Saturday, 30 June 2007

Surgery: a face-lift perhaps?

The observant amongst you will notice that this page has undergone a visual face-lift in the last 24 hours. I like the toned-down look, it's just less...loud.

The painting is by Sonia Delaunay and a print of it has hung in my home for over 10 years. Gone is the album art from Afric Pepperbird, but I suppose if you need to ask how the blog got it's name, you'll never know (to paraphrase Louis Armstrong - sadly a stranger to the world of blogging).

I also like the small pearl of wisdom from Voltaire. It really sums up what this page is about. In the strictest sense all of the things I write about are superfluous, but to me they are very, very necessary - the things that make life worth the effort.

I also hope from hereon to make more use of links like the one to the mass pile-up in Pinerolo, embedded in today's cycling feature. The clip somehow reminds me of my last road race. Out front in a breakaway of three riders, 20 miles to go, I slid off in wet conditions, got hideous amounts of gravel rash, jumped back on the bike, finished 6th, then went straight to hospital to get cleaned up - ouch!!

Hope you like it, and as ever, a big thanks for dropping by to look...

Tour De Sleaze...?

With the Tour De France now a mere 7 days away, the river of sleaze that runs through the sport is still breaking its banks daily. Last week I wrote about the ‘Men In Black’, and yesterday the first of this mysterious group may well have been named and shamed. Astana rider Matthias Kessler, a strong northern classics specialist who has also won a Tour De France stage, was suspended for a positive testosterone result. Kessler left T-Mobile at the end of last season with Andreas Klöden, and many wondered at the time whether or not their moves, clearly not financially driven, were more to do with avoiding the German team’s stringent new anti-doping regime. Whether or not his story is related to the M-I-B group will no doubt become clearer in time, but the omens aren’t looking good for his troubled Kazakh team.

Potentially far more damaging to the sport’s reputation is the re-emergence of the ‘Drugs for Oil’ scandal in Italy. This year’s Giro winner Danilo Di Luca, along with strong-man Eddy Mazzoleni (Astana), have been called to CONI (the Italian Olympic Federation) to explain themselves. It has to be said that so far this investigation has been spectacular in its failure to produce anything more than circumstantial evidence, but first launched in 2004 it stubbornly refuses to go away. If anything concrete emerges then the impact will certainly be enough to rock this already beleaguered sport.

If that weren’t enough, Alessandro Petacchi, probably the fastest sprinter in the world, tested positive for excessive salbutamol levels following the infamous ‘Swan Lake’ finish at this year’s Giro D’Italia in Pinerolo. Riders slid and crashed across the finish line with choreographed and balletic grace, and the stage was one of five that Petacchi won in total. Salbutamol is widely known as an asthma treatment, and the rider has openly declared his use of the treatment, holding a Therapeutic Exemption Certificate. Exceeding the limits is clearly considered to be something that would enhance performance, though from a lay perspective there seems to be a world of difference between innocently taking a few inhaler puffs too many and allowing your body to undergo a blood transfusion. Nevertheless, gaining illegal advantage from a banned product is a serious matter. He has been suspended until further notice by his team and may miss the Tour. Erik Zabel now looks set to spearhead the Milram charge, and Boonen, Hushovd and McEwen must be licking their lips.

Finally, we get to the coup de grace. German rider Jörg Jaksche announced on Friday that he’ll hold a press conference on Monday and blow the lid on not only his own, but the wider use of doping products in professional cycling. Currently with Russian team Tinkoff Credit Systems, home to more than a few riders with shady pasts, Jaksche is suspended by not only his team but his National Federation has also refused him entry to the German national Road Race Championships. He was one of the riders netted in last year’s Operacion Puerto, and according to the statement by his lawyer he’ll hold nothing back, even going as far as naming names.

If he has something to say than I’d be happier if he just said it without the dramatic build-up, leaving no time for him to change his mind or have his silence bought by those with most to lose. I wonder whether he’s not simply spitting his dummy and hoping to cut some kind of deal to save his career in the face of pretty limited prospects.

Monday should prove to be another interesting day for cycling, and I’m leaving my predictions for who will win this year’s Tour right until the last possible moment. That way I should at least know who is likely to make it to the start line this time next week!!

Friday, 29 June 2007

Mark Feldman...

OK, time for the full version of my review of that Mark Feldman CD, now known to be available in an abridged form on the ECM web-site!!

Not much needs to be said - this is a fine piece of work and there is no subtext of disapproval to be found anywhere. Austere and at times uninviting, it rewards anybody patient enough to step through the walls of it's long, trompe l'oeil opener. I always wanted to use that phrase in a review, and I'll probably never get a better opportunity than I did here!!

If anybody has a favourite phrase that they'd like to see included in a future review, feel free to drop me a line...

What Exit
(ECM 1928)

Arcade; Father Demo Square; Everafter; Ink Pin; Elegy; Maria Nunes; Cadence; What Exit.

Mark Feldman (vn); John Taylor (p); Anders Jormin (b); Tom Rainey (d).
Recorded 2005.

A few years ago I’d have found it unimaginable that violinist Mark Feldman could be a leader of an ECM recording session. With roots in Nashville, via New York’s ‘Downtown’ scene (he’s still a regular in John Zorn’s Masada String Trio), Bill Frisell is his nearest antecedent at the label. In today’s jazz however, lines are less rigidly drawn, and the violinist, who was always more of a Stefan Winter man in my book, has already amassed a small body of work for Manfred Eicher as a sideman with both John Abercrombie and Sylvie Courvoisier.

