Monday, 30 July 2007

Bike Porn...

Since Sam and I went our separate ways at the end of May, life has been characterised by something of a void. She left a huge gap, one that has at times been a struggle to fill. My latest attempt to compensate for this loss, if the two and a half hour maiden voyage I've just returned from is any guide, may finally go some way to restoring some colour to my cheeks!

I remember when Cannondale launched the special edition 'Black Lightning' a few years ago. It was then the most beautiful bike I'd ever seen, and I immediately wanted one. Only three hundred were ever made, each sold with a complete Campagnolo Record group-set in a special black/gold colour scheme. Although I lusted after one, prices were insane and supply very limited, so it remained an unconsummated pleasure.

Today, however, I became the proud owner of Black Lightning number 133 of 300. The bike is in mint condition, with no signs of ever having been ridden. The size and fit is perfect, as if it had been made to measure for me. Most importantly of all, the performance is simply amazing. It runs almost completely silently, flies down hills like the best Colnagos, and goes up 20% gradients as if it had wings. Best of all I didn't have to pay anything - it was a straight swap for the seen-better-days Litespeed Vortex that I used to race on!

Here are a few photographs to drool over, and sad though this probably sounds, I've really bonded with '133'. She may not make a great omelette, has limited conversation, little sense of humour and shows me next to no affection, but I think I'm actually falling in love with her...!

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Contador takes Yellow, but where next for Pro Cycling?

As far as media coverage goes, this has been one of the most visible editions of the Tour de France for many years. That the race set out from London and then travelled through Kent before hitting France gave things a head start. Let’s be honest though, we all know the real reasons why the media have latched on to the sport, and surely don’t need any reminders.

Leaving aside the sensationalism for a moment, this has in many respects been a Tour like any other. The main difference has been that the doping control systems seem to have been one step ahead of the riders for a change. Doping in the ranks of the pro-peleton is hardly anything new, although some of the overnight experts in press seem to have seized on the sport’s misfortunes like hungry dog discovering a bone. Some of the more hysterical reactions calling for the sport to be banned are almost as depressing as the doping its self.

I have to say that the one thing that has made me optimistic in these troubled times has been the calm and measured response of Tour de France organisers ASO, who seem to be usurping the sport’s governing body in the fight for the sport’s future. Their insistence that failed drugs tests are a necessary part of the cleansing process is a bold stance, and while others lose their heads and spread doom and gloom, ASO go about their job with steely determination.

This newfound confidence has even led ASO President Patrice Clerc to re-open the war of words with the UCI, calling for top officials to resign their posts for allowing Michael Rasmussen to be available for selection before the race. Race director Christian Prudhomme went even further on Saturday, suggesting that the UCI were either totally incompetent or deliberately trying to damage the reputation of his race with their dilatory handling of the cases of Patrik Sinkewitz and Rasmussen.

The UCI’s own written rules and regulations state clearly that any rider receiving a written warning within 45 days of the start of a race, as was the case with Rasmussen, should not be allowed to start. Rasmussen received a second written warning on 29th June, just 8 days before the Grand Depart in London. UCI President Pat McQuaid has even gone on record as saying that the rule in question will be scrapped because it is ‘too harsh’ on riders. Is this really the kind of positive lead that the sport so desperately needs at the present time? I think not.

The gap between ASO and the UCI now seems to be irreconcilable, at least for as long as the current regime remains in place at the head of the UCI. The hopes of McQuaid that the Tour and other ASO races can rejoin the Pro Tour series in 2008 look like pipe dreams. Hardly the united front that will pull the sport through a crisis, but ASO can’t be blamed for trying to fill what they see as a leadership vacuum.

The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) are involved in a battle of words with the UCI every bit as fierce ASO’s. At odds with the organisers of the biggest races in the calendar, the body that oversees drugs testing, the opinion of the vast majority of the sport’s fans, and, if recent evidence is anything to go by, a sizeable and growing number of riders, what legitimacy can the UCI claim? The tide is changing, and the UCI seem to be missing the boat.

With 24 year-old Alberto Contador taking home the yellow jersey, I hope that his involvement in the Operacion Puerto enquiries really are as benign as has been suggested. The thought of a re-run of last year’s Landis shambles is too much to bear, and with six Spanish riders in the top 10 of the General Classification, you can be forgiven for raising an eyebrow. The process of restoring credibility to this battered sport now looks like a hors categorie challenge, and if the major players can’t pull together in the months ahead, success is far from certain.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Ronnie Scott...

No prizes for guessing the theme in this weekend's two postings, but I like the symmetry anyway.

Ronnie Scott was vastly under rated as a player and always better known as a club owner. I only ever saw him play live twice but both were memorable occasions, jewels etched in the mind as events far greater than 'just another gig'.

Scott's larger than life personality, and of course his ready wit, made his appearances something special. I felt that this CD ultimately showed the difference a great leader can make to a band. Not quite a headless torso, this proficient group nevertheless sound pretty undistinguished without Ronnie...

A Tribute To Ronnie Scott

This Heart Of Mine; Let Me Count The Ways; Tuned Into You; You Don’t Know What Love Is; Excuse Me, Do I Know You?; Carib Blue; Little Tear; Nippon Soul; Back In Love Again; Weaver Of Dreams; Seven Steps To Heaven; Ssh! Ronnie’s Talking.

Pat Crumly (ts, as, f); John Critchinson (p); Leon Clayton (b); Mark Fletcher (d); Martin Drew (d); Georgie Fame (v); Flora Purim (v).
Recorded January 1998.

The idea of a ‘ghost band’ perpetuating the legacy of a late departed leader is not a new one, and is increasingly becoming a growth area, given the large number of well-loved musicians no longer with us. Better known around the world for his entrepreneurial activities than as a tenor saxophonist in the post-Coltrane (via Getz and Mobley) line, Ronnie Scott’s music nevertheless had a sizeable audience. Given that he was so widely admired, the case for this project can easily be made.

This band, nominally led by pianist and long-serving Scott collaborator John Critchinson, emerged late in 1996 while Scott was still alive, and continued to perform after his death. This tribute was recorded early in 1998, and with the club just having celebrated its 45th anniversary, the timing of this release certainly makes commercial sense.

Although never likely to be any substitute for a band with Scott at the helm, the act of remembrance itself is just as important as any music played. Fortunately Critchinson’s quartet and assorted guests also manage to create something worthwhile on its own terms. Pat Crumly is the man with the unenviable task of filling Scott’s shoes, and although preferring alto saxophone for most of the disc, he isn’t afraid to risk inevitable comparisons when switching to tenor.

The beautiful ballads ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ and ‘Weaver Of Dreams’, and the uptempo ‘Excuse Me, Do I Know You?’ and ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’ all show his powerful yet elegant approach to good advantage. When the flute or alto saxophone are his featured instruments the recording inexplicably drifts off course, perhaps a reminder of the great vacuum Scott left behind.

Most of the material will be familiar to those who knew the band, and Scott’s love of Latin music is amply reflected in Flora Purim’s cameo appearance on ‘Little Tear’ and Victor Feldman’s ‘Let Me Count The Ways’. Elsewhere, Martin Drew raises the temperature on two selections and Georgie Fame sings his own composition ‘Tuned Into You’.

