produced a run of incredibly strong albums that marshalled the minutiae of interior angst alongside kaleidoscopic pop culture jump-cuts that bled into each other to create a surprisingly harmonious blend.

In light of the extent to which their beautifully orchestrated world is a product of their meticulous studio production values, the decision to step back onto the live stage earlier this year seemed at first glance somewhat risky.

Whilst there was no doubting that the bones of the songs could be performed in concert, the real question lay as to what degree their liminal atmospherics could survive their transfer to the stage.

After all, this duo have specialised in producing something akin to an indefinite sensation, an ambiguity that fleetingly exists between the words and the music, so ephemeral that the very act of noticing it might cause it to disappear.

Yet up on the tiny stage of London’s Bush Hall, Bowness and Wilson (augmented by no less the five extra musicians) succeeded in maintaining No-Man’s mood-music essence whilst grafting to it a harder edge whose textures are, in places, as coarse as they are intense. The transformation of certain material is eye-opening stuff.

The ethereal poise of All The Blue Changes or the after-hours gloom of Mixtaped become drenched and etched with layers of acid-guitar that pulls off the rare trick of actually amplifying the detail rather than overwhelming it. Similarly Steve Bingham’s violin makes potent additions to the music throughout the performance.

An excellent accompanying 80 minute documentary offers eloquent testimony to Bowness and Wilson’s commitment to evolving and growing as artists whilst waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with them. If the seven-piece version of No-Man as seen at the Bush Hall is anything to go by, we might not have to wait much longer.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Here Comes The Sun

Out and about in Whitley Bay this morning. The sun was trying its best to get out. After the weight of rain lately, it was as though the rooftops and houses were stretching up to gather as much sun as they could.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not A Day Off

One of the joys of being self-employed is the ability to keep your own hours. By the time you factor in a bit of prevarication, bad habits, creative wrestling matches and time spent chasing jobs, the downside of this is you often end up working seven days a week. This isn't a moan about how working for yourself is "the hardest game in the book" but rather a simple acknowledgement that if you're not too hot on time management, then the working week can stretch out way beyond normal office hours.

So, the upshot of all this is that weekends where Debbie and I get to relax in each other's company are fairly rare. When they do happen however they feel really special.

Today the plan was to go Newcastle, have breakfast at Blakes, read the Sunday papers and then take in a couple of movies. And that, dear reader, is exactly what we did.

Newcastle was positively sparkling after the morning's rain as we made our way down Grainger Street towards Blake's.

After a couple of hours of drinking tea, reading The Sunday Times, The Observer and The Independent, we head back out onto Grainger Street...

and onto the Tyneside Cinema for our first movie of the day...

The White Ribbon was a bleak, unflinching account of a German village on the eve of WW1. Beautifully shot in black and white it gripped us from the first to the last frame. Spellbinding stuff! After this, refreshments were required in the cafe. Bernard and Lesley, who had seen The White Ribbon earlier in the week, were waiting to join us.

After an hour of chinwaggery, it was three floors down to the Classic...

where we were scheduled to see...

What I like about the Coen Brothers is that you never quite know what you're going to get - much like the eponymous hero! Superb stuff and much better than the likeable but absolutely lightweight Burn After Reading. On the Metro back to Whitley Bay the two movies gave us plenty to talk about and ponder on.

Whatever messages may have been contained in the two films we'd just seen, the lesson that was laid out for me today (my late mother's birthday incidentally) was that it's not about having a "day off" but actually having a "day on" spending time with, and paying attention to, the ones you love.

Amen to that!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Present Barbaro (ma non troppo)

Barbaro (ma non troppo)
Ad Hoc Records

With just three pieces making up their 9th album, this multi-national troop led by guitarist / keyboard player, Roger Trigaux (ex-Univers Zero) possess both brow-furrowing virtuosity and bone-crunching dynamics in roughly equal measure.

