Cambridge Film Festival 2017: Kékszakállú

Kekszekallu

Below is a slightly edited review of the one published in Take One, both in a festival print magazine  and online.

An outdoor swimming pool and some children take turns to launch themselves from the diving board. One girl hesitates at the edge, frightened, uncertain. Cut.

In Kékszakállú – the enthralling latest film from Argentinian director Gastón Solnicki – this simple scene is simultaneously prosaic and charged. It is a film potent with contradictions: the sparse narrative is loosely structured while the individual scenes have the observational intensity of a documentary; Solnicki’s inspired, beautiful static compositions, are precise while seemingly casual, never ostentatious.

The story which slowly emerges centres on various female characters – some related to each other, some friends, all part of an upper class milieu – who are tentatively finding their way in the world; young people about to enter the confusing world of adulthood. We watch them on holiday, in their families, with friends, and at work. The power of this film is not to be found in the drama of plot development but – another contradiction – the impressionistically realist observation of these characters and our fascination with the unfolding mysteries.

The title Kékszakállú turns out to be as oblique and intriguing as the film itself. It is Hungarian for ‘Bluebeard’ in acknowledgement of Solnicki’s inspiration for the film – Bela Bartok’s one act, two-character, opera, BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE. The director’s own attempts to explain the connections make it hard to see them as anything more than tangential and highly personal. However, one thematic clue that Bartok’s innovative opera may provide is the insistence of Bluebeard’s new wife, the strong and compelling Judith, that her husband open the doors to all the closed rooms in the castle. Kékszakállú also focuses on female characters at the threshold of opening the doors to adulthood, though the the tone of the storytelling in the film has none of the gothic horror that awaits Judith behind some of those forbidden rooms. Indeed, the film is anything but operatic. It is decidedly low-key; an alluring exploration through a maze of seemingly unconnected scenes.

Perhaps a better comparison than BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE is a film by one of Solnicki’s compatriots, the masterful director Lucretia Martel. La Ciénaga (The Swamp) is her unsettlingly, atmospheric depiction of upper class Argentinian’s who are unable to gain satisfaction and fulfillment from the freedoms of their wealth. In the same way that Martel’s way with narrative is more sensitive to the non-sequiturs and ellipses of emotional logic than the mapping of plot points, Kékszakállú finds meaning in the tiniest of details, and revelation in the subtlest of connections.

At the end of Kékszakállú, one of the main characters acts decisively (I shan’t say any more than that). It is typically treated in a matter of fact way, yet it feels momentous and full of potential hope. Kékszakállú is a film which will stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema.

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Interview: Mornington Lockett to front special Herts Jazz Festival concert in celebration of Bobby Wellins

My interview with Mornington Lockett was originally published in London Jazz News.


 

Mornington Lockett

Mornington Lockett: photo by Melody McLaren

One of the highlights of this year’s Herts Jazz Festival is a concert put together by one of the UK’s most accomplished jazz saxophonists, Mornington Lockett, in celebration of the music of one of his heroes, the late great Scottish saxophonist, Bobby Wellins.

The concert, which closes the 3-day festival on Sunday 15th October, features Mornington with a variety of top British players, including long-time Wellins associates, Clark Tracey, Spike Wells, Art Themen, Andrew Cleyndert, and Mark Edwards, as well as the Purcell School of Music Big Band.

I spoke to Mornington about this unmissable event:

Mike: You studied jazz saxophone with Bobby in the 80s. How did you find him as a teacher, and what were the most important lessons you learnt?

Mornington: When I first heard Bobby live in 1981 he was flying high. He had just landed a Composer in Residence post at York University and his new band with Peter Jacobsen was the hippest thing around. For me it was as if all the light bulbs had been switched on at once in a darkened room. It was all about sound, colour, harmony, swing, but most of all that visceral emotion that pierced you through the heart like a laser. I was desperate to learn how it was all done. Bobby was incredibly generous both with his time, and in sharing his secrets. I used to go and stay at his house in Bognor Regis and the lessons would  basically last a whole day. Bobby even gave me a vintage metal Selmer mouthpiece as a present, to help me get a better sound. I still use some of the things he taught me every day.

