Stan Tracey, Bobby Wellins and the awards…

The Ivors Jazz Award - Stan Tracey

The Ivor Novello Awards have presented their first ever Ivors Jazz Award to one of our greatest musicians, the wonderful Stan Tracey, who is still composing and playing beautifully crafted and inventive jazz in his eighties. Here’s a short commentary from London Jazz on the award.

It’s fitting that one of Stan’s long-time musical partners, saxophonist Bobby Wellins, has also been honoured recently by winning the Jazz Musician of the Year in the Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

For info on Stan, here is his own website; and here is the Little Klunk site which has lots of fascinating stories and background details about his life.

Here is Bobby’s website.

Stan’s quartet:-

 

Neil Brand: The Silent Pianist Speaks

Neil-with-Laurel-&-Hardy

This is an expanded version of my short review published online in One Hundred Words magazine [no longer available].

An appreciative audience in Welwyn Garden City were treated to Neil Brand’s hugely entertaining one man show, ‘The Silent Pianist Speaks’, when he brought it to the Hawthorne Theatre, Campus West last week.

With his charismatic stage presence, Brand – one of our foremost silent cinema pianists – quickly established a good rapport with the audience, taking them on a behind the scenes tour of the art of silent film accompaniment. With some well-chosen clips and some enjoyable audience participation, he illustrated the magical effect that sensitive musical support can bring to silent cinema: how it establishes a intimate connection between the audience and the film, and how the accompanist is in turn is influenced by the audience reaction. Through this creative and dynamic relationship between filmmaker, accompanist, and audience each screening becomes a fascinating, unique experience.

Amongst the excellent clips, which included a lovely Keaton moment and some action and adventure from Fairbanks, were two films I hadn‘t seen and which particularly impressed me. There was People On A Sunday (which Billy Wilder had a hand in scripting), a film as fresh, naturalistic and experimental as anything from the Nouvelle Vague. Then there was the gripping opening sequences of Anthony Asquith’s – A Cottage On Dartmoor – with scenes filmed only a mile or two from Campus West.

Brand also brought to life the historic context of silent film exhibition in the 20s, particularly the phenomenal level of skill required by the musicians and the sadness of all those supremely gifted craftsmen losing their jobs so suddenly. It’s easy to forget just how good they were and the tragedy of what happened to them when the talkies arrived.

Throughout the evening, though, laughter was never very far away, be it in Brand’s witty commentary or the wonderfully funny cinematic moments on screen, culminating in some classic Laurel and Hardy shenanigans.

All in all, it was an entertaining, informative, and inspirational evening. If you ever get a chance to see one of these shows, make sure you don’t miss it!

The Turin Horse

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An expanded version of my short review published online in One Hundred Words Magazine:-

I feel very fortunate to live near such an inspirational cinema as the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge; a venue always keen to bring the best in cinema to its appreciative audience. As a huge (though not uncritical) fan of Bela Tarr, I have been eagerly awaiting his latest film, The Turin Horse, ever since it won the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival last year. Thanks to a special preview screening at the Picturehouse (after an inspiring 70mm presentation of Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala no less) I was finally able to see Tarr’s austere, magnificent film.

It begins with a brief prologue: a voiceover relates the story of Nietzsche in Turin intervening to prevent the mistreatment of a horse by a cabman. After the experience we know that Nietzsche lived out his life ‘gentle and demented, in the care of his mother and sisters’. The narration ends: ‘Of the horse we know nothing’.

Enigmatically, the horse and its owner who feature in the rest of the film are never explicitly linked with the Turin horse story. As Tarr has related in interviews, it was the unknown fate of the horse that provided the seed from which the film grew, but the ambiguity of the relationship of the short prologue to the film itself is entirely appropriate to a film which shows no interest in simple answers.

The story, though, is simplicity itself: a minimal narrative which concerns a father and daughter living a primitive, repetitive existence in a remote rural dwelling situated in a harsh, forlorn landscape, the howling winds a constant unsettling presence. And the horse, of course, who seems – like the world around – to be undergoing a slow, sad demise.

In typical Tarr fashion the film is extremely slow: its 146 minutes comprises only about 30 shots. It is the genius of Tarr and his team (many of them long term collaborators) that every one of those 146 minutes is somehow gripping. Each shot is a perfectly crafted miracle of movement, lighting, and meticulous observation. Each scene is alive with a palpable sense of immediacy, with the minute textures of the everyday, but also with a looming sense of the universal.

Bela Tarr is a filmmaker who takes single mindedness to a new level: he seems incapable of compromise. Thankfully, he is also hugely talented, and so the result of this approach is as challenging and beautiful and imaginatively fertile as this cinematic poem. In an interview with Hammer to Nail, Tarr says: “You have to be yourself, you have to tell everything from your side and you do have to have your own language”. He trusts in the intelligence of his audience to go with him: “You know, the question is what you believe about people, how do you believe your audience, spectators. If you trust your spectators. Because I trust my audience and you know well they’re not kids, they’re adults—clever, sensible, intelligent people, and you have to do your best for them.”

When you reach the final devastating image, you can perhaps understand why Tarr has decided to make this his last film. It feels like a full stop. As the preamble to the Hammer to Nail interview comments: “Basically he feels that he’s said what he needed to say in film and he doesn’t want to repeat himself.” We may well be disappointed that there won’t be another Tarr movie, but you can only admire his integrity.

And so Tarr’s last film is a grim, understated, powerful apocalyptic vision; it somehow seems a fitting finale for this particular cinematic giant.

Visages d’Enfants

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Here is my (slightly modified) review of Visages d’Enfants, as published in Issue 2 of Take One’s special publication for the British Silent Film Festival in April (the review is on the last page). It’s a film which was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

Thankfully, the journey of discovery for cinema lovers is one that never ends, and is a road occasionally marked by particularly significant milestones, such as coming across a film that is truly extraordinary. Courtesy of the British Silent Film Festival, I was privileged to find one of these cinematic treasures, when they presented Jacques Feyder’s lyrical and moving 1925 silent film, Visages d’Enfants, complete with live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand.

The story concerns a sensitive young boy, grief-stricken by the death of his mother. When his father remarries, the boy finds it difficult to adjust to his new family, which now includes a step mother and step sister. As the title suggests, Feyder’s chief interest is to develop the story from the childrens’ point of view: the camera often carefully observing their faces as they react to the adult world around them, or picking out the small but significant details they observe in their surroundings. Feyder is keen to avoid over sentimentality, encouraging delightfully naturalistic performances from the the young actors. The beautifully photographed dramatic mountain landscape in which the story unfolds provides a counterpoint to the small unfolding domestic drama, while reflecting the immense personal impact of the grief felt by the characters.

Neil Brand’s masterful, finely judged accompaniment emphasised the deep humanity of the film, while never overpowering it. His sensitivity to the nuances of the story meant that he always found the perfect melodic motif, the most effective modulation of key, and the most authentically appropriate harmonic colour to exactly match the needs of the onscreen drama. At one point, for instance, a family friend breaks the news to the boy that his father is to remarry. Neil subtly underlined the scene with a motif consisting of a simple repeated note and used this as the building block for his improvisation throughout the scene. It was an elegantly precise musical expression of the uncertainty and awkwardness felt by the characters.

This screening was a wonderful, deeply touching experience, a clear demonstration of just how powerful an art form silent cinema can be. For me, this was one of those great cinematic moments and is surely destined to be amongst the highlights of my cinematic year.