For the occasion of his ECM leadership debut, an intriguing transatlantic quartet was assembled. Swedish bassist Anders Jormin joins English pianist John Taylor and Feldman’s former Chromatic Persuaders colleague Tom Rainey, is the wild-card on drums. Sometimes spiky and at others impressionistic, often atonal yet in places unashamedly melodic, the music of What Exit is shaped to a large degree by the characters involved in its making.

The long opener ‘Arcade’, some 22 minutes in length, is a vast trompe l’oeil statement, and a far from obvious way to begin an album. Starting quietly, doom laden chords give way to abstract fragments that are then scattered before the listener, the piece going through a sequence of chamber-ish movements before slowly coming together in vividly clear form, like a landscape revealed through clearing fog. ‘Father Demo Square’ is something of a Feldman standard, and Taylor fans will enjoy the pianist’s forthright solo on the piece. For a moment you could be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to a conventional jazz quartet.

‘Everafter’ soon complicates this reassuring notion, returning us to Feldman’s world, a world where classical music and the composer’s long view are every bit as important as improvisation. ‘Ink Pen’ is another familiar Feldman theme, as slippery as his work with the shape shifting string trio Arcado. Rainey runs wild on this piece, perhaps a release from what is some pretty muted work by his standards elsewhere on the disc.

Feldman’s tone is as pure as the best of them, and by the time we reach the beautiful ‘Elegy’ I was well and truly under his spell. ‘Cadence’ is the disc’s most instant hit, with its simple melody and tender Taylor vamp, whilst the title track makes for an appropriate parting shot, condensing Feldman’s stylistic kaleidoscope into a handy bite-sized chunk. What Exit offers an impressive summary of Feldman’s often overlooked talents, and I hope that he now receives wider recognition on the back of it. Strongly recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2006)

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Let's hear it for the critic...

Last week I was looking at the press section of the ECM website, trying to find some info on David Torn's killer new release - part of my latest batch of reviews for the magazine. I didn't find anything, but I did notice that they'd used a couple of quotes from old reviews of mine to promote their wares!!

For all I know there may be more, but I saw clips from my reviews of Mark Feldman's What Exit and Arild Andersen's Electra.

I think it was Mark Twain who first said "Nobody ever built a statue to a critic!", but I couldn't help feeling just a little bit good at finding my stuff on ECM's hallowed pages. Knowing that somebody out there does take notice, and that there may actually be some point to what I'm doing, is the only statue I'll ever need. I must also point out that statues tend to get shat on from a great height by pigeons and seagulls. Just one of many reasons why, all things considered, I'd be happy to forgo such an honour...

Monday, 25 June 2007

Curtis Lundy...

This is probably the last of the double-bass mini series that I accidentally started last week. The recently completed Scott Colley piece hasn't been published by the magazine yet, so unless I want to get sacked by the editor (which I don't) or I uncover an old review that I've missed, the well has finally run dry!!

As always, I try to develop a strand that might get the reader thinking, instead of just describing the music piece by piece. This CD is a good example of that approach - I deal with the music of course, but the points I cover early on about how the music is marketed and how consumers have already had a lot of the choices about what they can buy made for them are to me the most interesting features of the review.

Incidentally, Bill Shoemaker reviewed this same CD in the October 2002 edition of the magazine. Not sure how that came about, but needless to say Bill did a far more eloquent job than yours truly!!


Snake Eyes; Shape Shifting; A Walk In Serendipity; Love Transforms; Two Heartbeats; Ovieda; Pas De Trois; Blues For J.A.; Carmen.

Mark Shim (ts); Anthony Wonsey (p); John Hicks (p); Steve Nelson (vib); Curtis Lundy (b); Billy Hart (d).
Recorded October 2001.

Curtis Lundy has made the continuation of the modern jazz tradition his purpose for some 25 years now. Arriving in New York in the late 1970s, just before the commencement of the Marsalis era, Lundy should have been swept along by the ‘Young Lions of Jazz’ marketing machine. Rather like Bobby Watson, he had an abundance of talent but was just that little bit too old to be considered a teenage sensation. This didn’t prevent him from taking up high profile engagements with Johnny Griffin, Betty Carter and Bobby Watson’s group ‘Horizon’, but ‘Purpose’ is only his third record as a leader, somewhat unfortunate given his impeccable credentials.

Instrumentally, and often stylistically, the record nods to Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Henderson’s frequent Blue Note collaborations of the 1960s. The presence of John Hicks on three tracks and Billy Hart throughout suits Lundy’s project of subtly blending the new with the old. Mark Shim has youth on his side and his forthright soloing in the Henderson vein makes me regret the brevity of his own recent Blue Note contract. Nelson, a contemporary of Lundy, should need no introduction given his ubiquitous and consistently excellent contributions to scores of recent recordings.

All of the pieces come from within the band, with the best material stacked towards the front end of the disc. ‘Snake Eyes’ coils and slithers as its reptilian inspiration would suggest, ‘Shape Shifting’ roars along at breakneck speed, and the standout ‘A Walk In Serendipity’ lopes with a casually infectious funk groove that reminds me just why we need people like Lundy to keep this flame burning. A slight lacuna follows with a clutch of bland and overly-sentimental mid-tempo and ballad pieces, before the ensemble then stretch out on ‘Blues For J.A.’, and a dedication to Curtis’ sister ‘Carmen’.