Mike: When did you first play professionally with Bobby?

Mornington: I did not play with Bobby properly, I don’t think, until I became involved with the Stan Tracey operation. We played as a quintet a number of times, which was a fantastic experience, and back to school again for me every gig. I will always remember Bobby playing ‘Three Blind Mice’ in a major key over a minor blues and glaring into the crowd, as if to say: “What do you think of that, folks?”. That was Bobby all over, and Stan taught me that too: you make up the music as you go along, not according to anyone else’s rules.

 

Bobby Wellins & Stan Tracey

Bobby Wellins and Stan Tracey: photo by Melody McLaren

Mike: What was special about Bobby’s style of playing?

Mornington: Bobby had a thoroughly original style and approach. Like his great contemporaries Don Weller and Art Themen, Bobby taught himself, as there were no jazz colleges. Bobby worked out all those Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter chords on the piano, his own way. His theoretical concept was completely thought through, from the bottom up. However it was the emotional depth and honesty in Bobby’s sound that set him apart. Very few musicians speak to you like he could. Perhaps the starkest Miles Davis ballads from the late 50s come close but I can’t think of anything else.

Mike: The first half of the special Herts Jazz Festival concert begins with you leading a quintet, together with Art Themen, playing tunes composed by Bobby.

Mornington: Clark Tracey approached me out of the blue to put on this concert, after the emotional Bobby Wellins memorial concert at the 606. It is a huge honour, but also a massive ‘ask’. Bobby was a renaissance master of British music, a Da Vinci, and here I am with my little paint-by-numbers kit! Luckily I have secured the services of the legendary Spike Wells, from the original quartet, one of those few musicians, like Bobby, who can elevate the whole experience onto another plane. Mark Edwards and Andrew Cleyndert will also be joining me, who both have a long association with Bobby, and the great Art Themen will be helping us to recreate the wonderful quintet Bobby had with Don Weller. There is a wealth of amazing music to chose from. Bobby’s daughter Fiona has been kind enough to lend me some original scores, and has suggested a couple of pieces we might include.

Mike: The second half will feature the centrepiece of the concert, Bobby’s composition The Culloden Moor Suite where you will be joined by The Purcell School of Music Big Band.

Mornington: The Culloden Moor suite was written as a sextet, with Lol Coxhill on soprano, and Bryan Spring (joining Spike Wells) as a second drummer, playing Scottish snare drum and a variety of exotic percussion. Pete Jacobsen played piano and Fender Rhodes. The result was incredibly exciting and evocative music, I have never heard anything quite like it in any genre. The modern big band version is very ably orchestrated by Florian Ross, but is rather a modern, airbrushed version of history, where nobody gets hurt. I am hoping to combine both versions of the suite, by sending Spike Wells and Art Themen headlong into the fray, together with the Purcell School Big Band, conducted by Simon Allen. I think we have the chance to do something very special here, hopefully a worthy, certainly a heartfelt tribute to the great Bobby Wellins, a musician and man much loved, revered and missed by us all.


The Herts Jazz Festival takes place on 13-15 October 2017 at the Hawthorne Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. You can see a complete list of who is appearing at the festival on the website: http://www.hertsjazzfestival.co.uk. The special concert in celebration of Bobby Wellins is on Sunday 15 October at 7:45 pm.

Bobby

bobby-wellins

Tonight, it feels like the world is nervously holding its breath. As the presidential election votes are being counted, I find I can’t sleep.

A thought has popped into my head – “at least Bobby doesn’t have to worry about all this…”

As well as bringing back the terrible sadness of his sudden passing, just a few weeks ago, to think of Bobby also brings to mind his charm and humour – how he was always ready with a kind word or a witty remark, delivered in that soft Scottish accent. Bobby always made you feel good.