The decision to close the tribute with a short recording of Scott rattling off jokes in front of a live audience is a mite contrived, and possibly even exploitative. As a reminder of Scott’s wit and spirit of cheerful optimism in the face of much adversity, it nevertheless provides a fitting form of closure.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, March 2005)

Yusef Lateef...

This review is pretty flat, a CD by an artist I hugely admire but one with several flaws, most notably the fact that I couldn't help comparing it to far better recordings by Lateef. If there are any talking points here then you'd probably go to my observations about Lateef's influence on Coltrane, and the cheeky comparison of English rhythm sections to the Albatross.

There's a lot to be said for this type of jazz archeology though, making performances considered 'lost' available for the first time. Just what distinguishes them from unauthorised boot-legs, I've no idea.

Eric Dolphy's much quoted line 'When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again' obviously didn't take into account people with portable recording equipment!!

Live In London

Introduction; I’ll Remember April; Imagination; Yusef’s Mood; New Year Blues; Ask The Post; Trouble In Mind; Number Seven.

Yusef Lateef (ts, f, ob); Stan Tracey (p); Rick Laird (b); Bill Eyden (d).
Recorded 31/12/65.

Recorded on New Year’s Eve 1965 at Ronnie Scott’s Frith Street club, this recording forms part of a “Live In London” series which features many of the big names to have passed through the city back in the swinging ‘60s. Journalist and jazz enthusiast Les Tompkins was the man with the ferrous tape on this occasion, and his masters have scrubbed up extremely well.

Whilst English rhythm sections have sometimes been compared to the albatross, Lateef here has no hesitation in generously featuring Scott’s celebrated house band. Tracey in particular shows a ready willingness to explore. Recordings of visiting names with pick-up groups have always provided a fascinating glimpse of the creative process in action, as tensions and incompatibilities require skillful negotiation for the public performance to succeed. Black Lion Records have released many similar recordings over the years, but the London connection to this series should make it especially interesting to Jazz Review’s domestic readership.

The recording opens with a brief announcement by Scott, in which he manages to deliver at least two side-splitting jokes. Lateef then launches into ‘I’ll Remember April’ on flute. Whilst not in the same league as the more fully realised studio version recorded some four years earlier on ‘Into Something’, it does however show a different facet of Lateef’s artistry - that of itinerant musician at large. The programme elsewhere consists of a mixture of standards and generic blues originals, reflecting the need for familiar reference points to bring this temporary band together.

The leader’s customary grace is evident on every piece, and despite some rough edges in places, the band don’t let him down. On tenor his muscular tone and elliptical phrasing recall Rollins, whilst his flute displays deep roots in Eastern culture.

Lateef rarely seems to get the credit he deserves as an innovator, having picked up Eastern modes and exotic double-reed instruments long before Coltrane popularised the soprano saxophone, or the ‘New Thing’ embraced non-Western sounds. ‘Trouble In Mind’, taken on oboe, is a good illustration of the more spiritual facet to his playing, whilst the lengthy blues suite ‘Number Seven’ (compare it to the one on ‘Live At Pep’s’ if you wish) illustrates his formidable qualities as a passionate and slow-burning improviser. Not just a rewarding listen, but a slice of UK jazz history too!

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, February 2005)

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Rasmussen next through Tour de France trapdoor...

As the world’s media were still chewing over the bones of the Alexander Vinokourov affair today, yet more dramatic events were waiting in the wings at what is now becoming the biggest sporting Soap Opera ever seen.

First came the news that Cofidis rider Cristian Moreni had tested positive for excessive levels of testosterone on Stage 11. Moreni started today's stage, even though most of the assembled press had already heard the rumours of his 'positive' before it got underway. Perhaps it was part of Moreni’s punishment to send him out to compete the hardest of the race’s mountain stages, only to then be hauled off by the Gendarmes for questioning after crossing the line?

It is deplorable that the media should hear such confidential information first, although that shouldn’t be taken as a mitigating factor in Moreni’s favour. The way in which the events were handled were at best insensitive and at worst must leave outsiders wondering who is actually in control. The upshot of this first scandal of the day shouldn't leave too much doubt on that score, however, with yet another feather going into the cap of race organisers ASO. The Cofidis team immediately left the race, following Astana through the trapdoor.

The irony of a French team tainted by a foreign rider will I’m sure not be lost across the Channel, a nation proud of its recent efforts towards a cleaner sport. Hard luck too for Britain’s Bradley Wiggins, a team-mate of Moreni. Wiggins is one rider surely beyond all suspicion, and I’m sure that he'll be reflecting on just how important it is that a rider can trust his team-mates. He could be forgiven for venting large amounts of anger in Moreni’s direction, although the Italian has at least held his hands up and admitted a fair cop by not requesting tests on his ‘B’ Sample. No consolation for Wiggins, but it should at least be one less protracted legal case in which the integrity of the sport is dragged through the courts.

The day’s biggest story however is not as it should have been. Michael Rasmussen’s working over of Alberto Contador on the Col D’Aubisque, withstanding everything that the Spaniard and his Discovery Channel team-mate Levi Leipheiner could throw at him, made for thrilling viewing. Rasmussen had been booed at the start of the day's racing, and ASO spokesman Patrice Clerc yesterday indicated at a Press Conference that he should not have been allowed on to the start line in London. The pressures off the road were proving far greater for the rider than the challenges on it.

Just as most of us were heading to bed tonight came the breaking news of Rasmussen's dismissal from the Rabobank team, and with it his withdrawal from the race. There must be a story to tell when a team takes such drastic action against a rider within reach of the biggest prize in cycling, and my guess is that the team jumped before they were pushed. For now, the official line is that the Dane lied over his whereabouts at the time of the recent missed doping tests, stating he was in Mexico when in fact he was in Italy. Rabobank are not withdrawing from the race, but will instead give their riders the choice as to whether or not they start Thursday’s 17th Stage in Pau.

It now looks like a two horse race between Contador, tipped for future greatness but surely not expecting the mantle to come his way so quickly, and Cadel Evans, a plucky and consistent rider whose performances are reassuringly solid but unspectacular. Evans may well have the last laugh if he can show the world that 'incredible' performances are worth far less than believable ones.

After the dust has settled on an extraordinary 48 hours, the message that nobody is too big to take a fall will surely hit the peleton with a massive force. As ammunition in the fight against doping, this may prove to be the decisive turning point we've all been after, the moment that the world’s biggest race turned on its protagonists and said ‘enough is enough’. After this, you must surely be a dope to consider doping.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Carl Orr...

As promised, I'm moving away from the slightly tongue-in-cheek reviews of CDs I haven't enjoyed that have been occupying too much space here of late. This is one of those rare 'talent deserving wider recognition' moments, a genuinely high quality session that leaves me scratching my head as to why Orr isn't better known.

As with many of my reviews, the positive ones at least, I was quoted on the artist's website. Orr's profile hasn't, to my knowledge, risen as a result, but I suppose that just goes to show what a funny business this is...

Absolute Freedom
OWN (KR 01)

Unstoppable; Blues For Jimi; Tomorrow’s Girls; Dangerfunk; Return Of The Jazz Police; Voice Of The People; Non-violence Is The Only Way Forward; The Price Of Peace.

