Saturday, May 24, 2014

What is it with the ‘distinction’ between ‘modern classical music’, ‘modern contemporary music’ and ‘jazz’? And I give a well-deserved mention to guitarist Justin Morell (who might not yet have been made a peer of the realm, but, well, you know . . . plus ça change and other utterly irrelevant cliches). Check him out

The soundfiles don’t work in the Opera browser. Don’t blame me, blame Opera.

UPDATE: Jun 14, 2014. Actually, they do seem to work in Opera on Windows. This post was created on my Macbook, but I am reading it - and listening to the soundfiles - in my Lenovo laptop, so . . .

A few years ago I was chastised, gently it has to be said, but nonetheless chastised, for being rather too discursive in these blog entries, of being too oblique in the opening paragraphs. My response was simply that it’s my bloody blog and I’ll bloody well do in my bloody blog what I bloody well want to do; and if I want to be discursive, I’ll be just as bloody discursive as I bloody well please. If someone happening across these scribblings takes exception to my oblique, discursive approach, they can find themselves some other less oblique and less discursive blog. Except that I was rather more forthright in my reply.

If you, dear reader - my dear, dear, dear reader without whom this blog wouldn’t stack up to a row of beans - want something less oblique and less discursive, the choice, courtesy of Google Blogger and Wordpress, is impressively vast. Try the thoughts of ‘One girl's feeble attempt to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with her God. And there is never a dull moment...’ here. Then there are the views as ‘A Baby Boomer looks at health, finance, retirement, grown-up children and ... how time flies’. If that sounds like your bag, this must be your next port of call. If, however, you are prepared to settle for my dyspeptic views on the irritating snobbery of those who feel ‘classical music’ is where it’s at and who look down on ‘jazz’ as the vague tootlings of often very talented but sadly delusional folk who simply don’t get it, read on.

Although I still work in London (for four days a week and, if nothing else, the money’s better and the work is more interesting), I have lived down here in North Cornwall since Christmas 1995 and have attended the St Endellion Easter and Summer Music Festivals for quite a few years. I have to say the occasion, rather like the Hay Festival and Latitude, is something of a middle-class wet dream, but the music is always good and always varied, and attending give me the chance possibly to hear a piece I’d not heard before or discover a composer. The audience is almost always grey-haired and nicely spoken, and the chaps are obliged to turn up in green cords and a navy blue sweater (and a Barbour if it’s rainy).

It’s all very, very, very informal and ad hoc in the way the British like their arts (the might privately envy any kind of artistic expertise, but publicly always regard it as ‘showing off’. The attitude is generally ‘I might be passionate about the arts and music, but it doesn’t pay to be too serious, does it, which is all far too American’). Our current Prime Minister David Cameron, whose most recent child was born while he and his family were on holiday here in North Cornwall - Rock is known hereabouts as ‘Kensington-on-Sea’ - had her baptised Florence Claudia Camilla Euphrates Emma Rose Kylie St Endellion Miranda Cameron in honour of the festival. And if you are British and don’t regard that as a seal of approval, it’s off to another blog with you, smartish kiddo.)

The performers at the two festivals, one held at Easter, the second at the end of July, beginning of August, are all professional musicians who, I gather, perform for the love of it and are not paid a fee, although they get free board and lodging (and, perhaps, for the lucky ones, a shag or two). It did occur to me a month or two ago when I was last there that being able to write on your CV when applying for a newer, more prestigious gig ‘I’ve spent a week playing in the St Endellion Festival every year for these past few years and even knew Richard Hickox before he popped his clogs’ must be worth several Brownie points.

About two years ago, I was at a concert when I noticed that a certain Michael Berkeley was part of the gang organising that year’s bunfight. Now, I was at school with Michael Berkeley, who as Berkeley I, was in the year above me. His brother Julian was in my year (and is now, for those who like detail, a gay landscape gardener somewhere in Surrey, Sussex, Kent or Hampshire, and, as the smarter ones among you have undoubtedly already worked out, was known as Berkeley II. I was, incidentally, Powell II, aka Kraut II and/or Jackboots II, and formerly in my early years, because of the rather distended stomach I had when I first joined as I weighed about 10st but then only reached around 5ft 4in, known as Preggers Powell. Oh, and to demonstrate just how useful that system of nomenclature was, we had at the Oratory School while I was there a Stillwell I, Stillwell II, Stillwell III, Stillwell IV and Stillwell V. Neat, eh? Who says the Brits can’t be just quite as efficient as the Germans when they put their mind to it?)