Were I asked to choose my favourite recorded saxophone solo, I would probably not choose something by Hawkins, Webster, Coltrane, Rollins, Coleman, or Brecker, brilliant though all these players are/were, but something by a self-deprecating musician whose magical, unique tone has now been silenced – Bobby Wellins.

As a teenager, I discovered and explored jazz via records borrowed from my local library. One of these – selected initially on the basis of its connection to Dylan Thomas – turned out to be a turning point in my musical education, making a very deep impression on me: Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood. Not only did this record spark my lifelong love affair with Stan’s music, it also brought me under the spell of Bobby Wellin’s enchanting sound. In particular, the haunting, fragile sensitivity of Bobby’s solo on the track Starless and Bible Black 

 

It’s a track which evokes the rainy streets of a London-based film noir, the tenor providing a sad, resigned voice-over which can’t quite hide the sense of wonder at the mysteriousness and magic of these city scenes.

Bobby’s harmonic language, so distinctively and unmistakably his, may have had a natural affinity with the melancholic, but his melodic lines also had the strength, tenderness and romanticism of someone who relished life.

His music was as beautiful, humane, and ambiguous as an Edward Hopper painting.

Bobby, we miss you.

 

Bobby Wellins: 1936-2016

 

Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: Buster and the Jazzer

This is the fourth in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.


The stunning new restorations of Buster Keaton’s short films, which have been released as part of the Masters of Cinema series, provide a great excuse to binge watch the master at work and also to observe the development of Keaton’s craft.

The first moment he ever appeared on film, in ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s THE BUTCHER BOY, he was already a natural, in complete control of his physical performance. He brought a freshness and fertile imagination to all the films he worked on with Arbuckle.

However, it is when he begins to make his own films that Buster’s real genius emerges. Jeffrey Vance, in the booklet which accompanies the Masters of Cinema box-set, says about ONE WEEK, the first of Keaton’s short films to be released, that it…

…takes a dramatic leap in story construction, cinema technique, and comic invention from the films he made with Arbuckle.

Keaton’s creativity flourished within seemingly opposing factors: structure and spontaneity. Keaton is quoted in the Masters of Cinema booklet as saying…

Even when making my two-reelers I worked on the theory that the story was always of first importance.

Unlike the Arbuckle slapstick fests, where story was almost incidental, Keaton saw the importance of using narrative and character in making films which were funnier and more substantial. However, the ideas flowed only when this structure allowed for a great deal of improvisation. Keaton again…

When a big studio today has got their schedules laid out, and those people are called and everything, you go in there and shoot, regardless. You can’t improvise, as we did then. Why, we’d change every other minute. We never knew what we were running into. When we ran into something good, we stuck with it. That’s the great handicap today – no flexibility.

The freedom of improvisation within the confines of form is, of course, at the heart of most jazz. The chord structure is equivalent to story and character and helps shape and inspire the player’s creativity in finding new ways of telling that story. It is why I am very excited to be able to bring the two art forms together in the Herts Jazz FILM Festival when the superb jazz pianist David Newton will accompany two Buster Keaton shorts – the already mentioned ONE WEEK as well as NEIGHBORS. Here is David caught on a fairly rough video at the 2004 Appleby Jazz Festival. Within the simple blues chord structure he finds endless inspiration!

There should be a very special kind of magic when David meets Buster!


David Newton will be playing live to two Buster Keaton shorts on Saturday 17th September. Details and tickets are available here.

Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: John Akomfrah on Stan Tracey

This is the third in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.


John Akomfrah is an enormously respected filmmaker and artist whose documentary films include critically acclaimed titles such as THE NINE MUSES and THE STUART HALL PROJECT. Born in Ghana, he was educated in London and Portsmouth and went on to co-found the Black Audio Film Collective, which BFI Screenonline describes as having the…

objectives of addressing issues of Black British identity and developing media forms appropriate to this subject matter.

