Sunday, 24 February 2008

Schlierenzauer Soars....!!

It's not a bad time to be an Austrian ski-jumping fan. Not only has Tommy Morgenstern been crowned World Champion with five rounds of the competition still to go, but big congratulations must also go to Gregor Schlierenzauer, double gold medallist at the World Ski Flying championships held in Obertsdorf, Germany, this weekend.

Around 100,000 spectators turned out in the mild conditions to witness one of the most extreme of mainstream sports. This was 18 year-old Schlierenzauer's first encounter with the sport, having already proven himself as one of the top ski-jumpers on the circuit. Ski Flying takes the same basic lunacy to even greater extremes. Competitors jump from further up the hill, accelerating into flight at over 100km/h, and reaching distances over twice the length of its tame sister-sport. From the right angle - and the TV camerawork from Germany was magnificent - it really does look like they're flying. The men's individual competition on Saturday was held at night under the floodlights, looking even more spectacular.

When you bear in mind that the extra 100 metres is roughly the length of a football (soccer, for international readers) pitch, you'll get some idea of the kinds of feats we're talking about here. Rather like a mountain time-trial in cycling, this is the ultimate test for a professional, pushing the parameters of the possible right to the limit. Last Thursday when I turned on the TV I saw Schlierenzauer gingerly feeling his way into the sport at the qualification session. His first attempt at the discipline, he didn't seem to be entirely comfortable with the transition at first, easing his way in with some pretty conservative efforts. By Saturday he was setting the hill alight, beating Martin Koch and Janne Ahonen into second and third places respectively.

“This is a dream, my greatest victory so far" said an emotional Schlierenzauer. "Ski Flying is a cool sport. I tried to play with the air and it worked perfect today. I can´t realize it at the moment". By Sunday afternoon's team competition he was confident enough to produce a final jump of 216 metres, sealing the gold medal for Austria in the team competition. Everybody now realises that this exciting and natural talent has arrived.

Norway and Finland were left trailing in the slipstreams of the Austrian quartet of Schlierenzauer, Koch, Morgenstern and Kofler this afternoon. Norwegian Anders Jacobsen didn't really carry his form and technical mastery of the flight phase into the competition at all, although Ski Flying world record holder Bjorn Einar Ramoeren - the same man who left the table with only one ski to tragi-comic effect in Val di Fiemme last month - looked to be at home. Only the real elite managed to push through the 200m mark. In the team competition the Austrians underlined their superiority, a ridiculously high percentage of their jumps clearing the calculation line.

With the FIS Ski-jumping World cup now heading to Scandinavia for the next four rounds, and 'Morgy' already crowned as champion, the remaining events are in danger of appearing to be a bit of a side-show. Just the kind of circumstances a jumper like Koch may exploit to secure his first World Cup victory. After watching his consistent 'flying' in Oberstdorf he certainly has both the form and the confidence, and it would be just one more reminder that now is an excellent time to be an Austrian ski-jumping fan.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Who'll take the low road...?

10 days ago I promised a preview of the new pro-Cycling season, and it didn't arrive. When I stopped to think about what I wanted to say, I realised the enormity of the task. I had to admit to myself that I had no idea what to say about the season ahead. With so much change above and below the surface of the sport, I'm still not sure how the season will play out, even though I've had more than a week to think about it. It will either be a glorious re-birth of open competition or a slap in the face. how's that for a prediction?

Let's start by asking a question which should offer a way of beginning to comprehend the massive upheavals: What do Danilo Di Luca, Gilberto Simoni and Paolo Savoldelli all have in common? Well, apart from being Italian cyclists who between them have won five out of the last six editions of the Giro D'Italia, there is something else. For this coming season, none of them will be riding for a top flight UCI Pro Tour team. They join the likes of Christophe Moreau, Magnus Backstedt, David Millar, Tom Danielson and Sergei Gonchar in dropping down a division to ride for smaller professional teams with no automatic rights of entry into the big races. With the three Grand Tours and most of the one day 'monuments' that matter all having dropped out of the UCI's unfortunate miscarriage, will their decision to tune in and drop out even matter? I'm inclined to think not, precisely because the balance of power is shifting away from the sport's governing body, which has for too long shown ambitions beyond its remit.