Whilst the high watermarks of the classic Blue Note era are seldom approached, this is nevertheless quality contemporary mainstream jazz, played, of course, with purpose.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2003)

Friday, 22 June 2007

The mysterious case of cycling's 'Men In Black'...

The intrigue has built all week, reporters feverishly scrambling to shed light on a mysterious new group of riders dubbed the ‘Men In Black’. With such a sinister moniker, the story can only be related to doping, and if the reports are true then the worrying thing is that this is an elite group of riders who are taking extreme measures to get their ‘preparation’ for the Tour De France just right.

The term ‘Men In Black’ refers to the riders’ practice of training in inconspicuous logo-free clothing in locations that are well off the beaten track. The aim, it is alleged, is to avoid out of competition drugs testing that would presumably reveal foul play. The unusual patterns of behaviour of the ‘Men In Black’ has, it seems, aroused suspicion at the UCI, who have acted to investigate for themselves.

The UCI’s chief anti-doping officer Anne Gripper hinted a couple of days ago that a series of tests had produced a number of ‘non-negative’ results. Leaving aside the wonderful inverted logic of the term, all we know so far is that no rider’s name will be released until ‘B’ samples have all been analysed to confirm the results.

The big questions among fans and the press are inevitably ‘who?’ and ‘when?’ If the secondary tests are completed in time for riders to be disqualified from the Tour De France then this will be the second year in a row that the race will have been blighted by chaos and controversy on the eve of its running.

The rumour mill has already started and the Astana squad, which already has something of a checkered past, has been singled out in much of the speculation. Last year of course they missed the race entirely because over half of the squad was implicated in Operacion Puerto, and although they regrouped afterwards and severed ties with controversial manager Manolo Saiz, they formed other questionable new associations with former Team Phonak employees, and latterly the under fire former T-Mobile boss Walter Godefroot.

Astana have emphatically denied the reports, and Tour favourite Alexander Vinokourov acknowledged that he sometimes trained in plain kit to avoid persistently being approached by amateur cyclists. He added that he had nothing to hide, and that riders on his team were available for testing anytime. Presumably he's forgotten about last year's Vuelta, when the whole Astana team bus drove away from a scheduled doping control because the testers were delayed in traffic.

Of course denials usually do come before a fall in cycling, but until we know the names of the riders in question critics should hold their fire. No doubt we’ll know soon enough, and when we do it will be another black day for cycling. If this group are from the upper echelons of the pro-peleton, any wrongdoing is of greater sporting significance (though not necessarily moral rectitude) than a domestique who is simply preparing him self to survive three weeks at the toughest race on earth.

Many predicted last year that the Tour couldn’t withstand anymore of these scandals and that sponsors would withdraw, the event imploding into a pool of its own sleaze. I sense the opposite, with CSC this week backing Bjarne Riis by renewing sponsorship, the Dane’s open publication of his rider’s blood test results (monitored independently in the first half of the season and all clean), and an increasing buzz of anticipation from fans and media for what many believe will be the most open race in years, despite a pretty unimaginative route.

All eyes will be on the UCI in the coming weeks, and they must already be dreading the unleashing of yet another monster for the sport to wrestle. Ultimately they should be pleased – this case proves they are taking their responsibilities seriously and are indeed trying to clean up the sport. If a few more big names fall by the wayside in the process, c’est la vie. This is the new reality of modern cycling, and although there will still be drugs scandals, I don’t believe that they are anything for the sport to fear.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Arild Andersen...

Time for some more jazz, the balm that never fails to soothe me, no matter how sore I feel. I'm listening to this one right now, and just like the William Parker disc (below) it has retained all of its charms and acquired many others through repeated and careful listening.

Only a small fraction of the CDs I'm sent to review can be "lived with" long-term - this beautiful and ambitious project is certainly one of them.

Two more reasons to post the review now - it continues my recent double-bass theme, and check the reference to 'Afric Pepperbird' in the closing remarks!!

ECM (9824337)

Birth Of The Universe; Mourn; The Big Lie; Chorus I; Electra Song Intro; Electra Song; Electra Song Outro; Chorus II; 7th Background; One Note; Whispers; Divine Command; Clytaemnestras Entrance; Loud Sound; Chorus III; Opening; Chorus IV; Big Bang.

Arve Henriksen (t); Eivind Aarset (g); Arild Andersen (b, elec); Paolo Vinaccia (d); Patrice Heral (perc); Nils Petter Molvaer (elec); Savina Yannatou, Chrysanthi Douzi, Elly-Marina Casdas, Fotini-Niki Grammenou (v).
Recorded 2002 to 2003.

Once spoken of along with Garbarek, Rypdal and Christensen as one of the ‘big four’ of Scandinavian jazz, recent developments in the indigenous jazz of this fertile region have produced many new challengers to Andesen’s crown. Rather than rest on his laurels, the bassist/composer has embraced the emergent generation. ‘Electra’, his 16th disc as a leader for ECM, shows just how he has done it. Far from being a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, Andersen’s own well documented approach to composition and structure receives the subtlest of face-lifts through judicious use of the new vocabulary.

Beginning life as a commission by producer Yannis Margaritis for a soundtrack to a production of Sophocles’ famous tragedy, ‘Electra’ amply fulfils the brief for a modern, fluid and spacious soundscape. Vocalists are brought into the mix more as a choral-like texture than for any lyric purpose, leaving Henriksen’s plaintive trumpet as the de facto lead vocalist. Andersen’s approach to sound layering, and his subtle electronic sound manipulations, often recall the Fourth World music of John Hassell, whilst the ensemble’s instrumentation harks back to that all to brief era around the time of ‘Waves’ and ‘Descendre’ when Terje Rypdal was forging a very personal and sophisticated form of fusion.

