Monday, 28 May 2007

Tourism begins at home (Part II)...

Inspired as always by the infuriating Jonathon Meades, you can't beat a bit of 'abroad at home' to see your environment differently. I hope you find something to enjoy here...

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Bjarne Riis admits to doping...

While CSC Team boss Bjarne Riis must be inwardly satisfied at watching his latest young talent Andy Schleck put in a handy ride at this year’s Giro D’Italia, he almost certainly has other things on his mind. At an extraordinary press conference at team CSC HQ on Friday, Riis confessed to the use of EPO, cortisone and human growth hormone between the years 1993 and 1998. Not the kind of news cycling needed, even if many are not surprised by it, but the most furrowed brow in cycling may well be able to relax a little more in future as a result of his public confessions.

The press conference was by all accounts shocking for its plain matter of fact account of this sordid process, but amongst all of the sleaze Riis emerged passionate in his hopes for a brighter future for the sport he has loved since the earliest days of his youth. "The time has come to put the cards on the table," said Riis. "I have done things which I now regret and which I wouldn't do again. I have doped. I have taken EPO. For a while, it was part if my everyday life”. After years of sniggering at his expense by the Danish press, the man who’s haematocrit level led him to be dubbed ‘Mr Sixty Percent’ finally retracted his previous ‘I have never tested positive’ line of defence and faced the music.

Riis was keen to emphasise that he bought and injected the EPO himself, and stressed that his statement was from Riis as a private citizen, not as the manager of one of the most successful Pro Tour teams. Perhaps he wished to protect former Team Telekom team-mates from suspicion, though recent revelations about German doctors Heinrich and Schmid look set to blow the lid further off that particular can of worms. Erik Zabel has already admitted to trying the substance once, not pursuing it because of the side-effects, and Rolf Aldag admitted using EPO the day before Riis. Jan Ullrich is already no stranger to doping allegations, and a cynic may wonder whether Riis wanted to act before his hand was forced, in much the same way that Ivan Basso recently responded to the CONI investigations.

With no other sanction available to use against an ex-pro, the UCI asked for Riis to return his 1996 Tour De France yellow jersey. Riis said that it is in a box in his garage at home and he invited them to collect it. Riis’ observation that back then he had little choice if he wanted to be competitive in a very dirty sport has some powerful resonances, and to an extent mitigates his actions. If so many riders had the same unfair advantages, is Riis’ achievement nullified? He clearly regrets his actions and has visibly lived a tortured eleven years during which only his family and closest friends have known his secrets. By coming clean there is just a glimmer of a chance that he can draw a line under the affair, giving the positive example to the current generation that he now hopes for.

I’m sad that another hero has fallen by the wayside. Riis is a quiet and intelligent man, committed to this sport to such an extent that he often uses his own money to pay his team’s wages when times are hard. For now he retains his sponsor’s backing and it is evident that he truly believes that things are different in today’s cycling. No doubt many fans will be more sceptical, and there will almost certainly be more setbacks along the way. Floyd Landis looks set to be the next yellow jersey to bite the dust, and in the current climate the tales of the Brothers Grimm may look more believable to some observers than the Armstrong years. Despite everything this sport is too marvellous to implode in its own sleaze, and somewhat ironically Riis may be just the kind of man to usher in the new era that can save it.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Tourism begins at home...

Is the North East of England really a parochial backwater? You bet it is, but it can also be a warm and interesting place too. Here's some pictures taken last week...

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Basso stuns cycling with 10-page doping confession...

With so much already written about the Ivan Basso saga, it only seems right to take stock of the sensational recent developments in the case and to ask the question, ‘what next?’ Events have moved quickly, quicker than many would have predicted. Within a week of parting company with the Discovery Channel team and returning to Italy to face an enquiry by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), Basso stunned the world of cycling by admitting his guilt.

To Basso the motivation behind his 10-page signed confession was clear. ‘I needed to liberate myself of the weight’, he told La Gazetta Dello Sport. Many will say that Basso’s hand was forced by the inevitable outcome of any DNA tests ordered by CONI, and that he tried to get away with things for as long as he could in the hope that he’d escape on a legal technicality. It’s fair to say that some of his confession doesn’t quite ring true. His remorse seems to be genuine, and is certainly very public, yet he states that the blood given in Madrid was never actually transfused. Is he simply trying to protect his past triumphs against the probing finger of suspicion? He also states that he wishes he’d confessed it all in June 2006, right after his victory in the Giro D’Italia. Why wait eleven months and issue so many vehement denials in the meantime if this is so? Why such an apparently burning desire to come clean if he’d never actually used his stored blood illegally? The list of questions that could be asked of the rider is seemingly endless.

Almost inevitably his huge fan club will applaud Basso’s soul-searching honesty, and hope that he can find his atonement, returning to the pro-peleton much like David Millar once his suspension is served. Certainly at his age, still only 29, a return would not be out of the question. He now misses all possibility of dominating the Grand Tours until his retirement as Armstrong did, and will never join the exclusive club of five times Tour De France winners as once looked so likely. Perhaps for a rider of Basso’s potential this is punishment enough?