One film on his CV which is sometimes overlooked is a beautifully crafted portrait of one the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, made for BBC Four in 2003. STAN TRACEY: THE GODFATHER OF BRITISH JAZZ is an affectionate and insightful exploration of Tracey’s long and prestigious career and receives a rare showing on the big screening as part of a Stan Tracey gala closing night event at the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival. As well as the screening itself, the evening will also feature a live performance by the Stan Tracey Legacy Quartet, led by Stan’s son, the leading British drummer Clark Tracey, and featuring player who all have a close association with the late pianist.

In an interview conducted via correspondence I asked John Akomfrah how he felt about this special screening of his film.

I’m absolutely over the moon that the film’s been chosen for the gala event of the first Herts Jazz FILM Festival . And especially thrilled that it will be followed by a live quartet performance led by Stan’s son Clark.

Stan was a great man, a formidable player and a fantastic composer. And any chance to honour him has my absolute support. I’m only sorry he’s not here to bask in the truly deserved limelight one more time.

I wondered how John had come to make a film on Stan.

Stan’s Under Milk Wood album was the first record I bought from the old Ray’s Jazz Shop, in the RARE AS HEN’S TEETH section I believe. So it cost me quite a bit! I had heard it months before at a friend’s and it blew me away: the lyricism, the unusual sonorities of the performers on the album, like Bobby Wellins. The whole album had this quintessentially British feel and that was my first exposure to that tone, that ‘local ambience’. After years of listening to jazz from all over the planet, it really spoke to me, spoke eloquently about this place (Britain ) and how we inhabit it.

That was in the 80’s and I decided pretty much there and then that I wanted to do something on him.

All of John’s films have a distinct visual style. How did he come to choose the particular look and structure of the Stan Tracey documentary?

Well, I had time to think about it! In a way, all the films are pretty much defined by the qualities one senses or gets from the subject itself.

Any one who knew Stan will tell you he was one of life’s gentle souls, really quiet, charming and very relaxed.But underneath that too, one sensed this steely determination, this overwhelming desire to do things his own way. So, I knew we had to find a form and a structure that spoke to those qualities. And an approach that will be unique for that film. Happily, all my instincts paid off.

I asked John what he is currently working on and was delighted to hear that he is returning to jazz, in the form of an important early jazz player.

I am in the middle of another long gestating piece on another hero, Buddy Bolden.

Now that will be worth looking out for!


The special Stan Tracey gala evening will take place on Sunday 2 October. Tickets are available here.

Herts Jazz FILM Festival – flyer and promo video with a rather special soundtrack

The flyers for my film festival have arrived and I’m very pleased with how they’ve turned out. A big thank you goes to Sally Stray who designed the wonderful logo, and Kay Hill who designed the leaflet as a whole.

Jazz Festival Leaflet A5

I’ve also put together a quick promo video which features a Stan Tracey Quartet backing track (with Clark Tracey’s kind permission). The track is taken from the 2009 Senior Moment CD, made when Stan was a young 82. It’s a track which Peter Bacon described at the time as:

…a catchy, Caribbean-tinged, joyful tune that could have been written by Sonny Rollins, and the saxophonist is doing nothing to dispel that thought. The pianist launches into a solo of exuberant high and low end keyboard conversation, before the saxophonist returns to work a sure-footed and nearly manic display of melodic happiness. Meanwhile the rhythm team buoys them all along, the bass solo takes the theme of enjoyment on and the drummer carries it through. And then it’s back to the head. The whole thing seems to be over in less than a minute, though it has lasted more than five. That’s what happens to time when you are having fun. The tune is Triple Celebration, and Simon Allen is on saxophone, Andy Cleyndert on bass and Clark Tracey on drums. And, of course, this whole widely beaming, overflowing with joy and good vibes thing is masterminded by our favourite grump, Stan Tracey, on piano.

I believe this was the first time the incredibly talented Simon Allen appeared on a Stan Tracey recording. Tony Hall says of Allen’s playing on this CD:

He has all the technical proficiency of his American counterparts, but sounds so much more human and emotional than most. He’s equally strong on all his horns, with his alto particularly impressive.

You can check out more about this amazing player on his website, and just check out this video!