Nathan Haines (ss); Carl Orr (g, syn); Adam Glasser (p, hmca); Neville Malcolm (b); Davide De Rose (d); Billy Cobham (d).
Recorded July 2001.

After hearing this astonishingly accomplished slice of intelligent fusion I wondered how it could possibly be that I’d never previously heard of Carl Orr. A little bit of digging reveals that the guitarist was actually born just up the road from me in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, though other than a spell studying at Berklee in the mid 80s he has spent much of his life in Australia, only returning to the UK in 1995.

Now in his mid 40s, 20 years of dues paid in various jazz and rock ensembles, including a long association with fusion legend Billy Cobham, are beginning to bear fruit. Within seconds of the opening bars of ‘Unstoppable’ we’re taken back to the Miles/Scofield units of some 20 years ago. Orr has Scofield’s way of squeezing out the notes until they cry, adopting the same distorted tone, accented by volume and wah-wah pedals.

Whilst the disc’s title may prepare you for a post-Last Exit free-funk cacophony, ‘freedom in the groove’ (to paraphrase Joshua Redman) is what this disc is all about. Forget any preconceived notions about old school fusion, Orr’s band lack both the pomposity and rhythmic stiffness that have made the genre so risible for many years. Bassist Neville Malcolm and drummer Davide de Rose are a flexible team and they know how to probe within a structure without destroying it.

Glasser’s Rhodes piano is as contemporary as it is retro, adding seductive layers of texture to the music. Cobham and Haines guest only on ‘Unstoppable’ and the extended workout ‘Dangerfunk’, though it’s abundantly clear elsewhere that Orr’s band can deliver even without the patronage of established stars. With big label backing I’m sure that something could be done about the incongruously bland and unassuming packaging. This material is ready made fodder for the jazz/funk/groove aficionados (I confess, I’m one of them) who get a kick out of Scofield’s more recent output, Soulive, or the all conquering Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Possibly hard to find other than at gigs or via the website, but if there’s any justice in the music marketplace then I hope that this can be a stepping stone that raises the guitarist’s profile to a more fitting level of visibility.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, February 2005)

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

In Vino Veritas...?

Many of my other predictions for this year's Tour de France may have gone awry, but I remember predicting on the eve of the race that Alexander Vinokourov may not complete the race, given the dark clouds that were already hanging over him.

Today came the news that he has tested positive for an homologous blood transfusion following Saturday's time trial in Albi, which he won by a crushing margin. The rider then had an off day on Sunday, losing almost 30 minutes, but powered to victory yesterday in the mountainous stage to Loudenvielle for his second stage win of this year's event.

The team he rides for, Astana, have been asked to leave the race, and they have suspended the rider even before the results of his 'B' sample are known. Vino is famous for his gutsy never say die style of riding, and as well as being the pre-race favourite for victory in Paris he is also the rider that most fans identify with.

What this now means for cycling is anybody's guess, but at the moment you could be forgiven for thinking that the only positive will be Vino's test results. Some would say that the sport can't really sink any lower - this is the equivalent of David Beckham being found guilty of match fixing. Fellow riders and commentators alike will be shocked, if not truly surprised, but it is the impact it has on sponsors, the lifeblood of the sport (bad pun intended), that I feel will be critical.

If the sport's financial backers lose their nerve and patience - a not entirely unreasonable reaction - then the Pro Tour circus as we currently know it is almost unimaginable. Without the exposure and publicity of international TV coverage, the sport may become largely the preserve of amateurs racing in events organised by their domestic Federations. At best it would slide to the level currently occupied by the Continental Pro-teams, that little known feeder route into the big time.

Ironically it is Vinokourov who has done as much as anybody in recent times to attract sponsorship into the sport, making Astana almost the state sponsored team of Kazakhstan, with backing recently secured for the next ten years. It was widely assumed that Vino would move upstairs into management, but he's even less likely to be welcomed back at the moment than Bjarne Riis, who at least admitted his offences and is impressively making amends.

My own feeling is that the sport needs to go on the offensive, spreading the message that their anti-doping measures are bearing fruit. No matter how big a rider's reputation, if found to be cheating it's 'game over'. I'm not sure that the sport can rely on weathering the storm, as it has done so often in the past. The slow and painful process of healing its wounds needs time and stable sponsorship. If the UCI fail to put a positive spin on this dark episode then the truth of Vino's positive may well prove to be that it was the straw that finally broke the camel's heavily overloaded back.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Tour De France - Week 2...

With the riders now entering the decisive Pyrenean stages, this is proving to be a far from an ordinary Tour de France. For the first time since Marco Pantani’s victory in 1998, we in the yellow jersey a specialist climber who looks capable of carrying it all the way to Paris. Many thought we’d never see the likes of Pantani again, following Lance Armstrong’s ruthless and clinical blueprint for race domination. Although there is a lot of racing still to be done in the final week, even the possibility of a Rasmussen victory is exciting.

The second week proved to be as eventful as the first. Still no rider or team seems capable of dominating the race outright, in its self I’d suggest evidence of decreased incidences of rider doping. After the first Alpine stage I got a little carried away, praising T-Mobile’s new anti-doping credo. Their young rider Linus Gerdemann, who won both the stage and the yellow jersey on stage 7 into Le-Grand-Bornand, offered hope that things were starting to change.

Gerdemann’s grip on the jersey lasted exactly 24 hours, and although not himself implicated in any scandal, his team’s anti doping stance began to look questionable when on Wednesday it emerged that Patrik Sinkewitz had tested positive for abnormal levels of testosterone at training camp in June. The permitted levels of testosterone are fixed at 4:1, and Sinkewitz registered a mighty 24:1, outdoing even Floyd Landis.

Although the tests aren’t complete on Sinkewitz’s ‘B’ sample, it would need a pretty dramatic failure of laboratory testing procedures to exonerate the rider. German TV decided not to wait, immediately pulling the plug on their live TV coverage. After Ullrich, Zabel and almost everybody connected with the mighty Team Telekom of the late ‘90s had been caught or confessed to doping, patience finally snapped. With many sponsors nervous about the continuing image problems of the sport, this race needs to be a Tour of Renewal even more than the post-Festina edition of the race in 1999.

On the road, it all went wrong for young Gerdemann on Stage 8, cracking on the climb to Tignes and losing team leader Michael Rogers, who dislocated his shoulder in a heavy fall on the final descent of the day. Michael Rasmussen moved into yellow, where he has been ever since.

With Vinokourov in plaster and Klöden carrying a back injury, pundits began to mention notorious wheel-sucker Cadel Evans alongside Alejandro Valverde as the race’s eventual winner. Evans is a better time-triallist than Rasmussen, and it looked like he could win simply by being the rider least likely to have a bad day – the Armstrong formula. Fortunately the Dane had other ideas, doing the time-trial of his life on Saturday in Albi, increasing his overall lead, and then cracking Evans on Sunday’s thrilling stage to Plateau-de-Beille where he took almost 2 minutes out of the Aussie.