Operating in much the same field ploughed by chamber-rock ensembles such as Henry Cow and Magma, Present’s music offers an imposing, demanding edifice. Quintessentially European, the splintery and often explosive tracks invoke the works of Stravinsky or Messiaen at their most hyperkinetic sharing something of heir fussy angularity and harmonic density.

However studious and sombre the overall impression Present’s labyrinthine material may be, that doesn’t mean it’s in anyway dull or hidebound. As the musicians hop, skip and jump their way through Trigaux’s imaginative and complex scores, almost every beat brings with it an unexpected confluence of piano, electric cello, bass, drums, sax and electric guitar.

The album is accompanied with a DVD featuring nearly three hours of footage taken at various live appearances in Present’s long career. Of course, a bunch of men sitting looking all studious at their instruments doesn’t quite make for edge-of-your-seat viewing.

Perhaps in recognition of this, at the end of a Rock In Opposition event in 2007, the band are joined on stage by a semi-naked kilt-wearing man, who with warpaint daubed on his face, starts banging a dirty great big spanner on an amplified length of pipe during the epic 26 minute-long Promenade Au Fond D’Un Canal. This in turn is followed by some auto-destructive art japes that The Who might be proud of.

The studio disc is phenomenally good in its own right but the DVD extra ensures that Barbaro is a truly irresistible package for both newcomer or long-term fellow traveller alike.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Street Life - The Calendar

The Street Life sequence on this blog has always been fairly popular and in recent times there's been a couple of enquiries about using some of the sunrise pictures as album artwork no less.

Prompted by this to go delving into the Street Life archive, I was rummaging around in iPhoto and clicked by mistake the calendar button for the very first time. Thus Debbie and I are in the process of commissioning our very own Street Life Calendar for the kitchen.

The following images are not the final image selection but are here just to give you an idea of how the thing looks...

I'm not sure about whether to do a "best of" pics for each of the 12 months (as above) or opt for something like this which shows the same opening shot for January, February, March and April.

or keep them strictly chronological. Say hello to August...

I'm also uncertain as to what the finished print quality is like so we've commissioned a test one to find have a look. Once that arrives next week I'll report back.

Anyone looking for that perfect gift and wanting to have their very own Street Life calendar (personalised/autographed on request!) should be warned that these are probably way too expensive to go into production. However, if you absolutely, positively have to have a Street Life 2010 calendar and don't mind parting with £22 (which includes yer actual P&P) then by all means drop me a line.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tea Time With Terry

Popping into Newcastle I was able to take pay some bills, make some deposits, withdraw some cash and make it down to the Lit & Phil to meet up with Terry Wiley. Terry is the talented artist and mad genius behind the Sleaze Castle comic book series.

We bump into each so infrequently that neither of us can last remember when it was.

This has been exacerbated for several years now given that Terry spends a fair amount of his time in Chicago.

The occasion of this meeting was ostensibly a sad one. Following the sudden death of his old pal Adrian Kermode, earlier in the year, Terry has gathered up some of Adrian’s writing and anthologised them into this handsome volume.

Terry is making sure that those folks who knew Adrian (of which I was one) received a limited edition copy of the stories. This has involved Terry in a huge amount of work and a fair amount of expense but it's a nice memento to remember Adrian by.

We tried to remember when Terry, Adrian and I had last met up but we were unable to bring it to mind. Sometime in the 80s? The 90s? The 00s? Was so-and-so there? During the summer? Winter? About the only thing we were certain about was that the meeting took place in the Bridge Hotel.

Now, given that neither of us are drug-users, heavy drinkers or prone to standing next to large electro-magnetic forces which might be responsible for bulk erasing the grey stuff in our noggins, it was scary how fleeting and ephemeral these things become.

Terry has also just illustrated a couple of stories in this equally impressive edition, This Is A Souvenir: The Songs Of Spearmint and Shirley Lee which was published earlier this year...

Now I confess that I'd not heard any of the songs of Spearmint or Shirley Lee prior to leafing through this book but greatly enjoyed Terry's work and that of some of the other artists.

Terry is Chicago-bound in the new year so this was probably our last cuppa opportunity for some time to come.


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