What this new order in pro-Cycling reveals is just how much the Pro Tour had become a costly irrelevance, a revenue driven juggernaut recklessly powering its way around Europe. Smaller teams and race organisers were pushed to the edges of a sport already self-combusting under the heat of almost weekly drugs scandals. Now they're fighting back.

If the Pro Tour was designed to appeal to sponsors then it failed miserably. Many of the biggest and longest serving corporate investors have already left the sport, getting out before their cherished brands became too soiled. In 2008 we are left with a drastically diminished and even less relevant entity called the Pro Tour. Running alongside it are the best loved races in the calendar, diplomatically termed 'events formerly part of the Pro Tour'. Race organisers are now being free to invite whichever teams they like to their start lines, without the sport's governing body imposing its will. This throws the game wide open, effectively breaking the closed shop that was the UCI Pro Tour.

One UCI event that never fails to stand out is of course the World Championships, and this season's event takes place in Italy. What price Paolo Bettini wrapping up a hat trick of Worlds victories before he retires in October? The UCI, always with an eye open for a gimmick, are even talking about inventing a race to round off the Pro Tour Series on the 5th of October. Let's hope it's more imaginative than the parcours of The Tour Down Under, the ENECO Tour and the Tour of Poland, three of the series' less illustrious events. With 2008 being an Olympic year, do we even need a third big one day race so soon after the Worlds? Probably not, but let's not be ungrateful towards the sports' governing body, which has given so much, erm leadership, as the sport has threatened to implode around it.

If the shake up that began last season was driven by fear of lost sponsorship revenue and livelihoods to a greater extent than by a desire for sporting fair play, the result is surely going to be the most unpredictable season since Lance Armstrong retired. It is precisely because the Pro Tour withered on the vine that riders like our Italian trio can step back from the big but over-stretched top flight teams. Because the smaller teams haven't shelled out a fortune for a Pro Tour licence, the chances are they can afford to meet the riders' wage demands, and crucially gain admittance to the prestige events. It is almost inconceivable that our trio of Italian riders won't be on the start line of this year's Giro, and once again that race looks set to be the most exciting of the Tours this year, with a mountain time trial and some of the toughest climbing in Europe packed into the back end of the race.

The Tour de France may well be without last year's defending champion yet again. Familiar? The withdrawal from the sport of Discovery Channel saw many of the team's top riders, backroom staff, Director Sportifs and even equipment suppliers upping sticks and setting down roots in Kazakhstan. With Astana the new Phonak - i.e. the bad men wearing black hats - it was a bit of a gamble on the part of all concerned that they'd be able to successfully re-brand and start over. At the time of writing, Astana's chances of lining up in France this July aren't looking too good, but the race should be wide open if the organisers judiciously exercise their right to invite an increased number of 'wild card' entries.

One team already confirmed for the Giro and hoping to get their wild card for Le Tour are Slipstream, the clean-cut and evangelically ethical American outfit assembled by ex-pro Jonathan Vaughters. In attracting many top riders to jump ship from the Pro Tour it's once again clear that the series has lost any of the kudos it ever had. A huge buzz surrounds the team, and their anti-doping measures go beyond even those unveiled last season by Bjarne Riis's repentantly transparent Team CSC. Team High Road, formerly T Mobile before the German telecoms giant jumped ship, are also stepping up their fight against doping, and with a squad of talented young riders - Gerdemann, Ciolek and Cavendish to name but three - it's to be hoped that the teams who have made a clean break from the sport's murky recent past can begin to punch their weight.

Ultimately I hope that 2008 will be remembered as the year that the sport got real. To retain its already low levels of credibility and begin a fightback would do nicely. Even outside of the top flight, any teams invited to the big races will need to bring riders holding valid biological passports, documentation that will theoretically map their own physical data and make it easier for the authorities to detect tell-tale anomalies. Of course we all know that many riders have used advanced masking tools and boasted cheekily that they've 'never tested positive', but if the sport is really serious about change then this could be the year that we see riders struggling under the physical effort of riding up mountain passes. This season Alp D'Huez, the Col de la Bonette, the Mortirolo and the Angliru all make returns, and by the summer Cadel Evans' plucky but ungainly style may even begin to look graceful alongside his his clean but throughly suffering rivals.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Pago Libre...

