Friday, 27 April 2007

Bets are off?

Aside from the ongoing fallout from Operacion Puerto, which is systematically claiming what is left of cycling’s already tarnished reputation, one of the most unseemly features of the 2007 season is the predicament of the Swedish Unibet cycling team.

The problems stretch back over two years, to the creation of the UCI Pro Tour. Meant to give the sport a facelift and greater popularity, the top races in the calendar were brought together into a series which attracted points for victories. Each race was guaranteed participation by the 18 Pro Tour teams, offering TV viewers and race goers the opportunity to see an increased level of competition on a more regular basis.

In return for the hefty three year investment required for a Pro Tour licence, sponsors committing to the sport thought they’d be guaranteed increased exposure. When the decision was taken at the end of last season by the UCI to expand the Pro Tour to twenty teams, Unibet and Astana were the two lucky winners in the scramble, or so they thought.

On the eve of the new European season, the classic curtain raiser of the Paris-Nice was almost cancelled. Why? Race organisers ASO, already disgruntled by increased UCI interference in their historical autonomy, resented the limitation it placed on their ability to award ‘wild card’ race entries to local French squads. The whole affair became symptomatic of the wider power struggle between race organisers and the sport’s governing body.

While it’s easy to sympathise with race organisers (what is the sport without their great races?), and whilst the Pro Tour idea is undoubtedly flawed (is the series winner really the world’s best rider?), the UCI undoubtedly has the best long-term interests of the sport at heart, realising that it can only grow with solid and long-term financial backing.

Unibet are now left with an expensive licence, a string of legal actions, and the sour taste of broken promises. Forbidden from riding in the major French races, mostly organised by ASO, they have been absent at Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix and are not on the start list for the Tour de France. Their sponsors were sold a dodgy package, and not surprisingly want compensation from the UCI.

Yesterday the courts came to Unibet’s aid, a Belgian judge ruling that their exclusion from races by ASO was contrary to European law. ASO had been using the spurious reason that French law forbids advertising by gambling and betting organisations. In the pre-season warm up races the team were made to race in team kit with all sponsor logos removed and replaced by question marks. ASO conveniently forget to remember that they had no problems with Mr, the team that morphed into Unibet last autumn. It seems that the Pro Tour is the real bone of contention, and the judge agreed that ASO’s stance contravenes European law.

Sadly, the ruling won’t be conclusive. On the fifth of March another judge ruled that the deal between the UCI and ASO, which agreed to the guaranteed entry for Pro Tour teams into races, was not legally binding, ASO can quite legitimately insist on the right to invite whoever they like to their races, leaving Unibet to sit watching on the sidelines. The team may now have a stronger case for compensation, rumoured to be 5 million Euros per day of racing, but this is no substitute for the top flight racing they crave.

At a time when sponsors are beginning to doubt whether or not cycling is a desirable outlet for the wholesome image of their brands, witness the departure of Phonak and soon Discovery, the Unibet affair does nobody any credit. Without the co-operation of both race organisers and the UCI in the battle against the far larger menace of doping, both parties could ultimately be left empty handed.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Evan Parker Free Zone...

Almost as much as I struggled with the bland mainstream wash of Jessica Williams, I struggle with 'non-idiomatic' free improvisation and its radical (but all too predictable) sounds. I always like to distinguish this music from free-jazz, and despite having huge admiration for the likes of Evan Parker and Derek Bailey, who are and were respectively true originals, I find their sounds only mildly engaging over short intervals.

I don't need to add much to my comments on the recent Unsolicited Music Ensemble posting, but am pleased to have investigated improv enough to arrive at a point where autobiographical connections to this beguling but ultimately alienating music can be used.

Free Zone Appleby 2002
PSI (03.02/3 2CD)

Gong (For Phil Seamen); Whitethroat; Re Eden; Subject Matters; Dunsany; Ferber String Quartet; Pin Drop; Sense; Phantoms; Pica Pica; MGT4ALL; Morsman Octet.

Evan Parker (ss); John Rangecroft (cl); Neil Metcalfe (f); John Edwards (b); Marcio Mattos (clo); Mark Sanders (perc); Philipp Wachsmann (vn, elec); Sylvia Hallett (v, vn, sarang).
Recorded July 2002.