Of course it is worth mentioning that Rasmussen dominated the headlines for the wrong reasons on Thursday, being dropped from the Danish national team for missing two out of competition doping tests whilst training in Mexico in June. Rasmussen tackled the media questions head-on, and his explanations all sounded reasonable. An irate Christian Prudhomme, race director, clearly has faith in the rider, reminding the press that he has been tested on several occasions since and been found to be clear each time. Prudhomme even went as far as to criticise the Danish Federation for the timing of their announcement, right in the middle of the Tour.

It now looks as though only Alberto Contador, a time trial disaster next Saturday, or the fallout from his doping scandals can stop The Dane from taking an historic and hard-earned victory. The road seems to littered with riders of the Armstrong type this year – Valverde, Rogers, Vinokourov and Klöden to name but four – and a victory by a specialist climber would be one in the eye to formulaic racing. Assuming that Rasmussen has nothing to hide, I’ll be cheering next Sunday should he still be wearing yellow as the riders parade down the Champs Elysees.

Collective 4-tet...

In the last of this little weekend mini-series of reviews of CDs I haven't enjoyed, this one is posted to show that my credentials for objectivity are fully intact.

Anybody who knows me will be aware of how much I admire the music of William Parker. You only have to go back to the recent posting of my review of Luc's Lantern to see just how much that is true. This album, however, was a different matter altogether. Do I pretend it is a contemporary classic, or do I call it as I hear it?

I've read too many fawning and uncritical reviews to do anything other than speak up when I feel that something doesn't punch its weight. This, I believe, can be said for Jazz Review's team of writers in general. On the whole I'm a pretty generous reviewer, so back to more positive things next week, I hope...!!

Moving Along

Drawing From The Pool; Moving Along; Si En Si.

Jeff Hoyer (tb); Mark Hennen (p); William Parker (b); Heinz Geiser (d)
Recorded November 2002.

The presence of the mighty William Parker on a recording always produces high expectations in this particular listener. Although cutting his teeth at the sharp edge of free-jazz in the 1970s, recent projects have been increasingly structured and rhythmically orthodox, reflecting a new desire to mine the groove more often at this particular stage of his career. A tireless organiser and a generous spirit, it’s not surprising that he sometimes spreads himself too thinly.

The Collective 4-tet illustrate this perfectly. This US-European co-operative now have five recordings in the Leo catalogue, blending free-jazz sonorities with the process-driven approach of non-idiomatic collective improvisation. Whilst all four members of the group are extremely talented musicians on an individual level, it soon becomes evident that the decision to adopt non-hierarchical instrumental relationships is the group’s Achilles Heel.

Each of the three pieces on Moving Along starts with a quiet, almost impressionistic pool of calm. Once these agreed starting points are left behind, an air of inevitability to the trajectory of each improvisation takes over. Instead of serving as gateways to higher creative plains, an all-consuming percussive maelstrom, lacking any real tension and release, is unleashed each time.

What we’re left with are three unwieldy sound masses that drift towards no particular destination. Walking such precarious musical tightropes demands qualities that both Parker and the increasingly impressive trombonist Jeff Hoyer possess. Knowing when not to play is as important as actually making a statement in this type of setting – the realisation that not everything can be left to chance.

Hoyer largely favours conventional technique, and his close-knit interplay with Parker provides at least a glimpse of something more transcendent. Hennen and Geiser play their parts with great passion but to my ears fail to establish any wider musical rapport. At its best, this risky form of music can certainly deliver the results to back the claims made in Art Lange’s typically oblique sleeve-notes that the kinetic aspects of collective improvisation are what make it so exciting and infinitely renewable. Sadly, this somewhat formulaic session has too little of the ‘wow’ factor required to prevent it from merely treading water.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, March 2005)

Friday, 20 July 2007

Trio Gitano...

In an effort to provide you with a bit of fun for the weekend, the scathing review theme continues. Few CDs have ever come my way that have been as unsatisfying as this one. As ever, I think that I went the extra mile to try to understand it...

Who Ate All The Tapas?
The Birds Recording Company (CD 1001)

Latin Swing; Minor Blues; Adagio; Spanish Cinema; Baiao De Gude; Take 5; Heroes Part I: Prelude; Part II: Paganini Passing; Part III: Heroes; Part IV: Dance & Cadenza; Saeta; On The Run; Blue Drag.

Jamie Fekete, Sophie Johnson, Sam Slater (g); Bryan Corbett (t/flh), (Recorded Summer 2004).

A strange title at first sight, but by the time we get to the third track, an adaptation of Rodriguez’ “Concerto de Aranjuez”, it is apparent that this is exactly the kind of inoffensive jazz-lite heard in swanky tapas bars and bistros the worldover. Thirteen tracks, each barely breaking the four minute barrier, slickly executed but lacking the kinds of rough edges that would tell you this is jazz, a music of spontanaeity.

Formed in 2001, Trio Gitano are a guitar trio drawing on a range of influences, from gypsy jazz to classical, flamenco and other folk forms. They even have a musical director, Bryan Lester, who arranges much of the material. A string of appearances at clubs, theatres and festivals has put them on the map, and I can’t imagine they’d disappoint casual listeners with their tightly drilled delivery.

Not unlike Nigel Kennedy’s forgettable foray into jazz, this is music aimed at people who think they like jazz but probably turn edgy whenever the melody seems to be too far away. Trumpet and flugelhorn player Bryan Corbett spices things up on three of the tracks, the aforementioned “Concerto”, “Spanish Cinema” and “Saeta”. If it’s an attempt to evoke Sketches of Spain then perhaps Kenny G can be the next Coltrane.

Paul Desmond’s “Take 5”, perhaps the one piece of jazz that more people are unconsciously familiar with than any other, gets the luxury of a six minute rendition. Hardly a workout, but the trio do at least attempt something of substance.

Taken on its own terms, which ultimately it has to be, Who Ate All The Tapas? is pleasant, pretty music with enough virtuosity to engage even attentive listeners. For the more demanding jazz audience, however, tapas alone will never fill a hungry belly.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, October 2005)

Eliane Elias...

As I'm on the theme of CDs I've reviewed and not really liked at the moment, here's another...

Bluebird/BMG (58335)

Call Me; Baubles, Bangles and Beads; Fotographia; Movin’ Me On; So Nice; That’s All; Tangerine; Dreamer; Time Alone; Doralice; A House Is Not A Home.

Michael Brecker (ts); Elaine Elias (p, voc); Oscar Castro Neves (g); Marc Johnson (b); Paolo Braga (d); orchestra directed by Rob Mathes.

Once aggressively marketed as a bona fide jazz sex symbol, with album covers that could have featured in a Pirelli calendar, Brazilian singer-pianist Eliane Elias remains hot property in the world of music marketing. Classically trained and with a dazzling technique at the piano, Elias could comfortably survive in the top ranks of jazz instrumentalists should she choose to do so. With the current vogue for singer-pianists, however, her second Bluebird release is an unashamed attempt to tap into the Norah Jones-Diana Krall market.

Although pleasant and well executed in the ways that crossover jazz often is, the music on ‘Dreamer’ is as soft-focus as the portrait of Elias which adorns its cover. The album takes the sound of the classic Jobim-Gilberto collaborations as its main inspiration, though the material is drawn not just from the Brazilian songbook but includes several American standards and two Elias originals. Calling on the services of former Steps Ahead colleague Michael Brecker, bassist Marc Johnson and and guitarist Oscar Castro Neves, the band is certainly of a high calibre. Yet individual talents are neutered by the tight orchestration and insipid, cloying string arrangements.