Sorry that the promised preview of the Pro Cycling season hasn't arrived yet - I pulled a muscle at the base of my back the other day and cycling is the furthest thing from my mind at the moment. Not even Thomas Morgenstern's poor showing in the ski-jumping World Cup last weekend could inspire an article, but as there's little demand for pieces on that particular sport, let's not complain. I'll still be producing something on cycling very soon, but not just yet.

Instead we're back to the readymades - reviews that are already written and published, needing only a waffly pre-amble from yours truly to top them off.

I'm trying to keep the German 'new jazz' theme going, and this group almost fits. Brennan is Irish, Shilkloper Russian, and for all I know Thiessing and Breinschmidt are probably Austrian or Swiss. Take note of the opening remarks however - this is 'pan-European new music', whatever that is. As most of the interesting new European music of recent times - be it improvised or composed - has been German, and the sensibilities of this group are very much informed by a lot of that music, I rest my case.

The link may well be tenuous, but would anybody really want to read a review of a party CD by German superstar James Last? Probably not, and fortunately I haven't yet had to approach the man and his music, despite some pretty grisly assignments. If you follow the hyperlink above you can start to enjoy exploring his world of kitsch for yourselves. Don't you just love those wallpapers? And feel free to send me a James Last e-card. You might just make my day...

Stepping Out

W 9th Street; Heptao; Intrada; Komm Ins Off’ne/Step Out (Into The Open); Let It Find U; Alpine Sketch; Waltz For Alfred Hitchcock; IntermeZZo; Rasende Gnome; Please Don’t Leave Me Now; The Trouble With Alfred.

Arkady Shilkloper (frhn); Tscho Theissing (vn); John Wolf Brennan (p); Georg Breinschmidt (b). (October 2004).

Now the only remaining member of the original Pago Libre, pianist John Wolf Brennan has steered the group through over fifteen years of what has best been described as ‘pan-european new music’. Despite several personnel changes, including the unveiling of a new bassist for this recording, the elements of the Pago Libre sound have remained remarkably intact. For newcomers to the group, chamber-esque sonorities and a sprinkling of the folksiness of Bartok are fused with the rhythmic exuberance of jazz, Gaslini-esque Italian wit and the unpredictable musical anarchy of Amsterdam’s ICP.

Whilst critical opinion may be divided over the appeal ‘Eurojazz’, not even the sternest detractor of this type of hybridism could deny Pago Libre’s panache or longevity within the genre. Stepping Out consolidates earlier achievements, and the nearly fifteen minute long ‘Intrada’ may well be their most significant statement to date. A suite-like epic drawing on Shilkloper’s knowledge of European composition as much as his passion for the continent’s folk music, it also shows us that he’s at last found a suitable post-Moscow Art Trio home for his talents. The solo bass passage towards the end of the piece really drops the jaw, marking out Breinschmidt as a worthy replacement for the estimable Daniele Patumi.

Elsewhere in this well balanced and enjoyable hour we get a reprisal of the breezy ‘W 9th Street’, a Shilkloper horn solo of trombone-like agility on the free-bop romp ‘Step Out (Into The Open)’, an honest stab at chamber-funk (‘Let It Find U’) and even a ghostly remix of the Hitchcock waltz to bring the disc to a close. Despite touching so many bases, ‘eclectic’ probably isn’t a word you’d use to describe Stepping Out. A tight group identity ensures that the music’s many facets are seamlessly blended in a way that is refreshingly uncontrived.

Mingus once suggested in an interview that rather than copy black American jazz, Europeans should explore their own musical heritage, from classical to folk, to develop an authentic form of jazz. Not only would he enjoy the massive bass of Georg Breinschmidt, I’m sure he’d appreciate Pago Libre’s efforts to do just this. Recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, March 2006)

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Borah Bergman & Frode Gjerstad

Loosely keeping the German theme going is this very Free Music Produktion-esque offering. One of the things I like about reviewing is drawing on my enthusiasm and experiences for and of this music. That's why I always try to offer a personal insight into anything I write about - note the reference to a performance at the Vision Festival here. Whether or not people agree with my perspectives is another thing, but ultimately all any of us have to offer are competing perspectives. My hope is that mine add something to peoples' understanding of the subject.

Enough pontification - a preview of the 2008 Pro-Doping season is long over due, and I'll probably put one together before the weekend...

Rivers In Time
FMR RECORDS (CD 130-i0803)

Exuberation; Dark Passage; Rivers Of Time; Memory Of Gil Evans; Trolls Part I; Red Jets; Trolls Part II; For Camilla Sorvik.