Which reminds me a little of another star of the film festival – Buster Keaton – and his short The Playhouse, where he plays multiple characters.

TUBBY HAYES: A MAN IN A HURRY: Interview with the film’s producer Mark Baxter 

 

Tubby Hayes 72dpi

This is a #HJFilmFest related post. The new Herts Jazz FILM Festival takes place at Welwyn Garden City Cinema on 16-18 September 2016 with a special gala evening on 2 October. It will showcase compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the #HJFilmFest will bring you classic Hollywood film noir, silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.


A MAN IN A HURRY is the excellent new documentary about the prodigiously talented British saxophonist Tubby Hayes. During his all too brief life, Hayes created an astonishing body of work that still inspires musicians today. This film not only deals with the many achievements of this legendary player but brings to life the rich culture of 1950s, 60s, and 70s London. It is narrated by actor and Hayes fan Martin Freeman.

The film’s producer and fellow Londoner, Mark Baxter, is also a well respected author. He kindly agreed to answer my questions about the film.

Mike O’Brien: Mark, why Tubby Hayes and why now?

Mark Baxter: I fell under the spell of Tubby in the early 80s when investigating the world of jazz. I would have been 22/23. I joined Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club as a member and saw plenty of great acts there over the years. I then spent hours and much money in Ray’s Jazz Shop on Shaftesbury Avenue and first checked out the usual suspects, Miles, Coltrane, and Chet Baker and then got tipped off on to British players , Tubby among them. I just fell under the spell of him , Phil Seamen, Ronnie Ross, Stan Tracey etc…

I kept saying that one day I’d write a book on Tubbs (I have had 9 books published so far, so have a career in that world too) but then found out Simon Spillett was well into writing his book, ‘The Long Shadow of the Little Giant‘ so I decided to make a documentary instead, despite having no idea how to. This was in late 2012. I decided we’d aim for what would have been Tubby’s 80th year in 2015. Thankfully I found our director Lee Cogswell when we worked on a separate job together.

MO’B: Was Simon Spillett – a fantastic sax player himself and quite a favourite of the Herts Jazz Club – involved from the start?

MB: I knew Simon’s name well from the internet searches I had done on Mr Hayes, so knew he would be the font of all knowledge on the subject. So I’m emailed him and then we went to interview him at home. We all got on well, so he kindly gave us a lot of his research notes to help with the project. His help was invaluable.

M’O’B: How did you manage to cover so much in only 55 mins! How did you approach editing your material, and was anything left out that you wish could have been included?

MB: Haha. Well, from very early on whilst doing the research and writing the script, I just knew Tubby was living at a break neck speed and that gave me the title – A Man in a Hurry – which then sort of set the tempo of the film. In all honesty, we had a very limited budget, so had little choice as to the length of the film, we just couldn’t afford to use any more footage, though we had plenty of other unseen , or rarely seen, concert film that we had to leave out as we ran out of many. Lee did a great job on the editing and spent many hours refining that and that shows in the finished product.

MO’B: I like the way you contextualise the jazz world within the wider culture, particularly London culture. Was this always an important element?

MB: I found Tubby first of all when I was deep into the world of Mod. I lived that life for a few years, the clothes, the scooters and the clubs, so was well versed in the world of Modernist and always felt Tubby was at the forefront of that in the late 50s and that was something I wanted to explore in the film. A lot of the people who are in the film and who are around my age (53) have a similar view on Tubby’s part of that particular story.

MO’B: One of the things which I learnt from the film was the extent to which Tubby was a household name. What did you learn from making this film?

MB: At the start I only really knew his music, so nearly all of his personal life was new to me and it was fascinating to explore that and find out more. That is the thing most people say to me after seeing the film, that they simply didn’t know what a big star he was. They are amazed to be honest. It just shows that some people can slip though the cracks

MO’B: How long do it take to make the film and what difficulties did you have to overcome?