On the few occasions that Brecker solos, he merely summons short and velvety Getz pastiches appropriate to the idiom. Elias’ piano is restricted to colourful fills. As a vocalist her talents are rather less obvious than her pianism, though she is at least passable. The voice is husky and accented, with a narrow range that renders a lot of the material as same-y. Standout tracks tend to be simply those that are slightly different. Elias’ ‘Movin’ Me On’ has an ear for potential air-play, ‘Doralice’ is sung in her native tongue and benefits from the most stripped-down and unfussy arrangement, and ‘Time Alone’ includes a slightly longer piano solo.

Other than that, all you really need to know is that ‘Call Me’ is not a cover of the Blondie classic of the same name. Dreamer is primarily a vehicle for Elias’ voice and must ultimately be judged on its own terms. Undoubtedly jazz-related music, improvisation is sadly so tightly harnessed that even in crossover terms the disc occupies a curious limbo, leaving it unlikely to either offend or excite.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2004)

Monday, 16 July 2007

John Sheridan...

This is the first piece I ever had published in Jazz Review, and editor Richard Cook sent it to me, I'm sure, as a bit of a test. I was associated with the avant-garde at the time, and had written for both Rubberneck and Avant magazines. What better way to to wrong-foot me than with some deplorable trad revivalism?

I was probably lucky to pass the test, and I remember Richard sent it back to me at least twice to start again. His advice that I should approach it not from the point of view of a 'Wire' reading modernist, but a jazz aficionado who may actually want to buy the CD, stuck with me.

A valuable lesson, but those skilled at reading between the lines will recognise that old adage about faint praise from time to time...

Get Rhythm In Your Feet

Stop, Look And Listen; All The Cats Join In; Indian Summer; I Love My Baby; I Was Doing All Right; A Gal In Calico; Humpty Dumpty Heart; Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea; People Like You And Me; I’m In The Mood For Love; Get Rhythm In Your Feet; A Handful Of Stars; You Can’t Pull The Wool Over My Eyes; My Extraordinary Gal; Walkin’ By The River; The Dixieland Band.

Randy Reinhart (c); Russ Phillips (tb); Brian Ogilvie (ts); Ron Hockett (cl); John Sheridan (p); Reuben Ristrom (g); Phil Flanigan (b); Ed Metz Jnr (d); Becky Kilgore (v).
Recorded January 2002.

Dave Brubeck once remarked that he couldn’t understand why young kids would want to play music as un-challenging as Dixieland. That was nearly 50 years ago, and listening to this, the third Arbors Jazz release by John Sheridan’s Dream Band, some of the issues raised in Brubeck’s then progressive sentiments did cross my mind.

Ultimately it is the question that vexed jazz in the three decades following World War II - adventure and risk, or safe certainties? Fortunately we’ve now reached a point where a middle way can be found, and ‘classic jazz’ involving an element of reinterpretation can safely be met on its own terms.

The mainstream jazz played in the 1960s by the likes of George Wein and his Newport Allstars perhaps got there first, but Sheridan was a contemporary of that movement, and played a part in developing its vocabulary. So how does his new disc measure up?

The period revisited is not the Dixieland of Brubeck’s sideswipe, but the small group sound if the Swing Era. Those familiar with the musicians of the Dream Band will not be surprised to hear that they’re a well-oiled machine, comfortably purring along at any tempo. Their repertoire is a mixture of period pieces and head-based ‘originals’ in the generic style.

Vocalist Becky Kilgore sings sweetly on half of the 16 tracks, and an intelligent choice of songs scattered amongst the instrumentals helps to sustain a varied programme. As a pianist Sheridan’s style is strongly influenced by Jess Stacey and Teddy Wilson, and as an arranger his charts are tight and unfussy, allowing lots of room for sequences of concise solos. You could be forgiven at times for thinking that you’re actually listening to a Goodman, Dorsey or Krupa small group recorded in super hi-fi, so sympathetic are his band to the project’s aims and spirit.

If there is any consolidation at all then it comes in the subtle expansion of the harmonic horizons that prevailed in the 1930s. I suspect innovation will be of lesser importance to fans of the style than the overriding virtues of period authenticity and exuberant swing. On these counts, Get Rhythm In Your Feet scores highly, and should be recommended listening for the faithful.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, December 2002)

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Proof positive that doping is on the run?

How symbolic it is that on the day on which Erik Zabel was stripped of his 1996 green jersey for admitting his use of EPO during that year’s Tour, his German compatriot Linus Gerdemann should find himself in yellow after a thrilling attack on the Col de la Colombiere.

Gerdemann, at just 24 years of age, is a leading light of the new generation of riders that have shunned the doping culture to trust in their innate talent to win races. T-Mobile is now a very different animal to the outfit that Zabel raced with a decade ago. Their much publicised anti-doping policies are rivalled only by those of Bjarne Riis’ CSC. Riis himself is of course another of the old guard and was part of the same 1996 team as Zabel. He has also been stripped of his winner’s jersey following his recent and still controversial confessional, and his rehabilitation looks far from complete.

Tour organisers ASO haven’t even allowed him to attend the race in an official capacity as CSC team manager. That is in many ways understandable, given the way in which he has tarnished their cherished brand. Yet their decision also smacks of naivety about cycling in the 80s and 90s. Given that the UCI don’t punish riders for events that occurred more than eight years previously, it also seems inconsistent. Applying their logic, shouldn't Zabel also be thrown out of this year's race? ASO need to realise the fact, however unpalatable, that it is repenting sinners like Riis who are now the best hope of saving the sport from meltdown, and that the Dane has done far more than most in fighting this particular fight.

So can we now say that we’ve finally reached some kind of a turning point in professional cycling? Certainly there are signs of a cleaner sport already starting to filter through. The closeness and unpredictability of much of the racing in the first week suggests that the playing field is far more level than in previous years. No one rider or team seems to be able to dominate, and the relative anonymity of a lot of riders from Spain and Italy who at one time adopted the kind of buccaneering style that in hindsight can only be viewed with a healthy scepticism is also a good sign.

Of course we’ve been prevented from yet seeing just how strong the Astana team actually are, their two leaders picking up severe injuries in nasty but unrelated crashes last Thursday. The whispering campaign against their ethical code hasn’t yet silenced, and although they earlier dismissed Matthias Kessler for his recent testosterone positive, it seems too early to talk of proof positive that the Promised Land has been reached.

The coming days in the Alps may not decide the race, but now would seem to be the ideal time for the likes of Valverde, Evans and Karpets to attack Astana. Give the Kazakh outfit time to lick their wounds and regroup and they’re sure to bounce back in the last third of the race, where the Pyrenees and two tough individual time trials await. I hope that in the coming days we do see riders actually trying to win the race, as opposed to not losing it. It isn’t good enough for riders like Evans to stay in the pack and arrive at the end of each stage content not to have lost time to their rivals.