Neil Ferber has been promoting jazz in the picturesque Cumbrian market town of Appleby for a good ten years now. Starting with Stan Tracey and then branching out to cover a who’s who of English jazz, he has always been a staunch supporter of the idiomatically ambiguous music of Evan Parker. Memorable collaborations with Marilyn Crispell and Keith Tippett’s ‘Mujician’ thrillingly blurred the boundaries between free-jazz and improvised music, and linger long in my memory. Presented on the main stage in the early days, the alarming tendency of festival-goers to flee the marquee whenever Parker appeared exposed the troublesome issues of tolerance and diversity with regard to his ‘difficult’ music. Ferber stuck to his guns though and came up with a separatist solution - the ‘Free Zone’ - a festival within a festival.

Given free licence to invite musical guests to perform in the unique surroundings of St Michael’s church, Parker now has his very own version of ‘Company Week’ for one afternoon a year. This collection presents the 2002 edition, where the balance of artists is loaded heavily towards ‘chamber’ instruments, leading to a very post-serialist sound. Almost without exception, the performers seem unable to break out of the ritualistic process of free improvisation, and the results are both forensically clinical and self-indulgently sprawling. Players seem to be striving towards a composition that is just never quite within reach. Only John Edwards’ solo bass feature and the opening section of the octet contain any suspense or surprise. I stopped attending the ‘Free Zone’ three years ago when the roster of artists and their pared-down aesthetic became excruciatingly predictable.

Sadly, because Parker is a true original and has been a great innovator, the event is now a literal festival side-show, relying on the good will of Ferber rather than ticket sales for its survival. If old-school improvised music is to have any future relevance to more than an ever diminishing circle of cognoscenti, its creative spark must somehow be rekindled. Perhaps recent work with Springheel Jack and William Parker’s talented acolytes is just the type of cross-fertilisation Parker needs? This is one for members of the audience and obsessive collectors only, I’m afraid.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, September 2003)

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Jessica Williams...

Don't worry, I'm not recommending this CD. The review is here more because it provides an example of how I approach music that I profoundly dislike. You can probably see the tensions inside me spilling over onto the page, mindful of my duty to the readership on the one hand, and desperate to be true to myself on the other.

I remain committed to seeing things from the point of view of the audience each product is aimed at - a CD can only be pronounced 'bad' if it fails on those terms. More consumer journalism than music criticism? I'd like to say that I always try to find a way to balance both, but I'd settle for the former if pressed.

My review may not have made it onto the pages of, and is probably one of the few that didn't, but reading my assessment of this music as 'cocktail lounge entertainment' in print was all the reward I needed!!!

All Alone

As Time Goes By; In A Sentimental Mood; Warm Valley; All Alone; They Say It’s Wonderful; Don’t Explain; Toshiko; The Sheikh; Bill’s Beauty; The Quilt; Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress Then Blue Silk; Too Young To Go Steady.

Jessica Williams (p)
Recorded August 2002.

Few people seem to have been recording as many solo piano records as Jessica Williams. For a pianist to step out without the security of a rhythm section to comfort and cajole is something that requires confidence. For the likes of Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor, going solo recognises the difficulty, even the futility, of other people entering into their unique and utterly overwhelming sound-worlds. Despite her style being far more introverted, a certain amount of this applies to Williams too. She remarks in the short notes accompanying the CD that she regards herself as a musician before a pianist, and that she plays solo to allow her music to flow unimpeded. The tunes turn out to be the real star of the disc, however, simply because there is so little interpretation from Williams to be found.

‘All Alone’ presents four of her better known originals alongside a careful selection of standards, and works by Ellington and Mingus. Only ‘Warm Valley’ breaches the six minute mark, the remainder being too short for any sustained exploration or development (given that she’s no Art Tatum). What Wiliams does extremely well is to play with an exquisite touch, a rich harmonic palette and a refined sense of taste that is un-jarring. It is in her much-reprised originals, ‘Toshiko’, ‘The Sheikh’ and ‘The Quilt’ that she comes closest to getting under the skin of the material, or achieve the unimpeded flow she seeks. Elsewhere, however, the manner of her playing is sadly closer to cocktail-lounge entertainment than a jazz club or concert hall experience - pleasant, but demanding no real attention from the listener.

Those unconvinced of her talents will find nothing here to change their minds. For others, perhaps already owning several of her previous solo outings, the sumptuous sound of Brooklyn’s Systems Two studio and the choice of material should justify ‘All Alone’ entering your collection as a worthy consolidation and summation of earlier efforts.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, April 2003)

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Net closing on Puerto cheats?

The Spanish judge dealing with the compelling and sometimes bizarre evidence of the systematic doping of a long list of prominent sportsmen, including almost inevitably many cyclists, may have decided that the evidence was insufficient to warrant further examination, but the Operacion Puerto affair continues to send shockwaves around the world of professional cycling.