It’s fitting that players such as Henriksen and Aarset should now take the places of Palle Mikkelborg and Rypdal to bring their own revisions to this well-established style. I’ll probably be fired by the editor for once again raising the spectre of Nujazz, but Molvaer’s beat programming on ‘7th Background’ suggests that his seminal ‘Khmer’ project may well make a lasting impact on the slow-morphing ECM sound. The longest and boldest piece on the disc, it exemplifies the seamless fusion of ancient and cutting edge materials.

Andersen’s talents as a composer have rarely been so much in the spotlight and the music here is more convincingly realised than on similarly ambitious projects such as ‘Sagn’. His precise, warmly resonant bass-lines sound as good as ever, and although a long way from ‘Afric Pepperbird’, Andersen proves that he is still a vital cornerstone of any new ‘big four’ for the 21st Century. Strongly recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, June 2005)

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Brave Moreau takes the Dauphiné...

A thrilling Dauphiné Libéré ended today by the shores of Lake Annecy in the French Alps, with the last 5 kilometres providing a fitting climax to a great edition of the race. Homeboy Christophe Moreau (AG2r) retained the overall leaders jersey, taken from the shoulders of Astana’s Andrey Kashechkin on the Col De Télégraphe on Saturday. The overall win gives Moreau a second Dauphiné to add to the one he won in 2001, and has an interesting sub-text in the fight against doping.

Few would back Moreau for the overall when the Tour de France starts in just under three weeks time, but he’s a consistently strong and gritty rider who will certainly have some good days in this year’s race. It’s always pleasing to see a French rider win on home soil, especially one who is so positive (no pun intended) in his stance against doping. It wasn’t always that way, Moreau being one of the key protagonists to fall from grace in the Festina affair that blighted the 1998 edition of the Tour. That Moreau could rebuild his reputation and career after such a setback, and further still prove to be such a force in the movement for clean cycling, is exactly why I believe cyclists deserve a second chance if they’re serious in their remorse.

As impressive as Moreau’s performance was, it is to the main contenders for the yellow jersey in July that most people will be looking in their post-race analysis. Astana, minus Klöden, dominated the race in a manner that cynics would suggest stretches credulity, winning four stages and pretty much being able to enjoy the luxury of deciding who to send down the road at any given time in a bid for glory. The final stage was won by leader and, surely, overwhelming favourite for the Tour Alexander Vinokourov. After a largely uneventful ascent of the Col De Forclaz, Vino waited for the race to come together on the flat and powered away time-trial style to win the stage by almost 30 seconds.

Discovery’s Levi Leipheimer earlier tried exactly the same tactic, but even before he slid off at a roundabout in the treacherous wet conditions Vino looked as though he would have swallowed the American well before the line. Of the other possible contenders, Oscar Perreiro won the sprint for second, Dennis Menchov looked perky, and Alberto Contador once again showed he could stay with the big boys.

Cadel Evans, less than 30 seconds behind Moreau at the start of the day, once again failed to attack at a crucial time. Side-by-side with Moreau on the Forclaz, he showed no inclination to jump away and go for broke. His attacks after the peleton had left the mountain and entered the valley looked like an exercise in futility. Perhaps he’s playing a clever game and saving his powder for July?

It is important to remember that good form in the middle of June will not win the Tour De France, but most of the main players looked as though they are timing their efforts just about right. There was no Carlos Sastre, and Alejandro Valverde went home with a stomach bug half way through the race. Rumours continue to circulate about his involvement in Puerto, but so far that’s all they are and it would be wrong to leap to any conclusions.

The most intriguing questions, however, all seem to surround the Astana challenge. After last year’s triumph in the Vuelta (Tour of Spain), which showed that he could go the distance on a three-week stage race, Vinokourov looks lke the man to beat. My main concern is that his team might be just a little too top heavy. With both Klöden and Kashechkin in the ranks, isn’t it déjà vu T-Mobile - too many chiefs and not enough Indians?

I’ve no doubt there will be more reading of the tea leaves in the weeks ahead, but as an appetite-whetting curtain raiser, the 59th Dauphiné Libéré was as good as it gets. Roll on July…

Friday, 15 June 2007

William Parker...

A double bass posting today - sorry about the pun - because I'm adding my review of this William Parker gem to the page.

I still love this CD every bit as much as I did when I first heard it, and it gets my vote as a contemporary classic that will surely sound as good 50 years from now. If anybody has heard the new Eri Yamamoto album, I'd be keen to know what they think.

There'll be no triple bass posting, although I am working on a review of an interesting new album by Scott Colley at the moment, which just so happens to feature Parker's THIRSTY EAR label-mate Craig Taborn. Anybody wanting more bass-lines can always check back to my recent Henri Texier and Miroslav Vitous postings. Next up will probably be some more cycling...

Luc’s Lantern
THIRSTY EAR (57158-2)

Adena; Song For Tyler; Mourning Sunset; Evening Star Song; Luc’s Lantern; Jaki; Bud In Alphaville; Charcoal Flower; Phoenix; Candlesticks On The Lake.

Eri Yamamoto (p); William Parker (b); Michael Thompson (d).