Cancellara, another hugely gifted rider under the tutelage of Riis, deserved his week in yellow. Subject to an unprecedented number of independent doping controls in and out of competition, you just have to believe that he’s for real. I predicted last week that he’d win the prologue, but little did I realise how convincingly he’d destroy the opposition. That made up for my implausible prediction that Markus Fothen would be leading the white jersey competition as best young rider – of course Fothen recently turned 25 so is no longer eligible to score points in that particular competition!

As Gerdemann showed on the road to Le Grand-Bornand, fortune really can favour the brave in cycling, and predictions are the province of the foolish. Whilst it is too much to ask that he’ll be able to defend the jersey – there I go with another rash prediction - his victory is exactly the type of good news story that the sport needs at the present time. The near certainty that young Linus is doing it clean makes his achievement all the more satisfying. Roll on week 2…

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Chick Corea Part II...

The recent posting of my review of Corea's 'Rendezvouz In New York' almost turned into a discussion thread, with five comments at the time of this posting. Admittedly two of those comments were mine, but every forum needs a good moderator.

This one should provide a few more laughs, as I rein in my diplomacy and tact a little further than normal to take a few shots at 80s fusion. The conclusion is fair though - this is better than those old GRP albums, where the musicians adorned the back covers sporting Miami Vice clothing and authentic mullet hair-cuts. Come to think of it though, that part of the fusion culture hasn't really changed to this day!!

Worth a listen for sure, and a fun way to commemorate the first thousand 'hits' on Afric Pepperbird...

To The Stars

Check Blast; Port View I; Mistress Luck – A Portrait; Mistress Luck – The Party; Port View II; Johnny’s Landing; Port View III; Alan Corday; Port View IV; Hound of Heaven; Port View V; The Long Passage; Port View VI; Jocelyn – The Commander; Port View VII; Captain Jocelyn – Tribute by his Crew; Captain Jocelyn – The Pianist.

Steve Wilson (ss); Eric Marienthal (as); Chick Corea (ky); Frank Gambale (g); John Patitucci (b); Dave Weckl (d); Pernell Saturnino (perc); Gayle Moran Corea (v).
No recording date available.

Whilst I’m a great admirer of substantial pockets of Corea’s work, I thought that his Elektric Band sound dated even 20 years ago. I’d never deny that their brand of airbrushed fusion made for harmless fun, but their synthetic glitz always seemed tasteless, and I secretly pined for something more substantial.

On reflection, the charts composed for the band were some of the most technically demanding that the pianist has ever written, despite their bubblegum veneer. Corea’s liner notes speak with great affection for this latest project (“the dream of a lifetime come true”), a musical voyage to the stars inspired by the L. Ron Hubbard novel of the same name. Hubbard’s interconnectedness to Corea’s outlook and work has never been more pronounced.

The music is by necessity highly cinematic, bringing to life various characters and scenarios from the book. Sadly, the opening bars of ‘Check Blast’ quickly confirm that everything that sounded dated 20 years ago is still in need of miraculous astral projection to even begin to sound remotely new or fresh today. Gambale’s lead guitar lines, all testosterone and laser-like precision, are now as quaint as glam-rock or doo-wop.

What is apparent, however, is a greater maturity and balance than those earlier efforts, almost as if the various novel electronic gizmos have finally been assimilated and put to the service of the music. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given that this isn’t the Akoustic Band, a high proportion of the pieces feature acoustic piano. Portraits of ‘Lady Luck’ and ‘Jocelyn – The Commander’ are fine examples, offering substance where once there would only have been façade.

‘Johnny’s Landing’ has some tasty Fender Rhodes to roll back the years even further, whilst ‘Alan Corday’ is almost straight-ahead jazz, boasting an impressive cameo by Steve Wilson and a momentary tethering of Gambale’s fireballs via his use of acoustic guitar. A series of short ambient ‘Port Views’ serve as interludes, reminding us, lest we forget, that this is a musical voyage into space.

For all my slightly jaundiced view of this side of Corea’s musical personality, To The Stars is as fully realised as any project he’s ever been involved in. A major success on its own terms, but whether or not you’re an admirer of this particular band is still, as it always was, a simple matter of taste.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, October 2004)

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Chick Corea...

"Perhaps inevitably I’m left feeling that the youthful urgency of his work from the 1960’s, when the stakes were much higher, should be preferred to such a cosy commemoration".

This snippet seems to sum up my feelings about this Grammy Award winning project, and it describes a tendency amongst musicians that seems to be all too common. Starting out brimming with energy and ideas, somewhere along the line, after they've made it big, will come the Liberace lobotomy. Florid, ornate, 'look at me guys' playing just doesn't do it for me, I'm afraid.

Perhaps it's easier to name those whose work bucks the trend and remains vital throughout their career. That said, there was still much to enjoy here, even if ultimately its only lasting impact was to make me go back to the '60s and '70s to hear the real deal...

Rendezvous In New York

Armando’s Rhumba; Blue Monk; Concierto De Aranjuez; Matrix; Glass Enclosure; Tempus Fugit; Crystal Silence; Bessies Blues; Autumn Leaves; Armando’s tango; Concierto De Aranjuez; Lifeline; Quartet No 2 Part 1.

Terence Blanchard (t); Steve Davis (tb); Steve Wilson (as); Michael Brecker (ts), Joshua Redman (ts); Tim Garland (ts); Gary Burton (vib); Chick Corea (p); Gonzalo Rubalcaba (p); Miroslav Vitous (b); Christian McBride (b); John Patitucci (b); Avishai Cohen (b); Eddie Gomez (b); Roy Haynes (d); Steve Gadd (d); Dave Weckl (d); Jeff Ballard (d); Bobby McFerrin (voc). Recorded 12/01.

Culled from over 60 hours of performances by nine different groups at New York’s Blue
Note club on the occasion of his 60th birthday, Rendezvous In New York is an appealing idea. Corea is one of jazz’s key players and certainly worthy of such extravagance, even though his ‘elektric’ phase may have terminally alienated many purists.

The accent here is very much on the ‘akoustic’ side of his work, with most of his career landmark groups specially reformed. Even when unplugged, however, Corea emerges as a player you must accept warts and all. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs was one of the finest Blue Notes of the late ‘60s, and Vitous and Haynes are reunited with the pianist for a spirited reprisal of ‘Matrix’. Certainly one of the set’s highlights, Corea shows that he’s lost none of his flair for energetic soloing, though it is interesting to note how much more conservative he’s become over the years. Nothing is included here by Circle, for example, an important group that uncannily anticipated European chamber-improv.

Whether deliberate or not, a whole chapter of his acoustic career is effectively skipped. The dominant mode is now uptempo and latin-tinged, making the duets with Gary Burton and Gonzalo Rubalcaba a welcome respite from the overabundant musical bravado. The irrepressible Akoustic Band with Patitucci and Weckl do make a virtue out of virtuosity, however, successfully translating the flamboyance of the fusion years into a more traditional setting.

The Remembering Bud Powell ensemble, where Blanchard is sensational, serve hard blowing from the old school that will satisfy most tastes. Three duets with Bobby McFerrin are, for me at least, a yet to be acquired taste, whilst the material played by latter day ensemble ‘Origin’ is a reminder of Corea’s irritating tendency to floridly overplay his hand.