Jan Ullrich is the only big name client of Dr Eufemiano to have lost his livelihood as a result of Puerto. I suspect that this may be partly the result of declining motivation on the German’s part, though he also has the dubious distinction of being the only rider so far to be forensically linked to specific blood bags.

Many Spanish riders, including Paco Mancebo and Oscar Sevilla, have stepped down a division though still race as professionals, and it is widely believed that they may be on borrowed time as the countdown to a more thorough re-examination of the evidence continues. The Prosecutor’s appeal against the judge’s decision is due to be heard on the eve of this year’s Tour De France, and already we are seeing signs that the sport is preparing itself for the horrible truths that may yet be unleashed.

The latest development came on Friday of last week, and it is one that has massive implications for Italian rider, and heir to Lance Armstrong’s throne, Ivan Basso. Christian Prudhomme, chief of the body (ASO) that organises and selects the teams and riders for many top Pro Tour races including the Tour De France, announced that any rider implicated by Puerto would not be welcome at this year’s Tour.

Perhaps mindful of the need to avoid a re-run of last year’s Landis debacle – incredibly we still don’t actually know who the winner of the race is – Prudhomme is keen to tread cautiously. Basso would almost certainly have won the Tour last year, and I suspect that despite not showing much form so far this season would, by virtue of his undoubted class on a bike, have been the favourite for the 2007 edition.

Whilst I’m all for atonement and second chances in life, Basso’s own response to Puerto doesn’t elicit much sympathy. Surrounding himself with a stonewall of denials, and a legal team not seen since the days of Tyler Hamilton, Basso has steadfastly refused to take the DNA test that would clear his name.

In Prudhomme’s view the positive identification of Ullrich’s blood ‘changes the matter’, casting new doubts on the denials of others named in the affair. Possibly the most powerful man in cycling, given the nature of the races he oversees, Prudhomme is to be congratulated for his bold stance in moving towards a more ethical sport. Contrast his positive lead to the prevarication of the UCI’s Pat McQuaid, and you’ve got to conclude he may be the most ethical big hitter in the sport too. Those who thought we’d heard the last of Puerto might well have another think coming.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

New start for T Mobile?

Since the days of Chris Boardman, there haven’t been many red latter days for home grown professional road racers. Who can forget the David Millar affair, stripped of a world time trial title after admitting the use of banned blood doping products? Millar is now on the road to full rehabilitation, of both career and reputation, in Spanish team Saunier Duval. The gutsy Roger Hammond (T Mobile) has also brought a few smiles, recently finishing second in the major Spring Classic of Gent-Wevelgem.

There is however an even more exciting prospect on the horizon – 21 year old Mark Cavendish (T Mobile), from the Isle of Man, yesterday scored his first victory as a professional rider. Confirming the talent that made him a World Champion on the track, the Manx powerhouse was first to cross the line first at the Schelderprijs Vlanderen in Belgium. The roll call of past winners of this race is impressive, confirming its status as a major ‘semi classic’. Surprising many in a race that is normally dominated by older, wilier, riders, he can be assured of ‘marked man’ status from this point onwards.

Nobody familiar with his riding should doubt his strength and power. I recall racing against him in his amateur days, flailing off the back as he destroyed a field of senior riders while still a junior. This victory merely confirms that talent. So many riders have been dominant on the amateur scene without being able to translate that form to the pro ranks, but Cavendish is showing that he’ll make the leap with ease, showing all the necessary ‘road craft’ to convert form into victories.

Another pleasing aspect to the victory is the vindication it gives to his team, T Mobile. In the aftermath of the Jan Ullrich affair, one of the biggest scandals to hit the sport in recent years, the team completely overhauled its ethical policies and implemented one of the most rigorous rider testing programmes in the Pro Tour. This victory not only confirms the arrival of a new talent in the upper echelons of the sport, but also a talent that can be believed in.

The question inevitably being asked is just how far can Cavendish go? Clearly a strong sprinter, to beat the likes of Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel over 197km of fast racing, all at the tender age of just 21, is no mean feat. He’s already aiming to return to the track for next year’s Olympics, but sees his future more generally as being very much on the road. He should do well in the races normally dominated by sprinters, and even if he doesn’t develop the extraordinary physique to be an all-rounder in contention for the GC at the major tours, points jersies should be well within his reach.

With such raw talent and such an instinct for victory, he should give us many more reasons to be cheerful as his career unfolds. And best of all, this really may be the start of a cleaner new era for the sport.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Roubaix triumph...

I don't really wish to blow my own trumpet about the accuracy of my prediction for the outcome of Paris-Roubaix, so I'll let this report from the Eurosport website do it for me!