Berkeley (we never, if ever, used Christian names) was an affable enough chap who always played the organ at servicesd, as we were all shuffling out of the barn which was then the school chapel after once Sunday Mass had ended used to play - I don’t know the technical term - organ ‘continuo’ into which he would incorporate whatever occurred to him. (If was rather like the kind of taped organ muzak played at cremations as the coffin disappears for ever). I remember noticing how he cunningly concealed well-known toons in his performance for the first time when The House Of The Rising Sun was part of the mix. His father was the, now rather obscure, composer, Sir Lennox Berkeley, and his godfather was Mr Twink himself, Benjamin Britten. I next came across Berkeley when I heard his name mentioned as an announcer, and then as a presenter, on the BBC’s Radio 3. I also saw him once or twice on TV in some capacity or other.

Most recently I discovered that he had been ennobled - why I really have no idea at all, except that for some very arcane reason it must have been politically expedient for someone or other in government to do so - and is now Lord Berkeley (technically Michael Fitzhardinge Berkeley, Baron Berkeley of Knighton, but that means that if I - don’t worry, non-Brits are exempt, something to do with European Union regulations, I think - were ever to meet him, I would be obliged to courtesy three times and sing the National Anthem.

The last piece on the programme on that particular night was an organ piece by the great man himself. And that, dear reader, brings me right back to the issue in hand: I remember just three things about Berkeley’s organ piece: it was exceptionally loud, it consisted of a great many discordant notes and, most to the point, it was bloody awful. Quite bloody awful. It was unashamedly noisy, a cacophony. Furthermore, there was nothing about it which might have alerted even a dumbwit musical fuck such as me that there somewhere in its indiscriminate and brutal cascade of chords was something, that some intricate part of it - a schemata, clever, witty musical juxtapositions, perhaps, quotations - somehow justified (I think the modern phrase is ‘validated’) that awful, awful noise and made it ‘music’. Here I must defend myself: I am not one of those who insists that music ‘should have a tune, don’t you know’. There are a great many pieces I like which to many might well sound like indiscriminate ‘noise’.

One of my favourite guitarists (and here I am addressing you, Mr Morell, quite directly, as I think you will certainly know his work - and the rest of you must read on to understand why) is a certain David Fiuczynski. He is, I’m sure, not to everyone’s taste. But he is most certainly to mine, as are Shostakovich, Janacek and Bartok, none of whom, many might agree, comes up with ‘tunes’ you might care to hum to yourself as you make your weary way home after a hard day selling insurance. The important point is this: Berkeley - Lord Berkeley - had composed a piece of ‘modern classical music’, noisy or not, and thus, for far too many, all bets are off. It was ‘modern classical’, see, and who are we mere mortals to quibble and risk showing ourselves up as tasteless plebs?

Putting on my cynical hat, I might even suggest that some of my fellow concertgoers who heard Berkeley’s piece might well have concurred with me, but told themselves that although they didn’t really think much of what they heard - it went on for about 15 minutes - ‘that piece by that chap Berkeley, you know, the loud organ piece right at the end of the concert, you know the really noisy piece on the organ, well I can’t say it did much for me at all, did it for you, dear? but, well, you know, it’s modern music, isn’t it, I mean it is, isn’t it? And who are you and I to understand modern classical?’