MB: In total it took about three years, with the research and writing up a working script. The major obstacle was finding the money to make the film as we couldn’t get any help from TV land or any funding from elsewhere to be honest. Myself and Lee worked for free on the job and it became a total passion project, we just HAD to finish. Some really good mates and my old mum, gave us the money to make it and it’s therefore quite emotional for me, every time I watch it.

MO’B: I see that Paul Weller and Martin Freeman are both executive producers of the film (and Martin also narrates): how did they come to be involved?

MB: I know both of them personally and of course we have a shared love of the ‘Mod’ world, so spend far too many hours discussing shoes, but they are always looking forward and looking for the next project, so they are always asking what I’m up to. A few years back, I mentioned Tubby and they checked his  music out, so knew I was in the process of making something on him. I asked Martin to be interviewed for the film, but he said no, because he felt he didn’t know the subject well enough, but said if you get it made, I’ll narrate it.

This was said well before The Hobbit and Sherlock took off, so it then became a mission to get  a few hours in his diary a few years later, to get his vocals sorted and onto the film. It was great to have him aboard. As for Paul Weller, he was so supportive from the kick off, and made a few phone calls for us to get us into locations and line up some interviewees. A pair of the finest gents I’m privileged to know.

MO’B: How has the film been received?

MB: Beyond our wildest dreams to be honest. I won’t lie, it was very stressful in getting it made in time and then released, so in the end we were just glad to get out there. The good people at Proper Jazz picked up the distributing of the DVD and they have done a great job. When the feedback and reviews started to come our way, well, we were delighted. We have also teamed up with Simon Spillett to do a ‘Tubby double act’ so to speak, where the film is shown at a venue/club or cinema and then Simon plays a Tubby set with his quartet. We have had some great nights with it. We have also introduced people to the music of Tubby which has been a nice bonus to it all.

MO’B: The Herts Jazz FILM Festival is all about bringing music and film together, including live accompanied silent film. What films with a jazz connection have inspired you?

MB: Good question. ‘Jazz On A Summers Day’ by Bert Stern was a massive influence on me early on and I love that film to this day. I also watch ‘Round Midnight’ by Bernard Tavernier as often as I can and I’ve always got time for ‘Let’s Get Lost’ by Bruce Weber. Such a life lived by the Baker.

MO’B: Is there a question which you’ve been surprised was never asked in interviews about the film?

MB: Ha! ‘Would you do it all again’ would be a good one. I should say no really, but I think I probably would…


TUBBY HAYES: A MAN IN A HURRY will be shown in the Herts Jazz FILM Festival on Sunday 18th September 2016.

The shadow of a smile: a personal reflection on Stan T

What to say?

How to say it?

Ever since the sad news of his death at the end of last year, I’ve wanted to set down my thoughts about Stan Tracey. It has proved impossible. How do you find adequate expression for the beauty of his music and the quality of his character, when so many have already written such moving and eloquent tributes?

A particular image kept nudging itself into my consciousness, demanding attention. Curiously, it didn’t promise any obvious connection to Stan, but still felt somehow relevant.

The image? Simply a smile.

A very particular and special smile…

In a recent Sight and Sound article, Philip Concannon wrote about the last scene of Paul Thomas Anderson’s extravagant epic film Magnolia. It contains a single moment that never fails to take my breath away: after three hours of infectious cinematic flamboyance the film ends in the most wonderfully surprising way – a fleetingly brief tiny gesture; restrained, delicate, somehow poised, challenging in its honesty, tender enough to melt the hardest of hearts. Concannon explains:-