"Former track star Stuart O'Grady claimed the biggest road victory of his career on Roubaix's velodrome becoming the first Australian to win the Paris-Roubaix classic.

The former Olympic and world champion on the track stunned the race favourites, counter-attacking with 24 kilometres left to ride after his chase group caught race-leading duo Kevin Van Impe and David Kopp.

The 33-year-old O'Grady then took a solo victory on the last of the 28 cobbled sectors in the 259-kilometre long Hell of the North, barely able to withhold his emotions as he entered the velodrome and got off of his bike after crossing the line in victory.

Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) beat former Tour of Flanders victor Steffen Wesemann for second-place in a final sprint, as race favourite and 2005 winner Tom Boonen was relegated to sixth.

O'Grady succeeds CSC team-mate Fabian Cancellara, last year's winner, as the Paris-Roubaix champion.

After Cancellara and the retiring Danish CSC rider Lars Michaelsen crossed the line together in the second chase group, the two men embraced their victorious team-mate in the finish area and Michaelsen broke into tears."

That's enough cycling for now, and once I finish the batch of reviews I'm currently working flat-out on, more jazz will follow...

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Hell of the North...

One of the most epic sporting events in the calendar takes place this Sunday: the Paris-Roubaix one day Spring Classic. The race is the stuff of legend, and only the hardest of pro-cycling's hard men can ever hope to excel there. It takes a special type of rider to tame the many sections of cobbled farm track, and fear of falling as the bike's skinny tyres race at speeds of over 30 mph on the dirty, slippery surfaces can destroy a rider.

Nicknamed 'Hell of The North', the race takes place in Northern France. To the cycling congnoscenti it assumes the same significance as the more famous Tour de France. Undoubtedly the queen of single day races, I'd normally be out riding on the Sunday of the race, returning to slump in front of the TV as I watch the action unfold. This year however I don't even know whether I'll get to see te race, as my TV satellite receiver has stopped working. I'll be hoping for more of the live video streaming on the Eurosport web site, which served me well for last Sunday's Tour of Flanders.

So who is going to win? Well, last year Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara gave a display of such power that he looked a certainty to dominate the race for many years to come. He was quiet last Sunday in Flanders, as was Belgian favorite Tom Boonen, who showed a disappointing lack of form in his home race. The man of the moment has to be Italian Alessandro Ballan, but can he hold his form for an extra week? Leif Hoste was very close to his wheel, and could easily put up a strong showing. It's sure to be a strong 'sprinter deluxe', and even Oscar Friere or Britain's Roger Hammond, who both placed well in Ghent-Wevelgem yesterday, are in with a chance.

My own feeling is that it will be a rider from the CSC team who will be first across the line in the venerable Roubaix velodrome. The team work towards their goals like none since Lance Armstrong's seven times Tour De France winning machine, and director Bjarne Riis brings rider preparation to new levels. If it isn't a back-to-back win for Cancellara, watch out for Stuart O'Grady, or Karsten Kroon, who give Riis an enviable range of options...

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Point of Departure II

I've been pleased by the reaction to the holiday photos I posted earlier in the week. I admit that not many of them are what you'd call typical tourist views, but I definitely see myself as a 'point and shoot' snapper, using a good but basic compact camera and very little technique.

At one time I dabbled with 35mm, darkrooming and black & white. At least in my own mind I thought I knew exactly what to expect from every possible aperture and shutter speed setting. With more technique no doubt I could do better, but I do think that I have a basically good eye for a striking image.

Thoughts of the great and inspiring time I recently spent in South Africa remain fresh in my mind, so here are a few more to finish off the series...

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Unsolicited Music Ensemble...

Anybody who knows me well will be aware of my waning tolerance for old school 'bubble & squeak' improvised music. At times my antipathy has unfortuantely resembled a crusade, but these days I'm more relaxed, rarely giving the music much thought unless I absolutely have to.

This review was one such occasion, stretching my policy of seeing the music from the perspective of the intended listener to the limits. The music was execerable, but I've got to say that 'Exploding Customer' and 'The Sound of Mucus' are two of the finest band names I've heard for a long long time.

Before anybody asks, I think that I have a good grasp of what this music is all about, having dabbled as both a player and promoter. I'd even go as far as to say that this insight is probably the reason why I now dislike this music so much. Comments in defence of improv are, however, always welcome here...


Fjarilsamarylis; Capsules; Mandelbrot And Julia; Small Edison Screw; Onion Shallot; Garlic Chive; Macablitz; Bongardia; Chrysogonum.

Martin Kochen (ss, bs); Tony Wren (b); Raymond Strid (d, perc). Recorded 2/02.