It isn’t very often that I listen to a disc a dozen times before committing my thoughts to print, yet ‘Luc’s Lantern’ made such an impression that I found myself with little alternative. This is a short and perfectly formed disc, rather like the earlier ‘Raining On The Moon’ (also on Thirsty Ear), and one that simply demands repeated listening. I needed to be sure that the praise I will lavish on it is justified, and rather like an industrial stress-test, the only true indication of soundness and quality comes via repetitive use. If anything, the disc got better with each play, even keeping the new Andrew Hill ‘Mosaic Select’ box on the shelf and in its shrink-wrap for over a week!

Those who’ve heard Parker in piano trio formations with Cecil Taylor (the Feel Trio) or Matthew Shipp will know that he can surf the high waves. ‘Luc’s Lantern’ is a different proposition entirely. This music has directness and a simplicity that snares you, an infectious groove that puts a smile on your face, melodic themes to burn, and deeper musical strata that only reveal themselves more gradually. Superficially Parker is taking on the Bad Plus or EST, giving a Nujazz face-lift ot an old format. Yet despite apparent concessions to the marketplace, the music is in no sense compromised. This trio’s omnidirectional elasticity puts them in a very special place, a unit capable of launching off together in any direction at the drop of a hat.

Eri Yamamoto has the rhapsodic and tightly linear approach of the Paul Bley school of piano, a more percussive side only emerging on the bustling title track. ‘Phoenix’ could easily be mistaken for a Bley piece in a blindfold test, but her liking for repetitive motifs establishes her separate identity. Drummer Michael Thompson reminds me of Hamid Drake’s excursions into this same territory, wonderfully loose in his precision, stretching time without ever losing sight of the markers.

Each composition, and they are all compositions, is memorable in its own way. My favourites are the relaxed swing of ‘Jaki’, the noir-ish tension of ‘Bud In Alphaville’ and the attention grabbing opener ‘Adena’, with its hard-grooving bass pulse. No doubt others will find their own personal favourites, and this is the type of disc with the potential to offer ten favourite selections.

No words of caution to offer any but the most hard-line of free-jazz fundamentalists, who may be quick to label this a ‘sell out’. For the majority, this is jazz at its best, and proof positive that Parker is one of today’s pre-eminent protagonists in the music.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2005)

Ray Brown...

This one is for 'The Ghost Of Jerry Reed', whose own excellent cycling/jazz blog LEXICON DEVIL currently has a nice Ray Brown download available. It just goes to show that cycling and jazz isn't such an improbable combination!!!

I reviewed this CD for the magazine a few years ago and obviously felt the same tension I feel now when I hear a musical legend resting on their laurels. Due reverence on the one hand, frustration that their growth has stagnated on the other.

I've spoken about this pattern of behaviour to numerous people over the years and tend to feel critics owe it to the people who buy this music (assuming that they aren't downloading it) to tell them its limitations and give a truly critical view. In this case I don't entirely ignore my own advice, as I still found a lot to enjoy, but give me some vintage Brown anyday...

Walk On
TELARC (CD-83515 2CD)

America The Beautiful; Sunday; Stella By Starlight; Lined With A Groove; Honeysuckle Rose; Fried Pies; You Are My Sunshine; That’s All; Ray Brown Suite; Hello Girls; F.S.R.; Stardust; Evidence; Woogie Boogie; In A Mellow Tone; The Nearness Of You; Much In Common; This Is Always; Three By Four; Down By The Riverside.

Geoff Keezer, Benny Green, Monty Alexander (p); Ray Brown, John Clayton, Christian Mc Bride (b); Karriem Riggins, Lewis Nash, Gregory Hutchinson (d).
Recorded 1994 to 2000.

If ever there were to be a Mount Rushmore constructed for bass players, Ray Brown’s features would be prominently displayed. Impeccable is perhaps the best way to describe the man and his music - everything from the dinner jacket and bow tie on the sleeve to his tone and articulation on his instrument. That this handsome package includes his last trio recordings is both a source of sadness (to see such a vital link in the history of jazz disappear) and joy (that a career in such a chequered business could have been one of such longevity).

For much of Ray Brown’s life as a bandleader, the format of choice has been based on the successful Oscar Peterson Trios of which he was a key member for many years. Tunes that people recognise and enjoy, imbued with a healthy dose of blues and gospel, and of course always swinging. ‘Fried Pies’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine’ from disc one update the formula by injecting a touch of boogaloo backbeat, and original pieces such as ‘The Ray Brown Suite’ conform to the old winning formula.

It is when we get to the standards however that things start to sound just a little tired. Perhaps his younger sidemen, who have subtly altered the trio’s musical centre of gravity, are now post-standards players? Geoff Keezer’s approach is far more contemporary than many of his predecessors, struggling at times to conceal his grounding in Tyner and Corea. A revised songbook acknowledging this fact may have provided a more invigorating session.

Benny Green, who appears on disc two, is arguably more at home on the old repertoire, though Monty Alexander’s brief cameo emphatically demonstrates just how you can bridge the two worlds. A series of bass trios with Clayton and McBride reaffirm Brown’s lifelong passion for his unwieldy instrument of choice, cleverly covering all of the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic bases. I suppose that when you’ve reached the top of your profession it would take a bold, restless or even foolish man to radically change their approach to music making. That Ray Brown chose simply to ‘Walk On’ is no bad thing really!

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, October 2003)

Monday, 11 June 2007

Can Pro-cycling ever hit the big time in Britain...?