Magnolia has a dozen main characters vying for our attention, but the beating heart of the film is in the relationship between Officer Jim Kurring and Claudia Wilson Gator…While many of the central figures … are characterised by selfishness, bitterness, cruelty or an inability to recognise their own flaws until it’s too late, Jim and Claudia are essentially good people, and it’s no surprise that Anderson’s humane instincts lead him to give these lost souls a second chance. In the film’s final scene, we see a tearful Claudia sitting on her bed…as Jim arrives to make one final plea. Anderson lets us hear parts of Jim’s heartfelt speech…, but most is drowned out by Aimee Mann’s ‘Save Me’, indicating that the key to the scene is not Jim’s words but Claudia’s reaction to them. As the camera creeps slowly forward, the look on her face suggests that she is genuinely taking his words to heart… As Jim reaches the end of his speech, and the camera moves in for a close-up, she momentarily casts her eyes downwards, and then she looks up directly at the camera, and smiles…The impact of this tiny gesture is all the greater for coming at the end of a bombastic film. Claudia’s smile tells us that she might just be OK, and provides us with one of the most surprising and emotionally satisfying endings in cinema.

Stan Tracey seemed a reserved, private, even shy man, with no interest whatsoever in seeking fame and adulation; he just wanted to play the music which he loved with every fibre of his being. He would get up on the bandstand with a minimum of fuss, sit in front of the piano (what he once called his Old Adversary), and create magic. At the end, he would politely, quietly make his exit as quickly as possible.

He was not given to verbosity, yet when he did say something, he was always ready with the perfect, pithy word or phrase; and he had an endearing, mischievous, self-deprecatory sense of humour. Stan was the master of the deadpan one liner. His music had that same mix of crafted phrasing, sharp wit, and no frills directness. It was a language of seemingly endless inventiveness, bursting with energy, imagination, and beautifully clashing contradictions. The hard edges of those punched chords – with their ‘brilliant corners’ (as Thelonious Monk might have said), ‘stabbing chords into the rhythm like somebody trying to swat flies with a sledgehammer’ as John Fordham affectionately put it – were balanced by delicate, subtle counter phrases and embellishments. The harmonic journeys were open, exploratory, sometimes joyously unexpected, always a delight.

The music was honest, direct, intelligent, heartfelt, uncompromising, devoid of bullshit, and simply brilliant! Like its creator, it had integrity. Or rather, has integrity, since there are a wealth of inspirational recordings through which the music lives on, as well as fine musicians who will continue to interpret his body of work.

But what of that image: a fragile smile emerging through tears? I can imagine Stan’s firm dismissal of anything so potentially sentimental being associated with his music. Yet, in the context of the film, that smile is far from sentimental. Like Stan’s music, it looks you straight in the eye and says life may be full of shit, but this is a moment of hard edged but tender beauty; free from cynicism, without cheap consolation, it will lift the spirits and warm the heart.

All I can say is, so long Stan. Your music will continue to bring a smile to our faces; but, to paraphrase one of your albums, we’ll still miss you madly.

Stan Tracey: 1926-2013

Reminded of Laugharne

The Boathouse Laugharne

The Boathouse, Laugharne

Last year my wife and I had a very enjoyable holiday in the Welsh town most famous for its association with the great poet Dylan Thomas: Laugharne. I was reminded of this when I came across two items related to Thomas.

Firstly, I was reminded by this short article that Stan Tracey’s quartet are playing Stan’s latest Thomas inspired piece – A Child’s Christmas Jazz Suite – at the Dylan Thomas Festival in Swansea tomorrow. I’ve already written about the suite elsewhere on this blog; it’s great to hear that it will now feature in a festival dedicated to Dylan Thomas.

Secondly, I came across a more direct link to Laugharne in the form of this nice piece by Chris Moss, an interesting personal portrait of the town. It’s well worth a read in full.

It includes the following:-

Anyone with a passing interest in poetry knows about Dylan Thomas’s association with Laugharne, the township he called a ‘legendary lazy little black magical bedlam by the sea’. They know about his writing shed with its view over the ‘heron priested’ shores of the Taf Estuary. And about his drinking, his dark moods, his death in America.

 

He’s buried at the main church here beneath a simple white cross. His ghost lingers and his admirers come to smell the musty living room in the Boathouse, where he lived, and to look for characters from his masterpiece, Under Milk Wood.

 

But as literary birthplaces go, Laugharne is no Stratford-on-Avon, Haworth or Chawton. It remains an enigma. This small, steep-sided, village-sized town has retained the curious character — and, perhaps, some of the characters — that beguiled the Swansea-born bard six decades ago.