Unsolicited Music Ensemble are a newish aggregate, comprising three generations of European free improvisation. Bassist Tony Wren has the longest CV, notable associates including Howard Riley and Phil Wachsmann. Swedish percussionist Raymond Strid has become established via high profile work with Marilyn Crispell and Mats Gustafsson, whilst reedsman Kochen is the youngster in the fold, his work with 'Exploding Customer' and 'The Sound of Mucus' only breaking out of Scandinavia relatively recently.

The pieces on Bulbs were all recorded live during a short Swedish tour in February 2002, and save for a rogue reference to a light bulb, optimistically carry titles that bring images of green shoots to mind. Whether or not improv belongs on the pages of a magazine like Jazz Review is a vexed question that needs to be addressed, especially at a time when manifesto statements are creating interest on these pages. Given the music’s history of antagonism towards (and reaction against) jazz, I’d argue that its most aimless and self-indulgent aspects have caused real harm (by mistaken association) to the reputation of free-jazz, thus setting back proper appreciation of the great music of the 1960s by many years.

The UME illustrate the problem perfectly. Their instrumentation is that of classic free-jazz, yet the sounds are of the fabled ‘farmyard & pondlife’ variety. This is a most rarefied and uncommunicative soundworld. UME do of course achieve moments of cohesion which make the wasteful longeurs seem momentarily worthwhile, but after almost an hour of unvariegated scraping on de-tuned double bass, strangulated reed noise, and small percussive gestures (with occasional outbursts of violence), are a few fleeting glimpses of something better really sufficient reward for your patience?

UME are a tightly controlled and close-listening collective who nimbly shadow one another’s albeit limited moves. The dynamic range of the music is limited, as is any sense development in the music, but the recording quality is clean and betrays no signs of having been recorded in three separate venues. Whilst UME won’t illuminate any new corners for devotees of this increasingly stilted sounding genre, certainty is what ultimately draws us to our favourite musical areas. If you like your improvisation hard boiled and austere, Bulbs will not disappoint.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, March 2003)

Erik Truffaz...

A recurring theme in Jazz Review a couple of years ago was 'NuJazz'. The editorial stance was very much anti, and that often sat uncomfortably with me, being partial as I was to some of the exciting sounds this sub-genre could offer.

A dull record is a dull record regardless of genre however, and I found myself struggling to really like this effort by Truffaz...

BLUE NOTE (563576)

Saloua; Big Wheel; Whispering; Yabous; Gedech; Dubaphone; Ines; Tantrik; Ghost Drummer; Le Soleil D’Eline; Spirale; Et La Vie Continue.

Erik Truffaz (t, elec); Manu Codija (g, elec); Michel Benita (b, elec); Phillipe Pion Garcia (d, elec); Mounir Troudi Nya (v).
Recorded September 2004.

This isn’t the place for a written response to our editor’s recent critique of Nujazz, and I’m not entirely sure I’d want to make a robust defence of this rather patchy sub-genre even if it were, but Erik Truffaz is one musician associated with the style that I have lots of time for. Early Blue Note discs such as ‘The Mask’, ‘The Dawn’ and ‘Bending New Corners’ pitted his formidable Miles-ian chops against a Rhodes textured backdrop that bristled with the excitement of the emergent drum’n’bass scene. The groups stripped down grooves and rapper Nya’s vocals no doubt suggested to some critics that this couldn’t be real jazz, but shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the pretty uncompromising straight-ahead playing that the trumpeter and pianist Patrick Muller laid down.

That early promise seemed to dissipate in 2001 with ‘Mantis’ and then the slightly bombastic fusion of ‘Walk Of The Giant Turtle’, but now Truffaz is back and taking a further new direction with ‘Saloua’. Moving closer to the more electric conception of Nujazz shared by Molvaer and Wesseltoft, the new disc also takes a detour into Dhaffer Youssef and Magic Malik territories to bring some new ethnic spice. From the outset Arab/North African influences are keenly felt - part topical and part historical I’d guess, given French interest and influence in these cultures. Nya makes his return on ‘Big Wheel’, closer to Dub/Reggae than anything than anything Truffaz has hitherto been noted for, and his lyrics lack none of the old existential dread. ‘Dubaphone’ takes the style even further into post-Laswell waters, whilst ‘Ghost Drummer’ repeats the rock-tinged mistakes of ‘Giant Turtles’, guitarist Manu Codija sounding uncomfortably close to Eivind Aarset’s sound most of the time, and providing a far less satisfactory sparring partner for Truffaz than Muller.