Before I’m accused of spending too much time dwelling on cycling’s bad news stories, and let’s face it there are a lot of them about at the moment, it’s nice to be able to write about some racing for a change. Even better, some might say, that I can write about a notable British success, less than a month before the Tour De France’s historic Grand Depart in London.

British track specialist turned road racer Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis) scored the biggest result of his pro career on Sunday when he beat race favourite Levi Leipheimer (Discovery) in the prologue time trial of the Dauphiné Libere. The eight day race is the traditional dress rehearsal for the Tour De France, condensing all of its most exciting stages into little more than a week. Riders hoping to do well in July have used it to test their form for many years now - even Lance Armstrong, notoriously sparing in the number of days he’d race in any given season, made a point of rarely missing this race.

If the first yellow jersey of the Dauphiné wasn’t enough, Wiggins went on to defend the jersey over hilly terrain on Monday. I’m sure he won’t be wearing the jersey next Sunday, but as an indicator of who may be likely to win the prologue in London it is an undeniably good omen.

The coveted prologue will be high on David Millar’s list of priorities too, the Saunier Duval rider pretty much building his form for the season around this one stage. Of course Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Fabian Cancellara (CSC) will be doing their utmost to disappoint the home crowd, but British interests should be well represented come July.

While most of the British media are rightly celebrating the motor powered speed of Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, Wiggins’ achievements have barely registered on the radar. So cycling has an image problem, nobody can deny that, but with British riders starting to score results in big races and the imminent arrival of the Tour on these shores, it is to be hoped that the traditional British reticence towards the sport will soon begin to lift.

I wrote on these pages in April about young Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile) and his first professional victory, and since then he’s added another four wins to his palmarés. Cavendish is already creating the sort of buzz in the peleton that Hamilton must be creating at the racetrack, but are significant numbers of the British public aware of his feats?

Cycling just isn’t sufficiently rooted in the British psyche to generate that kind of excitement. Then again, the same could be said of cycling in Germany or Denmark until Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis came along and started winning. Both riders have since fallen from grace in doping scandals, but the basic point that success breeds success shouldn’t be lost.

Assuming that the sport doesn’t first rip itself apart and further lose public confidence, this great spectacle of human endurance that is currently the traditional preserve of Europeans may just get its chance. It would be nice to think that riders on the road would get the kind of respect enjoyed in mainland Europe as they go about their training and racing, but there is a long way to go before we arrive at such a point. Perhaps a victory for Wiggins or Millar in London on July 7th could be just the boost that is needed?

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Belgian Mix...

Who says nothing ever happens in Belgium? The mythical sleepy backwater of Europe has this week taken most of the heat away from German cycling with new round of sleazy events that do the sport’s image about as much good as a photo opportunity with Floyd Landis.

A series of Police raids on ten homes led initially to thirteen arrests, and in the words of a police spokesman, the confiscation of ‘a large quantity of doping products’. Quick Step assistant Alessandro Tegner was among those questioned, but he was later released, prompting the Belgian Pro-Tour outfit to issue a series of angry statements of denial.

On this occasion it seems they were within their rights to feel more than a little hacked off. It turned out that the raids were in fact part of a concerted effort to crack down on foul play in the amateur ranks. The raids seemed to have been instigated by Jean-Marie Dedecker, a Belgian politician who has one eye on this Sunday’s municipal elections. That the investigations centre not on the pro-peleton but the ultra competitive Belgian road racing scene is shocking enough in itself, symptomatic of just how far reaching the problems actually are.

Sensational headlines aiming to implicate Tom Boonen were premature, and with the team still tainted by the busting of 1996 World Road Champion Johan Museeuw earlier this year, and boss Patrick Lefevre involved in parallel litigation of his own, they can at least afford a self-righteous smile on this occasion.

Of even greater concern, at least on the human level, is the continuing self-destruction of the former wunderkind of Belgian cycling Frank Vandenbroucke. VDB, as he’s universally known, has had a career every bit as undisciplined and unfulfilled as that of Jan Ullrich, and he has repeatedly hit the headlines for many of the same reasons. Whether it’s drugs, wild partying or troubles in his personal relationships, VDB has done it all with at least fifty times the colour.

Of late his fortunes seem to be spiraling into alarming new depths. Succumbing to depression, socially isolated, struggling with knee injuries, waning motivation, and prone increasingly public bouts of what most onlookers could only describe as madness, VDB cuts a sorry figure.

Hitting the big time with Lotto in 1994, he went on to win a string of the big one-day classics and generated the same sort of hysteria in Belgium that Tom Boonen is doing today. In recent years all of the headlines have been written for the wrong reasons – domestic disputes involving the firing of weapons, torrid relationship breakdowns, a series of bans (in more lenient times) for doping offences – in short he’s become more of a cycling legend for his tawdry exploits off the bike than anything he’s added to a pretty threadbare palmarés.

The latest chapter came on Wednesday of last week, with an alleged suicide attempt. Reports first spoke of his opening of a vein in his arm, but were later changed to an attempted overdose with anti-depressants and insulin. On Friday the rider, in the middle of a not so successful comeback with Aqua e Sapone, denied any form of attempt on his own life.

“What they said about me is completely untrue. I am very depressed, yes...but I did not try to commit suicide”, the rider said on Friday. He went on to say that he admitted himself to hospital, but didn’t elaborate on the reasons.

With the larger than life VDB truth is often stranger than fiction, and it has been sad to watch his steady decline from the kind of rider who could light the blue touch-paper in almost any kind of race, to a tragically undisciplined and increasingly washed up figure on the fringes of the sport. Whatever wrongs he may have committed in the past, I hope he can be saved before he goes the way of Marco Pantani.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Esmond Selwyn...