There will no doubt be a sizeable faction that says Basso should never be allowed to return at all. Recently his old boss at CSC, Bjarne Riis, has been very critical of the Italian. Yesterday, however, Riis was more conciliatory, quoted in the Danish press as saying that he’d welcome a Basso comeback, and that he was full of regret that the rider’s ‘foolishness’ has robbed us of the spectacle of seeing the rider realise his full potential. A cynic would probe Riis’ words closely, reminding him that he was never himself completely above suspicion, but on the face of things I find it hard to disagree with his measured response.

Basso has always been a good ambassador for the sport, and a high profile ‘reformed character’ to lead the crusade against doping surely can’t do too much harm. To condemn Basso utterly is to be na├»ve about cycling’s doping culture. His predicament is, sadly, nothing new for this sport, but if he is willing to come back, race clean, and be competitive, he could be just the positive symbol the sport needs as it licks its wounds and tries to rebuild its image.

He now plans to holiday with his family to find ‘serenity’, and will then return home to focus once more on his bike. I feel certain that we haven’t heard the last of Ivan Basso, and hope that justice can be swift so that the sport can move on from this dreadful phase. Out of adversity and into greatness? We can all hope.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Al Di Meola...

This one is for Gregg, who helped me to tackle a truly awful assignment with a fair amount of humour! Sometimes all I need is a way in to an album, and the rest of the review seems to follow. Finding any sort of a 'way in' to this particular review troubled me for nearly 10 days, but a throwaway remark in an email about Al inhabiting a world of rainbows and unicorns was all I needed to get me going.

I eventually managed to produce this lukewarm but (I think) fair review of the album, even turning a negative into a positive by steering people towards Terje Rypdal. I doubt that a review like this would ever stop the committed fan from buying an album, but if at least one person checked out Rypdal, who does so much more with far less, then I can be happy...

Consequence Of Chaos
TELARC 9CD-83649)

San Marco (moderna); Turquoise; Odyssey; Tao; Azucar; Sanctuary; Hypnose; Red Moon; Cry For You; Just Three Words; Tempest; Storm Off-Shore; Black Pearls; Africana Suite; San Marco (vecchio)

Al Di Meola (g, keys, perc); Chick Corea (p); Barry Miles (p, key); Mario Parmisano (p, keys); John Patitucci (b); Victor Miranda (b); Steve Gadd (d); Ernie Adams (d, perc); Gumbi Ortiz (perc); Kornel Horvath (perc).
No Recording date available.

Ever since encountering Di Meola with Return To Forever, I’ve quarantined him in a mental compartment occupied by rainbows and unicorns. You could say that I struggle to suspend disbelief and prefer my music real, but with this new release from (of all people) Telarc, I unexpectedly find myself reopening the door to that garish room. A sticker on the jewel-case tells us that Consequence Of Chaos not only boasts appearances from Chick Corea and Steve Gadd, but also marks Di Meola’s return to the solid-bodied electric guitar. From the outset, however, we hear him interweaving both acoustic and electric instruments.

The opening ‘San Marco (Moderna)’ is promising enough, a tempting portal into Di Meola’s fantasy world. As the album progresses, however, it’s soon clear that he hasn’t really added to a legacy that includes such landmarks as Elegant Gypsy (1976) and Casino (1977). The extreme vibrato of his electric guitar leads still adds a fitting degree of pomp to his grand-fusion themes, but the more interesting counterpoint is the air of Latin exotica that his acoustic instrument brings to the sound. ‘Red Moon’, featuring Corea, is a clear nod to the RTF days, and the pianist also shines on the tender duet ‘Cry For You’. Excited fans should note that these two tracks are the full extent of Corea’s involvement on the album. More typical are pieces wavering on the muzak borderline. ‘Azucar’ with it’s faux flamenco stylings, and ‘Tao’, where the leader’s electric guitar soars above some interesting progressions only to be dragged back to earth by the same homogenising synthesiser soup that swallows Patitucci’s talents, are good cases in point.

The book ending of ‘San Marco’ suggests an invisible hand at work, perhaps an aural travelogue, but any narrative implied by titling frankly fails to transfer to music which is high in production values but lacking in real drama and development. Fusion has certainly developed in some interesting ways - look at Terje Rypdal, whose continual renewal and need for self-challenge still produces outstanding work like last year’s Vossabryg (ECM). Di Meola’s latest effort, by contrast, shows a phenomenal technician lost in an ever-so-slightly stale mode of expression. Whilst some may rejoice at an apparent return to his roots, most of us can safely give this one a miss.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, March 2007)

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Miroslav Vitous...

After all of the recent cycling articles (forgive me, but it's been a very exciting time in the world of Pro Doping, err Cycling), time to get back to some jazz...

This CD by Miroslav Vitous kind of reflects how I felt about ECM a couple of years ago. Sort of bored with the sound and generally out of sympathy, but with enough underlying respect to take a meeting of these giants seriously. I'd even say it triggered something inside me that made me go back to the great days of the label, the 1970s. That's where my musical centre of gravity lies, but I can certainly appreciate and, more importantly, enjoy efforts like this....