Heavy use of samples on mood pieces such as ‘Whispering’ take things even further from the fundamentally acoustic music of those earlier discs, but whenever Truffaz plays his horn the lineage is pretty clear. If I sound slightly disappointed with ‘Saloua’ then it’s relative. This music has much to offer on its own terms, but it’s unlikely to win over Nujazz’s growing band of critics. Other than the killer groove of ‘Tantrik’, which could run all day, it also lacks the confident savvy that promised so much five years ago. Obituary notices for Erik Truffaz may nevertheless be premature.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, June 2005)

Henri Texier...

This one is for Gregg Brennan, Canadian drummer/bandleader, with whom I often exchange thoughts on Eurojazz. A major influence on his style, Texier is a very distictively European player who is little known across the Atlantic.

We both agree that the strings rarely add much to this session, and I take that as a sign that I haven't missed the point entirely in my review. Feel free to leave comments and disagree!!

Strings’ Spirit

Armoire Dog; Tonic Tony; Serious Seb; Glenn The Space; Dezarwa (For A.T.); B.Z. The Bee; Colonel Skopje; Sacrifice; Barth’s Groove; Big Phil; Charles Le Bon.

Glenn Ferris (tb); Sebastien Texier (as, cl); Bojan Z (p); Henri Texier (b); Tony Rabeson (d); L’Orchestra De Bretagne with Claude Barthelmy (arr).
Recorded April 2002.

Many prominent jazz artists, from Charlie Parker through to Ornette Coleman and Joe Lovano, have made records with ‘strings’. Suspicions often abound that it is simply a bid to establish for jazz some serious credentials in high-brow circles. When it works the strings enhance the mood, colouration and texture, making new musical vistas assessable. When it fails we either get pseudo-classical noodling or an appendage that appears as a crudely bolted on afterthought. Anybody who read Martin Longley’s informative piece in Jazz Review 39 (which described the making of this album) will realise that Texier is aiming for something far more integrated and worked-through than the latter.

This sumptuously packaged set (with a booklet of photographs by Magnum artist Guy Le Querec) has the trimmings marking a special event, but how does the musical realisation of Texier’s longstanding dream sound? Building on the already sound foundations of the Azur Quintet, his most stable unit, and inviting his long-time associate (and improvising guitarist) Claude Barthelmy to arrange the strings, would both seem to be shrewd moves. The disc starts well: a short Stravinskian intro which segues into a crisp military tattoo from Rabeson’s snare, before the quintet launch headlong into the boppish ‘Tonic Tony’. Yet after several complete listens, I can’t help feeling that the music would be at least as strong without the orchestra. That’s not to say that Texier and Barthelmy have botched the job - more that the job itself is one of debatable value. True, there are times when the strings do add a lushness which subtly enhances the romantic hues of Texier’s writing (‘Serious Seb’ for instance). But equally there are many moments when the strings are an intrusive presence, rather like a circling bluebottle that you just can’t quite manage to swat (‘Dezarwa (For A.T.)’ is particularly so).

Fortunately the exuberance of the quintet’s soloists and Texier’s catchy melodic hooks and deep harmonic pools save the day. The funky lope that is ‘Glenn The Space’, which, other than Henri and Bojan Z, features no strings at all, is for me the standout track. Ferris’ subtly deployed multiphonics are perfectly assimilated into his style, and utterly distinctive. The sudden re-emergence of the orchestra on the following piece seems somehow cheesy - rather like watching ‘Guys And Dolls’ straight after a classic hard boiled film noir.

Disc Two pays an interesting return visit to Texier’s warhorse ‘Colonel Skopje’, and the formal stiffness loosens sufficiently on ‘Sacrifice’ to allow Texier Jnr. to blow some visceral ‘outside’ alto. Probably unintentionally, the project ended up reminding me of just what Texier does best. A group with soloists as compelling as Ferris and Zulficarpasic needs no adornment. An interesting chapter in the career of on of Eurojazz’s most distinguished standard bearers, and the meticulously crafted ‘Strings’ Spirit’ is not a failure despite my reservations.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, January 2003)

Monday, 9 April 2007

Metheny & Mehldau...

As I'm listening to the follow-up to this album at the moment, courtesy of Rob, now seems a good time to post this review.

I initially approached the CD with some caution, knowing very little of Mehldau other than his gigantic reputation, and seeing Metheny as a bit of a mixed bag at best. I was won over by their sheer artistry in no time.

Thanks to my man in Canada, Gregg Brennan, who sent me the complete Mehldau discography, I've since gone on to enjoy much more of the pianist's tasteful work. As for Metheny, was he ever better than on 'Bright Size Life' (1976)?