Finding copies of the 'cover art' from this CD proved almost impossible in a fairly thorough websearch. The number of sites that list the tracks, personnel and recording details are legion, yet almost all have a little box with 'no image available' where the CD booklet would normally be displayed. Even the BLOGGER posting interface needed about a hundred attempts before it let me upload this image!!

As I recently mentioned in an email to Gregg, I like to steer clear of gratuitous abuse in my reviews. Yet the graphic design here was just SO bad, how could I let it go unremarked? Fortunately I maintain my normal balance and mention that Selwyn is a decent post-Wes jazz guitarist, should SLAM RECORDS supremo George Haslam be after my scalp.

Afric Pepperbird is proud to display the cover here in all its glory, and comments about it are welcome - any advance on Alvin Stardust?

Follow That
SLAM (CD 240)

Blues For Wes; Prelude To A Kiss; Flight Of Fancy; Serenata; The Wild Brown; One For My Dad; Have You Met Miss Jones?; Polka Dots & Moonbeams; Just One Of Those Things.

Esmond Selwyn (g); Paul Sawtell (p); Bill Coleman (b); Robin Jones (d).
Recorded November 1999.

Never judge a book by its cover, or so the old saying goes. With one of the most aesthetically challenged CD booklets I’ve ever seen, the saying has seldom been more prescient than it is with ‘Follow That’. Too bad to be redeemed as kitsch. this is simply bad graphic design which does the product no favours. Expectations are of a sorry club circuit singer’s home-made tribute to the music of Billy Fury or Alvin Stardust. Fortunately I’ve encountered Selwyn’s playing before, and whilst I’m sure that others already familiar with this infrequently recorded guitarist will be delighted to learn that he’s made a new album, the uninitiated (i.e. the vast majority) will be disinclined to give this disc a second glance for fear that they turn to stone.

Shame, because Selwyn deserves far better, and his work compares favourably with recent recordings by Jim Mullen and the early work of Martin Taylor. Playing with a clean, warm tone and dexterity and harmonic daring recalling Tal Farlow, Selwyn commands your attention by using taste, sensitivity and imagination. The opening ‘Blues For Wes’, and Selwyn’s other composition, ‘One For My Dad’, show a man comfortable in the post-bop/pre-fusion milieu. Pianist Paul Sawtell has a lyricism and harmonic depth coming straight from the Bill Evans lineage, and contributes two elegant originals.

Neither Coleman nor Jones compromise the tight group sound, though Sawtell’s engineering has given the bass a rather harsh and decidedly non-woody sound. The remainder of the material is taken from the familiar standard repertoire and played with due reverence - sometimes as a quartet, at other times with Selwyn solo (‘Prelude To A Kiss’) or in duo with Sawtell (‘Just One Of Those Things’). Recommended, and proof that first impressions aren’t to be relied on!

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, June 2003)

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

ECM :rarum series...

Hmm, an assignment a couple of years ago to review a clutch of compilations of material chosen by the artists from their own ECM discographies makes interesting reading now. The :rarum series was another Manfred Eicher masterstroke, obvious in its simplicity, briliant in its execution.

My comments on each of the releases would be little different had I written the reviews today, despite systematically re-appraising the label with hours of engrossed listening over the last 12 months. I guess I'll just never really 'get' Carla Bley, no matter what...

ECM :rarum Series
CARLA BLEY :rarum XV (ECM 014208-2)
PAT METHENY :rarum IX (ECM 014163-2)
PAUL MOTIAN :rarum XVI (ECM 014204-2)
JOHN SURMAN :rarum XIII (ECM 014197-2)

In much the same way as Blue Note at its height, ECM could be said to be a designer record label. Closely identified with a sound inseparable from a visual aesthetic, both labels also represent an ideal of excellence that other industry also-rans aspire to. Now in its 35th year, Manfred Eicher’s ECM operation has discovered a clever new way to look back on past achievements. Already amounting to some 20 volumes, the :rarum series offers artists closely associated with the label an opportunity to select career highlights from their work, remastered and presented in lavish but minimalist digipaks and sold at a special price.

In the case of Paul Motian, his selections are reassuringly similar to the ones I would have made. Almost half of the tracks selected feature the neglected reedsman Charles Brackeen with either David Izenzon or J-F Jenny Clark on bass. Their music sounds as fresh as the collaborations with Surman or Paul Bley sound stereotypically ‘glacial’. Later groupings with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano are well represented, and a duet with Keith Jarrett from ‘Conception Vessel’ reaches remarkable heights. This is a thoughtful selection from one of jazz’s less obvious heroes, and I can’t think how fitting it is that motian’s tacky Electric Be-bop Band never had the opportunity to desecrate Eicher’s hallowed vaults.

To my mind Carla Bley is perhaps one musician who has spent an entire career occupying the same realms as the Electric Be-bop Band. Maybe I just don’t get her humour, but there’s no denying that she is an ECM stalwart with legions of fans. Her :rarum collection offers a welcome opportunity to reassess my pretty entrenched views, and Larry Goldings’ spirited organ solo on ‘Baseball’ (from 4x4, 1999) caused an unexpected early frisson. Old ideas soon reasserted themselves, however, with the record settling into a painfully arch cycle of pastiches that momentarily please but ultimately melt like sugary confections. The wonderful ‘Walking Batteriewoman’ briefly bucks the trend, but only very briefly.