Perhaps inevitably I’m left feeling that the youthful urgency of his work from the 1960’s, when the stakes were much higher, should be preferred to such a cosy commemoration. Yet with so many projects contained beneath one roof, beautiful packaging and rich SACD sound, this collection is nevertheless a useful stock-take on a bona fide jazz superstar, and a must-have for his considerable fan base.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, August 2003)

Sunday, 8 July 2007

John Edwards & Mark Sanders...

This one caused me a lot of problems. In my time as a promoter I got to know Mark and John really well, seeing them several times a year. I'd booked them with a whole host of national and international figures, including Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann and Elton Dean. Building an audience for avant-garde improvised music eventually defeated me, sapping my energy as I tried unsuccessfully to establish sufficient interest to support it.

By the time I got to review this CD I was already out of sympathy with European Free Music, and it probably shows. Phrases like 'abstract yet somehow well mapped terrain' summarise my feelings. This should be the ultimate music of surprise, unique in every performance and made without rules or careful planning. Yet so often I simply heard the same range of small noises, played within the same basic structure of quiet-crescendo-quiet, players unable to escape habits formed by memories of past musical experiences. For the few genuine moments of magic, the many longeurs no longer seemed to be worth the effort.

That should take nothing away from Mark and John's unique talents in this field. As long as there's an audience for this undoubtedly challenging music, both will represent the best that it can offer. Finding that audience may well be the intractable problem. Part of my review made it to the Emanem website, and I wish them both well.

The Nisus Duets
EMANEM (4094)

Pointing; Painting; Panting; Peeling; Peering; Pouring; Parting.
John Edwards (b); Mark Sanders (perc). Recorded 7/02

As leading players of European improvised music, Sanders and Edwards are used to working in a non-hierarchical musical system, where choice of instrumentation matters less than the process of improvisation itself and the sonic potential available. The two work together so often and in so many different ensembles that a duet recording comes as no surprise, and whenever they play together in larger formation, a moment always seems to occur when other players drop out and the are left to take centre stage.

Unlike William Parker and Hamid Drake’s Piercing The Veil (AUM Fidelity), which used the same instrumentation to strikingly different effect, The Nisus Duets stick to the abstract yet somehow well-mapped terrain of free improvisation. Close listening, rapid interaction and accumulated musical experience all combine to shape unique but somehow familiar musical landscapes.

Selected and edited by minimalist electro-acoustic composer, and occasional collaborator, John Wall, the duets nicely cover the full range of current trends in improv - from ‘new reductionism’ to old school bubble and squeak. Only during the very brief ‘Panting’ do they sound anything remotely like a conventional rhythm section. Wall’s composerly hand doesn’t seem to shape the duets into any logical sequence, though each performance taken in isolation would get through even the most demanding listener’s quality control.

Edwards and Sanders are two of this music’s best, most in demand, and most uncompromising improvisers on their respective instruments. You’d expect the very best that the genre can offer from such a blue-chip pairing, and this is exactly what you get. If you find improv to be pure anathema, though, don’t expect these duets to make you a convert.

One final but intriguing possibility should also be mentioned in connection with this recording. Given that Jamey Aebersold is, to my knowledge, yet to produce a free improv play-along tape, why not buy this disc and use it as an alternative to the tedium of solitary woodshedding?

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, October 2003)

Friday, 6 July 2007

Anthony Braxton...

Reviewing music by Anthony Braxton is a tough assignment. Often impenetrable and something of a horse-hair shirt for the ears, this is the kind of music that probably gets talked about more than it gets listened to. An acquired taste, my past involvement with the avant-garde probably stood me in good stead where others would have run for the hills.

I've never doubted his importance as a theorist, and when his chops are in good shape there's no doubting the heights he can scale either. He's broken many moulds in his time, yet his music demands patience and sometimes a big leap of faith from the listener.

I'm posting this now because Braxton plays in London on Sunday with Cecil Taylor. After the Tour de France, could it be the biggest show in town this weekend...?

Ninetet (Yoshi’s) 1997 Vol 2
LEO RECORDS (LR 382/383)

Composition No 209; Composition No 210

Anthony Braxton (as, ss, cmel, f, cl, bcl, cbcl); Brandon Evans (ts, ss, sno, bcl, f); James Fei (as, ss, bcl); Jackson Moore (as, bcl); Andre Vida (ts, as, ss, bs); J. D. Parran (ss, bsx, f); Kevin O’Neal (g); Joe Fonda (b); Kevin Norton (d, vib).
Recorded 8/97

Anthony Braxton’s music has never been easy, but there’s no doubt that he’s been the most consistently forward-looking member to have emerged from Chicago’s AACM. His seminal For Alto (1968) remains a touchstone for anybody attempting a solo saxophone recording, and his many great quartets stand as high watermarks in avant-garde jazz.

Yet Braxton is a man who thrives on radical change and renewal, and when he unveiled his Ghost Trance Music in 1995 I recoiled in horror, thinking he’s found the perfect musical cul-de-sac. For those yet to make its acquaintance, Ghost Trance is a highly repetitious exploration of a minimal cycle of notes, played over a theoretically infinite duration as a series of slowly evolving cells.

The intention behind Ghost Trance is for the performer to reach a heightened state of concentration and awareness, though as a listener it first struck me as extremely stiff and ultimately boring. Recorded some two years after that inauspicious first encounter, Volume 2 of the Braxton Ninetet’s August 1997 residency at Yoshi’s shows a clear method in what I had first thought to be pure madness.

In just two years the music seems to have undergone drastic refinement and now sounds unmistakably like Braxton, an extension of his ever evolving ‘continuum’. ‘Composition 209’ and ‘Composition 210’ both share the manic staccato phrasing that first drove me to despair, but there is now more space for individuals to emerge from the ensemble, and more discernible shifts and motifs are deployed.

The ensemble never waver from the challenge posed by the work’s duration, and the reed-heavy composition of the group suits Braxton’s intricate style. Now combining hard blowing in the conventional sense with an exploration of the limits of a certain theoretical possibility, the music becomes almost appealing.

Reservations remain about stiffness, but Braxton has once again undeniably found a new angle on jazz. Neatly presenting two whole compositions, and with a good live recording sound, open-minded listeners yet to reach the ghost trance state of mind should seek this one out.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, February 2004)

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Tour de France: Crystal Ball time...

Note: This is my half of a joint TdF preview written with Marco De Luca for The full version can be found here.

Predictions in cycling are never a good idea. No matter who lines up at the start of the Tour De France on Saturday, there is no guarantee that they’ll finish in Paris, three weeks and several thousand kilometres later. Anything from unpredictable injuries to disgraced exits after failed dope tests can affect the riders, who will have been gearing their preparations towards this race all season.

Predictions are nevertheless good fun - as long as you don’t look at them again after the event has finished. Here, then, are my tips for this year’s race, and feel free to remind me about them when they all go wrong!

Podium: 1: Alejandro Valverde; 2: Alexander Vinokourov; 3: Carlos Sastre

Green Jersey: Robbie McEwen

King of the Mountains: Michael Rasmussen

White Jersey: Markus Fothen

Outsider: Vladimir Karpets

Team: CSC

Prologue: Fabian Cancellara

Key Stage: 16 Orthez-Gourette.