One day, many years ago, I was listening to Radio 3 (Classic FM for more ‘serious types’, the kind of stuck-up folk who poo-poo the idea of buying ‘The Best Bits Of Mozart, Chopin, Brahms and Mantovani’ at Wal-Mart - me? Snobbish?) when I heard a glorious piece of solo piano. It was a beauty, just the kind of thing I like. Pure, simple, unassuming, honest (but I don’t want to write more or else I’ll come across as pretentious0. It was quite simply lovely, and as it went on, I consciously made an effort to concentrate so that when It ended I could hear who the ‘composer’ was. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Bach, but, well, was it one of his contemporaries? Certainly, I thought, untutored then as now, that is was a piece written in the late 17th or early 18th century. Finally I found out. It was a guy called Lennie Tristano, which didn’t sound too 18th century to me. And who, some of you might now be asking, as I was asking when I first heard the name, was Lennie Tristano?

This was before the internet, so finding out stuff wasn’t half as easy. But I discovered that Lennie Tristano was a highly respected jazz pianist, blind (from the age of six, I found out later), and who after a career playing with many of the greats had given up performing, to the surprise of many, to teach. What was crucial, however, in my first encounter with Lennie Tristano was that the first recording I heard was not with the usual jazz set-up of piano, bass and drums, but the man playing on his own. So there was, as it were, no ‘clue’ that this might be ‘jazz’. It was simply music. And at that first hearing, because of the radio station playing it and because of the time of day (that is it wasn’t part of a programme dedicated to jazz) I thought it was ‘classical music’.

(Trying to track down that first piece, I found, on Spotify, G Minor Complex which is here (you can find it below), though whether it was the piece I heard on the radio I don’t know. Perhaps, but it now sounds to me far jazzier than I might have heard it. But then, dear, dear - dear - reader, I was younger, a mere stripling, much perhaps like you. But if it was this, you’ll understand what I mean. If not, off to another blog, now. On second thoughts, it might have been C Minor Complex (also below). I think it might be. In fact, I think it was. Pianists the world over, please listen to this, then give up. Then stop giving up, and try to be even better. You might, who knows? But at least try.)

I’m sure among ‘jazzers’ that Lennie Tristano is well-known and well-respected, but as far as I can tell his is not a name you much hear bandied about, like that of Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Art Tatum and the rest (i.e. this sucker’s knowledge is a tad limited. More to the point at that first encounter over 30 years ago, I first began to wonder about the bizarre, and to my mind, snobbish and quite phoney, distinction made between ‘modern contemporary music’, ‘modern classical music’ and ‘modern jazz’. I must - and ‘must’ is the pertinent word - make an admission: I am just your average punter. My knowledge of music is pretty much restricted to knowing that a C chord on the guitar has a different shape to the G chord. I do know - or I think I do know - that there can be an architecture to a piece of music which helps sustain (i.e. stops it collapsing in on itself) a ‘classical’ concerto or sonata or symphony. I also ‘know’ that composers can have different keys and parts of a piece relating to each other, that they can, in fact, get up to all kinds of technical stuff and that if you know what is going on, it can well bring you an greater level of appreciation and enjoyment. Unfortunately, my cloth ears are deaf to any of that.

Our own Thomas Beacham once said that ‘the English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes’. Well, substitute ‘understand’ for ‘like’ (and for ‘noise’ substitute ‘sound’) and that is, more or less, me. OK, over the years I have come by far to prefer the subtle chords of a jazz pianist and guitarist and the progressions he (or she) make to the block solid and exceptionally dull C, G and D progressions of, say a Neil Diamond or John Denver, but at this point I’m not about to bullshit and claim that I have much musical knowledge. For me the pleasure is in the hearing and the listening. And I get just as much pleasure from the subtleties of jazz as of ‘classical’ and ‘modern contemporary’ music. . . . And so, pretty inelegantly it has to be said, I finally get to jazz guitarist Justin Morrell (who must have the patience of a saint) and to the piece I have posted below.

I first came across him when I came across his interpretations of various tracks by Steely Dan on his album The Music Of Steely Dan (bet you didn’t see that coming). I used to love Steely Dan, but as I got older, I became increasingly irritated by the fact that they, two guys who obviously love jazz, never cut loose. Yes, I know they operated in the pop world, and rather like folk who go to McDonald’s and would be mortified to be offered anything but a McDonalds’ Crapburger with Cheese and Fries, Becker and Fagen fans would be mortified to be offered a rendition of one of their songs live which did not slavishly reproduce the records; but there seemed to me to be a glaring and disappointing lack that, when they toured and played live, they didn’t put their jazz chops where their ostensible souls lay. To be blunt, I would far prefer to go and hear a small, unknown, and possibly even not particularly good jazz band than attend another Steely Dan concert.