Pat Metheny is another ECM artist whose work I can find problematical. Capable of brilliant American-pastoralism and dazzling post-Jim Hall wizardry, it’s tempting to recommend readers to skip this collection and buy ‘Bright Size Life’ instead. Yet the bland airbrushed fusion and guitar-synth noodling that I find so unsatisfactory seem to be the very things for which he is most celebrated. This collection represents the full stylistic spread of his ECM work, warts and all. Apart from the title track of the aforementioned 1975 masterpiece with Pastorius and Moses, ‘Bright Size Life’, the collection offers tracks from more adventurous Metheny albums such as ‘80/81’ and ‘Pat Metheny with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins’. Given the unique devotion Metheny seems to inspire, fans will probably have the complete albums already, but with extensive new liner notes written by Metheny explaining his choices of music, this collection I guess becomes especially desirable for completists.

Perhaps it’s somewhat strange that John Surman is the only European in this quartet of discs, given the label’s heavy reliance on non-American artists. Surman’s career nicely mirrors that of the label - from his fiery roots with The Trio to the more cerebral approach that is now equal parts ‘new music’. Spare, lyrical, pastoral ad always open to stylistic cross-fertilisation, Surman is in many ways the English equivalent to Jan Garbarek. Don’t look to this collection if you get off on Carla Bley’s humour. By and large this is pretty earnest stuff, but always played convincingly from the heart. Personal favourites include ‘Figfoot’ by the Adventure Playground quartet, the blistering ‘Number Six’ from Miroslav Vitous’ band of 1980 that included a pre-Marsalis Kenny Kirkland, and ‘Mountainscape VIII’ by The Trio, with guest guitarist John Abercrombie. Rich pickings throughout, and warmly recommended to anybody not up to speed on Surman’s impressively varied body of work.

In summary, the most obvious thing to say about these collections is that they offer no new material, and if you own many of the recordings then the compilations will probably have little appeal. Remastering of already pristine sound recordings is a far less compelling reason to splash out on them than the opportunity to learn how each artist views their own body of work. Ultimately it is the decision to let the artists decide which pieces of music to present that is the marketing masterstroke which makes the :rarum series more interesting than the earlier ECM ‘Works’ series. It only remains to be seen whether or not Mars Williams will ever get the chance to do a ‘:rarum’ on Hal Russell’s back catalogue. Sadly, I think we’ll be waiting some time.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, March 2004)

Team Telekom: Naivety is the best form of defence?

As we recover from the ‘shock’ revelations of Bjarne Riis concerning the use of a range of banned performance enhancing substances in Team Telekom during the late 1990s, and the less heralded confessions of Erik Zabel, Udo Boelts and Rolf Aldag, the story has taken an interesting new twist. Not only may Jan Ullrich be stripped of his Olympic medals and Riis forced to return his 1996 Tour De France yellow jersey, but Walter Godefroot, team boss during the period in question, may be about to take legal action against the man whose book started the whole furore.

Godefroot emphatically denies organising or financing any doping in his team - rather different to denying it took place, and not inconsistent with Riis’ claim that he paid for his own EPO. Jeff D’Hont, the former team masseur whose recent book has prompted the string of sheepish confessions seen in the last few weeks, now looks set to be sued by Godefroot for his troubles.

Riis alleged in his own confession that former boss Godefroot knew what was going on but chose to turn a blind eye to the foul play. With the sensational results scored during these years by riders including Riis, Ullrich, and Zabel, it is easy to see why Godefroot may have chosen not to act. The team rose from a small provincial German outfit to Tour De France winners in relatively no time, and with constant pressures from sponsors to get results he’d have been hard pressed to take a stand.

Placed alongside the recent confessions of former Telekom doctors Andreas Schmid and Lothar Heinrich, the doping would on the face of things seem to be institutionalised in appearance. Whether an overall team manager can claim that he was simply naïve and hope to escape sanctions will be an interesting feature as the case almost inevitably makes its way through the legal process, further soiling the reputation of the sport.

Godefroot left T Mobile at the end of the 2005 season, and the new regime is avowedly anti-doping. He now works as an adviser at Astana, the team born out of the wreckage of Manolo Saiz’s scandal hit Liberty Seguros outfit and which employs much of the infrastructure from the possibly even murkier Phonak squad. If there were such a thing as guilt by association then there’d probably be few left standing in the sport, but Godefroot’s line of defence that he was too busy dealing with day-to-day events to know about the shady practices rampant in the late ‘90s looks pretty limited.

‘All things said, I wasn’t close to them’, he said of the riders who have admitted their offences. You would perhaps expect that a Directeur Sportif responsible for selecting riders based on fitness and form for some of the biggest races in the calendar would have his finger on the pulse, but he retains the right to remain innocent until proven guilty. Whether or not he can show that he was more of an administrative than a sporting manager will pretty much determine his future in the sport. If the UCI are consistent in their policies as applied to riders then Godefroot would be suspended merely for being 'under suspicion'- as things stand, he looks set to be in France in July with Astana.

This new cloud hanging over the sport does at least seem to have a silver lining. Both Riis’ CSC squad and the ‘under new management’ T-Mobile are leading the way with their innovative approaches to testing and ‘zero tolerance’ doping policies. It is to be hoped that Godefroot will prove to be one of the last of a dying breed, should the mud that D’Hont has slung his way actually stick. Naïve? Time will surely tell.