 

A path follows the foot of the red sandstone cliffs to two steep staircases leading up to a narrow road. Here is Dylan Thomas’s writing shed — once a garage built to house Laugharne’s first car (a green Wolseley)… A few steps along is the Boathouse — the third and final property the Thomas’ occupied in Laugharne. It has some of the loveliest views of the estuary and beyond and is the most photographed spot in Laugharne.

 

Out on the terrace, away from the memorabilia and the booming voice of Dylan reading his verse, spare a thought for Caitlin. She left Laugharne for Italy in 1957, describing it as a ‘permanently festering wound’. This might not fit neatly with the fantasy version of Dylan and Wales, but it remains the truth; the words came through drink and darkness and despair, and Laugharne and the Boathouse are part of that reality.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin – Live

Nik-Bartschs-Ronin-Live

The first time I heard a Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin track was in one of Sid Smith’s (always enjoyable) podcasts. I was working on something, casually listening to Sid’s selection in the background. At first the Ronin track made little impression, it seemed rather repetitive and harmonically bland. Gradually, though, it began to tug at my attention: what seemed like a simple repetitive rhythm revealed itself as a rather intriguing, addictive cross-current of rhythms, evolving almost imperceptibly into new intricate yet fascinating patterns, always building tension, working towards an ever more gripping finale. I was hooked.

I’ve been hooked ever since.

Last year, at Kings Place in London, I was able to hear the band live for the first time (and to thank Sid personally for introducing me to this music). It was a magical evening. This was music full of delectable contradictions: incredibly precise, yet feeling open and free; repetitive but always taking on new, exciting shapes; simple and extraordinarily complex; intellectual yet earthy and grounded.

Some of the magic of that live sound has thankfully been captured in this new live album.

As thejazzbreakfast say:-

The Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch has been leading his band Ronin for over a decade. A quintet since 2006, the band has made three studio albums for ECM and now comes this double live album. In all that time there has been just one change of personnel. Original electric bassist Bjorn Mayer was replaced by Thomy Jordi last year, and he joined Bartsch on piano and Fender Rhodes, Sha on bass clarinets and alto saxophone, Kaspar Rast on drums and Andi Pupato on percussion.

 

For anyone who has been to a Ronin concert, this goes a long way to recreating the euphoric enjoyment that it instills; for those who have never witnessed the band live, it will give you as good a taste as you could expect to get without actually being there.

 

It’s extraordinary that music that has to be this disciplined for its effect – tightly interwoven rhythms, exactingly timed exchanges – can also sound so spontaneous and, in a strange way, loose.

Jeff Dayton-Johnson, in allaboutjazz explains why this music is so engrossing:-

Bärtsch … deploys all kinds of more or less conventional syncopational strategies, but he also uses interlocking rhythms to challenge our very certitude about where the ground is upon which we should stand. Nowhere is this more clear, perhaps, than in the opening moments of “Modul 17,” where a chiming, two-note figure that sounds like a xylophone is quickly surrounded by longer rhythmic figures. As with interlocking African percussion music, at some point the figures of different length realign; it’s a mathematical process that sounds anything but abstract in practice.

 

As you listen, the music offers you several choices of a rhythmic ground (do I choose the 2/4, 3/4, 6/8 or other rhythm as the “true” meter of the composition?), in relation to which the other meters stand as potential alternatives or as baroque embellishments. You’re not committed to your choice of meter—you can “switch” midstream and it feels a little like jumping from one to another of the rings of Saturn. The effect is liberating.

The last word in this short piece must, of course, go to Sid Smith, writing in BBC Music:-

Ronin’s music has a propulsive volatility that’s forever galloping forward as their polyrhythmic jigsaw comes together. Individually, these motifs are quite simple, but combined they produce powerful results that engender a near-constant state of expectation.

 

This frequently hair-raising and dazzling summary is a celebration of their considerable achievements to date.