I have only heard them live once, in Wembley in whenever it was (NB Google tells me it was September 10, 1996, and when, sitting in the second row, I demanded, to Donald Fagen’s obvious irritation, that they play Hotel California0. I was pretty disillusioned when Walter Becker, one half of what until then I had regarded as the kings of cool, greeted the audience with that hoary old, corny old pop concert line ‘Hello, London, we love your fish and chips’. Oh, God, give me a break! (I once heard Miles Davis play in the St David’s Hall in Cardiff and he didn’t – thank the Lord - come out with ‘Hello, Wales, we like your rugby/daffodils/prostitutes/coal’.)

The final straw was when Donald Fagen, the other half of what until then, or almost then, I had regarded as the kings of cool, recently published a kind of autobiography and called it ‘Eminent Hipsters’. Well, for this Steely Dan fan, Mr Morell and his band did with the music of Messrs Fagen and Becker what those two should have been doing long, long ago. He turned them into jazz. But Fagen and Becker seem to prefer swanning around from one New York art scene to another to playing jazz. OK, I don’t doubt that Fagen, a pianist, and Becker, a guitarist, try their hand at it in the privacy of their own bedrooms (although as a guitarist Becker seems to do nothing much but noodle), but that is a long way off getting on stage and playing live for all its worth. I never chased up Justin Morell’s music until a few weeks ago when I took was listening to his Steely Dan takes and took to wondering what he had been doing recently. So I came across (and I’m sure I’ll get the names wrong) one of his latest recordings with Dectet. Here is his Fugue in E. (Allow it, and the two Lennie Tristano pieces further below, time to load.)

 Courtesy of Justin Morell.

My point, given the rambling above about the, to my mind, offensively phoney distinction between ‘modern classical music’ and a great deal of ‘jazz’ music being made today it that if Morell’s Fugue in E were introduced on, say Radio 3, as ‘modern classical’ or ‘modern contemporary’ music, it would be taken wholly at face value. Some might comment that it ‘has quite interesting jazzy overtones’, but they would not, if told it was ‘modern contemporary’, disagree. I have listened to it many times since I came across it, and one echo I hear is the music of Kurt Weill. Whether or not Justin Morell is conscious of it (or is even at all pleased with the reference) I really don’t know. In the next few days I shall give you a few more tasters of Justin Morell’s music. For one thing he has the nous (US ‘know-how’?) to choose some very, very good co-players.

Every year for the past few years, I have spent a week in the Bordeaux region in France accompanying my 80-year-old aunt to a series of concerts held during July. I have several times told her how dishonest I think is the distinction made by some between ‘modern classical music’ and ‘jazz music’, but unfortunately she is old school and insists it is a valid one. And she always reminds me of when she heard Daniel Barenboim once being asked in a TV interview what he thought of jazz. He didn’t reply, she says, he just gave a rather dismissive smirk. Oh well.
I can’t for the life of me remember what the Lennie Tristano piece was I heard all those years ago. But to give you a flavour or the man’s playing and his work, here are two solo pieces:

 Lennie Tristano’s G Minor Complex.

 Lennie Tristano’s C Minor Complex.

. . .

Speaking of noble gents, Lords, and diffidence untainted by EU interferecne, there’s a good story about the late Lord Hailsham, who was once one of our Lord Chancellors in the 1970s. and was once crossing a public square outside the House of Lords, dressed in all is traditional Lord Chancellor’s finery and quite possibly surrounded by flunkies. The square was full of tourists at the time (though I should imagine it is now crawling with armed police, such is our faith in the good will of our Muslim cousins). Hailsham spotted some yards away an old friend from his days in chambers called ‘Neil’, so he raised his arm to attract the man’s attention and bellowed out: ‘Neil!’ Upon which a group of American tourists a few feet way who had been taking photos of him in his ceremonial gladrags dutifully got down on their knees. Aaah, sweet)

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