Metheny Mehldau
Nonesuch (79964-2)

Unrequited; Ahmid-6; Summer Day; Ring Of Life; Legend; Find Me In Your Dreams; Say The Brother's Name; Bachelor's III; Annie's Bittersweet Cake; Make Peace.

Pat Metheny (g); Brad Mehldau (p); plus on tracks 4 and 7 Larry Grenadier (b); Jeff Ballard (d).
Recorded December 2005.

The rise of Brad Mehldau largely passed me by, perhaps because piano isn't my favourite instrument. Over the last eighteen months I've had increasing exposure to his work, and can now say I'm as impressed by his utterly compelling voice as the next man. Pat Metheny is more problematic however, and I've never really had much affinity with his centreless tendencies, veering between aural slush and harsh noise. That said, I can think of a handful of Metheny recordings I wouldn't be without, and happily for the task in hand, this is one of them.

'Metheny Mehldau' shares much with Bill Evans and Jim Hall's classic 'Undercurrents' (Blue Note), a rare occasion when the guitar/piano duo transcends a potentially awkward instrumental pairing. Opening with 'Unrequited', an wistful pastel piece infused with melancholia, it's clear neither man is here to grandstand, and both are immersed in a concentrated dialogue. The more upbeat 'Ahmid-6' would have made a more obvious opener, and Metheny is particularly fleet of finger on this piece. Yet this is not a collaboration that seeks instant listener gratification, unless studied introspection is your bag. Two tracks with Mehldau's trio release some of the tension of the duos and suggest natural possibilities for a more extrovert follow-up. 'Ring of Life' has a thrilling Mehldau solo, which is followed by a slab of the tortured Metheny guitar-synth I so dislike, and miraculously not even this taste-lapse can tarnish the disc's integrity.

To my ears the best music of the collaboration are the three pieces which follow the second quartet track, 'Say The Brother's Name'. 'Bachelor's III' has soul-jazz roots, whilst 'Annie's Bittersweet Cake' takes a walk through a lush harmonic colour-field. The closing 'Make Peace', a rhapsodic minor blues variation, has some of Mehldau's most inventive playing of the date, his effortless control of dynamics echoing Jarrett at his best, and sealing it as the choice cut. There's no doubt that 'Metheny Mehldau' will be a top-seller, and even if I disliked it few people would be dissuaded from buying it. Perhaps not a disc for every mood, but as an example of simpatico dialogue and intuitive musical understanding, this is a disc I can endorse with true conviction.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2006)


I often think about some of the questions raised in this review. Innovation - is it the be all and end all? No doubt Mangelsdorff was a true original, but does his playing actually sound any good?

This review forced me to re-evaluate him, and although I can think of more pleasant sounds on the trombone and probably prefer acolyte Konrad Bauer, I was pleased to conclude that whatever else Mangelsdorff may be, he's not Paul Rutherford...


Triplicity; Soulbird; Warbling Warbler; Outhouse; Virgin Green of Spring; Green Shading Into Blue; Subconscious Skylark; Brief Impressions of Brighton; Perpetual Lineations; Ancore Ex Tempore.

Albert Mangelsdorff (tb); Arild Andersen (b); Pierre Favre (d), (April 1979).

A true original, the passing of German trombone innovator Albert Mangelsdorff last year, aged 76, raises some interesting questions about how history might treat is legacy. Mangelsdorff’s style was very personal, and his particular innovation, trombone multiphonics, not particularly influential. Perhaps he could never be on to a winner by making an already unfashionable instrument even less sexy. His curate’s egg-like status perhaps explains why such a brilliant recording as this could sit in the vaults for over a quarter of a century.

Triplicity is a live recording made by North German Radio station NDR in Hamburg in 1979. Mangelsdorff is joined by Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen and Swiss drummer Pierre Favre, and from the opening title track, complete with melodic hook, chordal growls and swing-time feel, we’re treated to a session that ranks with Mangelsdorff’s very best work. “Soulbird” offers another of his trademarks, the didgeridoo-like drone, before a dialogue with nimble fingered Andersen develops. Favre’s familiar colouristic splashes work well on the floating ballads, and on the 14 minute “Warbling Warbler” he plays the gamut of free jazz percussion, from fine filigree detailing to floating swing. “Outhouse” is a typically Mangelsdorff-ian skewed freebop head that fairly rocks, whilst “Green Shading Into Blue” opens with an effects enhanced bass intro, fairly typical the late 1970s, before a fine slow burning funk piece emerges. “Subconscious Skylark” keeps up the ornithological theme, the trio heading towards near combustion, whilst “Brief Impressions of Brighton” which follows is an object lesson in his multiphonic techniques.