I haven’t picked everybody’s hot favourite Alexander Vinokourov. Assuming that he gets to Paris in three weeks time then of course he’s a good bet, but with so many clouds hanging over him I’ve had to go for the 'not entirely above suspicion but slightly less likely to be rumbled in the next few weeks' Alejandro Valverde, the best all-rounder in the race after the Kazakh. This may be Robbie McEwen’s last chance for the sprinter's jersey, and he’ll be even more aggressive than usual. I can’t see anybody holding on to the tails of Rasmussen when he launches his big attack, and Fothen looks unstoppable for the young rider’s jersey, particularly with last year’s winner Damiano Cunego not racing.

I didn’t choose Brits Millar or Wiggins for the Prologue in London, but it’s hard to see an on form Cancellara being beaten. I will however make a concession to national chauvinism and tip Mark Cavendish to make a big impact in his first Tour.

Whatever happens when the riders reach Paris, I hope it is for the sporting action rather than the doping that this year’s race is remembered. With last year’s winner Floyd Landis due to learn his fate this weekend, we may even know the identity of the winner of the 2006 edition of the race by the time 2007's rolls out on Saturday!

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Larry Young...

A chance to review a Larry Young re-issue was like a dream come true. I always try harder, sometimes too hard, when something like this comes my way, although most of the things that come through the letter box don't inspire the same kind of reverence.

Sadly, you're not likely to find it at your local record store any longer. This was s a limited edition Connoisseur Series release, and criminally it is now 'out of print'. Music like this should never be allowed to fade away, but isn't that one of the biggest predicaments facing jazz...?

Mother Ship

Mother Ship; Street Scene; Visions; Trip Merchant; Love Drops.

Lee Morgan (t); Herbert Morgan (ts); Larry Young (org); Eddie Gladden (d).
Recorded 2/69.

Bridging the gap between jazz and the ‘new thing’, as well as playing a key role in developing a viable fusion of jazz and rock, Larry Young deserves a more prominent place in the pantheon of jazz greats. This long-awaited reissue, the last session he recorded for Blue Note, was puzzlingly held back from release until 1980.

His 1965 disc Unity, with the dream team of Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw, is quite probably my all-time favourite Blue Note release. Although often straining at the leash, Unity ultimately stays close to jazz conventions. By way of contrast, Mother Ship, deploying the same instrumentation, shows just how far the leader’s vision had developed in a short space of time.

Not only had Young moved the organ to new frontiers in the world of jazz, he’d also reached a rock crossover audience via his pivotal role in Tony Williams’ acclaimed group Lifetime. Every piece on Mother Ship could be the subject of an essay, from the fire-breathing title track to the spacey boogaloo of 'Street Scene’ and Young’s pulsing bass and swirling atonal clusters on ‘Trip Merchant’, they’re all gems.

A new darkness and intensity is apparent in Young’s sound post-Lifetime. Structures have become so loose as to offer wide open expanses for the soloists to roam freely. How then does that eternal Blue Note mainstay Lee Morgan fit into such a volatile brew? I’ve never gone along with the idea that Freddie Hubbard sounded out of his depth on avant-garde sessions, but with the exception of Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution the idea holds truer for Morgan. Perhaps the solo on the opener, where he seems to be looking for a non-existent straight line, explains why Mother Ship remained unreleased for so long? In his defence it must be said that rather than be defeated by the challenge he digs deep, and his solos on both ‘Trip Merchant’ and ‘Street Scene’ are truly magisterial.

Unrelated namesake Herbert Morgan, who along with Gladden appeared on several of Young’s still out-of-print Blue Notes, has a nicely burnished tone, combining the phrasing of Gene Ammons with the energy of late Coltrane. The precarious balance of stylistic approaches within the group is largely what makes Mother Ship so appealing, epitomising the pioneering spirit of those exciting times when anything seemed possible. A limited edition Connoisseur Series reissue, I therefore recommend a prompt visit to your local dealer to avoid disappointment!

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, January 2004)

Jaksche's blood-letting...

Not exactly the bombshell many had expected, Jörg Jaksche’s interview with Der Spiegel on Monday was nevertheless pretty disturbing stuff. He admitted to doping of various kinds throughout his career, from the late 90’s right through to his victory in the 2004 Paris-Nice for Bjarne Riis’ CSC team and beyond. The most disturbing feature of his candid revelations is the absolute matter-of-fact way in which he speaks of doping as a common and widespread practice across the sport.

His admissions also give insight into how riders fall into the clutches of these dangerous and illegal practices in the first place. To understand how and why this happens is crucial for anybody wishing to understand the prevailing culture in the sport, particularly those who are quick to point the finger of blame at riders who are faced with a choice to either sink or swim.

Jaksche spoke of the Omertá, or vow of silence, covering everybody from doctors, managers, assistants and riders. The reluctance on the part of riders to confess any indiscretions other than their own is, he says, an outward sign of this code. So whilst riders from Rolf Aldag to Erik Zabel have recently admitted their own offences, none have dropped their colleagues into the proverbial. Jaksche drew back from naming individual riders, instead turning his focus to the importance of the backroom staff. Former team manager Gianluigi Stanga and team-mate Alexander Vinokourov have both been quick to denounce him as a self-deluding mad man after a big pay-off in return for juicy gossip, and perhaps this is a predictable response.

Looking back through his career, he describes how as an amateur he never used anything stronger than caffeine or aspirin, but looked in open-mouthed amazement at the Italian Youth squad he often trained with, seemingly possessing physical strength and resilience from another planet.

Jaksche’s route to the hard stuff began when he turned professional with Polti in 1997, first injecting vitamin B12, and then EPO later in the same year. He described how on the first night of injecting the drug he was scared that he wouldn’t wake up, such were the stories he’d heard about how it thickened the blood. All of this, he alleges, was carried out under the gaze of team management and with the full support of team doctors.

He then described how he considered quitting in 1998, but was persuaded to stay on by a promise from German outfit Team Telekom to double his salary if he finished in the top 20 at the Tour De France. He describes how the recently discredited team doctors Heinrich and Schmid administered his ‘medication’ for a sum of 3-4000 Euros a year, even praising them for being more concerned with his general health and possible side-effects than the doctors he’d worked with at Polti.

Following Telekom, Jaksche moved to ONCE and joined Manolo Saiz’s ‘family’, where the doping culture, he alleges, was so advanced that at times he didn’t even know what he was taking! His first exposure to blood doping via transfusion came in 2005 under the supervision of Mr Puerto himself, Eufemiano Fuentes. He described the process as a ‘constant oil change’ and extremely demanding on the body, to such an extent that it limited the number of days racing he could do in any season.

Now 30, Jaksche clearly hopes for leniency in return for his confession, though it is hard to imagine him riding again at the highest level. If he is correct about the commonplace nature of the practices he describes then few will be surprised, so resigned are we to the scarcely hidden truths about this sport. The way in which riders enter the system as willing victims, gambling with their own health, is to me the most disturbing aspect of his admission. If the Omertá is ever to be breached, cycling needs a lot more Jörg Jaksche’s to step forward, and a complete re-calibration of its ethical compass.