Universal Syncopations
ECM (038605-2)

Bamboo Forest; Univoyage; Tramp Blues; Faith Run; Sun Flower; Miro Bop; Beethoven; Medium; Brazil Waves.

Wayne Bargeron (t); Valery Ponomarev (t); Isaac Smith (tb); Jan Garbarek (ss, ts); Chick Corea (p); John McLaughlin (g); Miroslav Vitous (b); Jack DeJohnette (d). Recorded 3/00 to 3/03.

ECM has established a brand identity comparable to that of Blue Note Records in its heyday. Their roster of artists is consistent, production values second to none, and the music always carefully conceived and readily identifiable in style. Within European jazz, the label has done more than any other to set standards.

On this latest release we are treated to a dream line-up of musicians whose paths have crossed frequently in the past. Both McLaughlin and DeJohnette were present on Vitous’ seminal 1969 release ‘Infinite Search’, to which this project is something of a backwards nod. Corea could easily have been there had Herbie Hancock been unavailable, though a teenage Garbarek would have made an unlikely locum for Joe Henderson. His selection seems strange even now, but the Norwegian horn-stylist’s work is undoubtedly the revelation of the disc, as he rediscovers his roots in Coltrane and Coleman through some impassioned soloing.

Because ‘Universal Syncopations’ is a more benign type of free-jazz than ‘Infinite Search’, tempered as it is with the restraining influences of age and experience, this is most definitely a post-ECM take on history. Conceived and recorded over a two year period, this is a meticulously planned project. The standout track, ‘Univoyage’, sees Garbarek’s charged solo underpinned by classic Corea incisions, Vitous’ omnidirectional comping and DeJohnette’s restless polyrhythms. McLauglin’s is a more scarcely felt presence, but his commentaries are added to a number of pieces with considerable taste. ‘Tramp Blues’ again takes Garbarek out of his conventional milieu, placing him deep in Gene Ammons territory. ‘Sunflower’ is a playful free for all where Garbarek turns Shorter-esque. Again, the telepathic interplay between the musicians is breathtaking, and however loose the rhythmic thrust becomes, a readily identifiable pulse is always there to reorient the listener.

A small horn section adds coloristic punctuation to three of the pieces, reining in the freedom enjoyed by the soloists without suffocating them. In the end this is unlikely to be an indication of any of the players’ future directions, but it is a genuinely interesting sidebar. Markers like ‘Infinite Search’ are harder to lay down these days because relatively fewer musical frontiers remain. ‘Universal Syncopations’ must succeed simply by being several notches above today’s average release, and it certainly is that.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, October 2003)

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

End of the road for Basso?

The biggest question on the lips of most Pro Tour cycling fans at the start of the 2007 season now seems to have been answered. As most of Italy cheered Danilo Di Luca’s impressive victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday, the cycling mad nation awoke to darker news on Monday. Their beloved Maglia Rosa Ivan Basso, already sidelined from the Tour de France, will now miss the Giro d’Italia, and has shocked his fans by voluntarily leaving cycling until he clears his name.

Many had expected the classy Italian rider to complete a Giro-Tour double, the first for many years. Others looked aghast at Discovery Channel’s decision to offer a rider implicated in one of the biggest doping scandals in a decade, Operacion Puerto, a place on their team. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, Basso was always set to be the season’s major story.

For Discovery boss Johan Bruyneel, the Italian’s signature last Autumn was a gamble, and a controversial one at that. Nobody doubted Basso’s ability to deliver results, but his ability to last an entire season without attracting further controversy was less certain. In the last two weeks the thread has slowly unravelled, leaving both Basso and Bruyneel to pick up the pieces after their brief encounter.

First came the news that all Puerto implicated riders, including Basso, were no longer welcome at the Tour de France. Next the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) announced last week that they were re-opening their file on Basso, inviting him to an initial hearing this Wednesday. Such distractions, virtually on the eve of his major remaining objective for the season, the Tour of Italy, were not what he’d been hoping for.

Basso was now effectively left high and dry, and it emerged yesterday that it was he who had made the request to leave Discovery. The US outfit reluctantly agreed, but it was hard to see what else they could have done. It looks like being a sad end to what could have been an illustrious career. CONI now have possession of seven bags of blood believed to belong to the rider, and are pressing him to give a DNA sample.

Even if Basso further declines to give a sample, blood from a recent random control test is available for comparison, and will be used by CONI’s investigating lawyers. The latest twists have reportedly reduced Basso to tears, and his remarks last week about ‘time bomb justice’ suggest that he knows what is coming.

A large part of me hopes that this likeable rider can clear his name. A powerful but elegant rider on the bike, he was also a credit to his profession with his gentle and courteous manner off it. Basso had the potential to be every bit as good as Lance Armstrong, but without any of the Texan’s brashness. It certainly doesn’t look good for the Italian, and the lasting damage that this whole sordid conspiracy to cheat has done to the image of an already shop-soiled sport is of grave concern. Now the question all fans should be asking is simple: “Where does cycling go from here?”.