For all his daring embrace of open forms, Mangelsdorff always clung determinedly to his grounding in the jazz tradition, and should never be confused with the more dogmatic improvising scene that British trombone innovator Paul Rutherford represents. At times this music can be knotty, but to paraphrase Albert, there’s always a jazz tune, he hopes. Sound quality is immaculate, and with so little of Mangelsdorff’s work currently available following the virtual disappearance of the “Three Originals” collections (MPS), this superb release is particularly welcome. As fitting an epitaph as you could wish for a man who stood alone for so long and simply played what he heard.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2006)


I always liked this trio, even if their repertoire was a bit limited and recycled seemingly endlessly. They were a soft route in to free jazz, bending and stretching structures and forms, generating excitement over long durations. In hindsight their music was truly exciting European Jazz, and given the music's origins in the difficult conditions found in the pre-Perestroika Soviet Union it had a poignant edge too. Some of the magic had gone by the time they made this recording, but this is still a cut above the average I hear today, and Tarasov remains a vastly under-rated drummer.

On a personal note, I was also pleased to see a small quote from the review was used by Leo Records in an advertisement placed in The Wire magazine...

15-Year Reunion

15-year Reunion; Umtza-Umtza.

Vyacheslav Ganelin (ky); Vladimir Chekasin (as, ts, v); Vladimir Tarasov (d).
Recorded 10/02.

If the next Ganelin Trio reunion is not for another 15 years, we Brits may well be voting for the same President of an enlarged European Union as the people of Vilnius, so fast is the pace of history these days. Pre-Perestroika of course this trio symbolised a dangerous Soviet avant-garde, their music only ever escaping the ‘Iron Curtain’ by the most clandestine of methods, and the enterprise of Leo Feigin, who set up his eponymous record label to present their music to the West. It is therefore only fitting that the re-union should also be released by Leo.

Recorded last year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, there is barley 40 minutes worth of music, though somehow it seems to have a greater impact than older works by the Trio precisely because of this brevity. Feigin declares in his liner notes that the room was so poor acoustically that he didn’t insist on an encore because he thought that the recording would be completely unusable. Surely any kind of encore would have been welcome regardless of the concerns of a potential record producer, given the 15 year silence? As it happens, the sound quality is actually better than many of the discs by the trio that he’s released in the past, and their music remains fresh, though largely unchanged.

The main (untitled) piece is a tightly structured suite-like improvisation, seemingly looser than it actually is, with the spotlight falling on each musician in turn. As close-knit a unit as ever, the sheer joy of making music still transcends any extra-musical factors in this trio’s appeal. There are, however, a few gripes. Ganelin’s synthesiser settings sound a tad dated, though thankfully the focus is mainly on his piano. I also sense that the music is a bit more static and lacking in humour than it used to be, possibly the result of playing less frequently together and simply being older and more experienced. ‘Reunion’ is recommended to anybody curious about what became of one of the most significant non-American jazz groups ever . It would also be a good place for Ganelin initiates to start on a rewarding journey in reverse back to ‘Catalogue: Live In East Germany’, the truly classic recording that started it all some 25 years ago.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, December 2003)

Point Of Departure

Well, here it is. My first blog. The intention is to share things, be it reviews I've written for magazines, soundfiles that excite me (if I'm brave enough to risk having my page closed down!!), photographs I've taken, thoughts on questions that matter, and predictions for this year's Tour De France...

Sound too eclectic? It probably is, but hopefully there's something for everybody who knows me, or gets to know me. I don't know where this will go or how long it will last, but as long as I enjoy doing it then it will continue.

The main focus will almost certainly be jazz, and the CDs I've reviewed and had published elsewhere. Not everybody will have access to the original magazines, some buried in the depths of time, so it strikes me as a good use of the web. I may even go back to the 'Avant' and 'Rubberneck' days and unearth my earliest and clumsiest attempts at musical journalism. Even if only a handful of people ever read this blog, I get an archive for my own use, so what's to lose?

I absolutely love disagreement, so feel free to tell me where I've gone wrong or missed the point. Too much jazz criticism is tame and blinkered. Although I try always to judge a CD from the perspective of the audience it is aimed at, I'm not frightened to throw in ideas from leftfield.

There's no jazz in this first posting, other than in the name of the blog, which is taken from the classic Garbarek/Rypdal session that still defines much of my listening. Oh, and there's also a photograph taken in a Cape Town jazz club further down the page.

I'm sure a more structured pattern to the blog will emerge, so bear with me. To keep this first post from being too dull, and to share with my friends, photographs from my recent travels to South Africa are included.

Enjoy, suscribe, feed back....