Frode Gjerstad (as, cl, bcl); Borah Bergman (p).
Recorded March to October 2002.

Philip Clark’s review in last month’s issue went a long way in describing the singularly unique soundworld of Borah Bergman. For my part I would simply add the caveat that his unique strengths can also at times be his biggest weakness. I remember, for example, hearing his first recorded ‘duets’ with Thomas Chapin (‘Inversions’, Muworks), where the saxophonist could find no point of entry into Bergman’s all-consuming soundworld and only flail indeterminately on the margins. I also recall an extraordinary gig at the Vision Festival in New York some four or five years ago, where Bergman’s musical partners (Roscoe Mitchell and Thomas Buckner) actually stopped playing for long periods to protest at the pianist’s undisciplined outpourings, the tensions on the bandstand palpable to everybody in the room.

Perhaps not the best of collaborators then, it’s true that drummers prepared to follow him to the sun often fare better. Norwegian reedsman Frode Gjerstad is an intrepid explorer clearly unfazed by another encounter with the human player-piano, happy to accept the challenge of the gauntlet, and even bold enough to dictate the flow of their exchanges. The first ten minutes of ‘Rivers In Time’, however, are Bergman’s alone , and they illustrate his two-handed-avant-stride pianism to good advantage.

Trying to nail down logic and structure to the rapid turnover of ideas is somewhat like trying to catch rainwater in a bucket - some hits, most goes wide. To fully absorb his torrential data flow may take attentive listeners years. Gjerstad finally makes his entry on ‘Dark Passage’, which contains some of the most controlled and reflective playing I’ve heard from Bergman. Fragile beauty precariously poised on the edge of violence, it is all the better for never quite exploding. The 13 minute titletrack is as bruising an encounter as you could wish, but there is nevertheless a real musical dialogue. ‘Memory of Gil Evans’, a reflective solo piece, is another high spot, but ‘Red Jets’ is an artless and frankly tiresome energy blast.

Neither player breaks new ground on “Rivers In Time’, but whilst instant composition, a thoroughly tried and tested approach with its own conventions, may be generally struggling to attain past glories, this recommended new release at least restores some quality.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, February 2004)

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Morgenstern jumps clear...

It's been a while since I wrote about ski-jumping. A massive three whole weeks, in fact. Whilst there's been no demand for more features on this under-appreciated sport, I have no plans to stop writing them just yet. After this weekend's breathtaking action in Sapporo, why should I?

The Sapporo hill proved incredibly difficult to conquer. Hosting both a night even on Saturday and a daylight jump today, many experienced jumpers failed to make it above 100 metres. The number of big names who didn't even get as far as the calculation line was nothing short of shocking, and both Ahonen and Schlierenzauer didn't even turn up, preferring to stay at home and give Japan a miss.

With Austrian Thomas Morgenstern all but certain of taking the 2008 FIS World Cup title, he could even afford the luxury of a couple of 'off' days and still extend his lead in the series. From Saturday's opening round however, it was clear that Morgenstern doesn't have 'off' days. Only the Austrian (131) and Finn Janne Haaponen (130) broke the 130 metre mark on Saturday. Austrian Martin Koch completed the podium, and big names such as Tom Hilde, Andreas Kuettel and Anders Bardal scraped into the top 10. Germany's Michael Neumayer found the hill too much of a challenge to read, ending up a lowly 17th in Saturday's round.

And so to Sunday. With jumps of 134 and 139 metres, Morgenstern pulverised his opponents and barring the kind of miracle not even found in the bible, the title is his. The Austrian sits over 500 points clear of Four Hills winner Ahonen, and the Finns decision to ship Sapporo all but signalled an intention not to contest the title any further.

The Austrian's second round jump was just a metre short of the hill record, and his huge smile of almost disbelief as he came to a stop summed up just how superior the Austrian has been all season. Haaponen again finished second and was the only other man to breach 130 metres, whilst Bardal took third, and Neumayer looked more comfortable, leading for much of the second round but eventually coming in 6th.

With 10 rounds to go, and Morgenstern in this kind of form, it's hard to see anything other than a landslide. "My goal is (to win) the World Cup overall, and next year the world championships on my favourite hill in Liberec. It will be one of my biggest goals after this goal this year." Who would bet against this amiable 21 year old prodigy?