Preceding North Utsire

I have recently finished reading Thomas Williams’ rather splendid book on Viking Britain. This was a fascinating and very readable history of the often (but not always) violent interactions between the various kingdoms of the British Isles and the peoples of Scandinavia (and probably beyond). I think I most treasured it for the translated quotation of a work from my Welsh roots, the Armes Prydein Vawr, which appears towards the top of page 284 in my paperback edition. The 10th Century description of the English given in this work as “the shitheads of Thanet”, for some reason, rather struck a chord with me in these troubled political times. Lest this should appear gratuitously rude, I should point out that, as my last ancestor born in Wales was my great-great-grandfather, I am at best one-sixteenth Welsh, with my remaining blood having been sourced from England (mostly from within the Danelaw), and that I spent many happy childhood hours on the beaches and sea defenses of the Isle of Thanet.

These days, their work building the concept of England done, the Scandinavians visit these isles in a more benign guise. In fact, it is the Swedes (and the Dutch) that I feel sorry for if we carry out our nebulous intention to leave the EU and finally come to terms with our much diminished role in the world, as they shall be cast adrift with the rest of Europe without the dry humour of, at least some of, the British contingent to brighten the more tedious committee meetings. However, it is their, perhaps unlikely, embrace of jazz that shall detain us here.

I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoyed Phronesis at the Cambridge Jazz Festival back in November, whose members hail from the UK, Denmark and Sweden. I’m really looking forward to seeing them with the Southampton Jazz Orchestra in early May: a rendezvous which I shall be making despite being in Bristol on the day of their gig and in Cheltenham the day after necessitating a frankly ridiculous journey back to Southampton (but as I am frankly ridiculous, this is entirely “on brand”). However, it is Norway which seems to provide an extraordinarily rich seam of jazz musicians, especially relative to its modest population. Perhaps I need to move nearer to the Arctic Circle to achieve my full musical potential?

It was a couple of month’s ago that I made one of my increasingly rare visits to London to see Marius Neset – saxophonist extraordinaire – give a performance in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre. This was everything that I’d come to expect, though I still don’t know how he manages to maintain that level of performance across a 100 minute set without an interval: it was exhausting enough to watch! The gig was also surprisingly good value, for London (and even Southampton) at only £18 and the Purcell Room made a very fine setting for jazz: and is very handy for Waterloo where my trains arrive into the city.

Back in March, I took a chance and went to see Trygve Seim at Turner Sims, knowing nothing about him other than that he was a Norwegian jazz musician – and I was willing to fork out £20 and an evening of my life on that fact alone. This gig took place while I was deep in Viking Britain and when Trygve walked out onto stage, with his flowing blond locks and plaited beard he could have stepped straight from a longboat. Fortunately, he came bearing a sax, rather than an ax, and no Anglo-Saxon blood was shed that night (or at least not at the gig). The gig was astoundingly good: the jazz reputation of the Kingdom of Norway was, if anything, enhanced. It was one of those extraordinary gigs where the music caused me to lose all contact with time and enter a somewhat trance-like state: when it finished I had no idea whether a few minutes or an hour or more had passed. Well, almost no idea: the seating at Turner Sims starts to interact painfully with my buttocks after much more than 45 minutes. My exercise regimen does not seem to be adding much in the way of padding to my backside: if anything, it seems to be reducing the limited cushioning they once offered. This is one side-effect of attempting to stay fit that is rarely mentioned in its advocacy.

About ten days ago, I was back at Turner Sims to see another Norwegian, Daniel Herskedal. This chap has a lot to answer for, as it was taking a chance by going to see him three years ago that launched my current love of jazz. On that occasion, he was joined by SYJO and so that was also the first time I will have seen musicians who have subsequently become friends. All of which suggests that my slightly random decision in 2016, has had much wider ranging implications on my life than I could possibly have imagined. Going out to see live music can change your life: in my case, immeasurably for the better!

Given the impact he unwittingly had on me, I felt I owed it to the lad to catch his return to the city. I was not disappointed, if anything he was, with his quartet this time, even better than I’d remembered. His performance proves how criminally neglected the tuba has been as a musical instrument and what a stunning pairing it makes with the, also neglected, viola. There was a magical moment when the valves of the tuba were cycling rhythmically and the instrument took on the visual guise of an exquisite, model Victorian steam engine: the tuba was a treat for the eyes as well as the ears in such skilled hands. I love the piano and violin as much as any man, but they already have stacks of repertoire: were I a composer, I’d be writing for the tuba and the other seemingly unloved members of the orchestra.

I have described Mr Herskedal as “the lad” above, but on trying (and so far, failing) to identify his instrument and its dimensions, I have discovered he is 37. I am starting to wonder if life as a tubist also has rejuvenating properties – or is it something to do with Norway? Daniel’s tuba seemed to be of a more manageable size than some: though that may have been down to the concert hall and it might look massive in my flat (as most things do, ooh err!) I have been told that I have the right sort of embouchure for the tuba (which I don’t think was – only – a more oblique of saying that I have a big mouth) and I’m feeling somewhat inspired to put this to the test: my neighbours may wish to put their flats onto the market now…

In addition to a desire to re-train as a tubist, I think the time has come to blow all my savings and go to a jazz festival in Norway: seeking out the wellspring of these musical marvels. Depending on how things are going back home, I may seek asylum while there:Farvel mine venner

X-Men

I should perhaps start with an apology to lovers of the work of Stan Lee and his Marvel colleagues and admit that I am no expert on their oeuvre.  Nevertheless, I can’t help observing that most of the X-Men seem to have mutant abilities with a decidedly martial bent.  All well and good for fending off existential threats to the earth and/or its occupants from megalomaniac foes but of less utility in navigating the humdrum vagaries of daily life.

I seem to recall one of the X-Men could convert his skin to the sheen and consistency of metal which I will admit would be handy when picking gooseberries, cutting back a bramble or retrieving a lost ball from a nettle patch.  Storm could control the weather which would be a boon for farmers, gardeners and those planning outdoor events in our unreliable climate – but I must admit that the chaotic nature of the weather system does lead me to worry about unintended consequences.  If a butterfly flapping its wings in one location can trigger a hurricane in a distant locale, I do worry what impact the use of Storm’s superpowers to water my brassicas would have on the wider world: just think of the potential lawsuits?  I suspect that a hosepipe or watering can might be the safer option.  Wolverine’s rapid healing would be very useful for the klutzier among us but I could do without foot long metal blades emerging from the back of my hands: I have a very sturdy pair of kitchen scissors (which can and does crack nuts too) and an 8.25″ cook’s knife for anything they can’t handle.

If I’m honest, most of the superpowers exhibited by the X-Men also seem to play fast-and-loose with the laws of thermodynamics with energy and matter being created, and complex nuclear and condensed matter physics being performed, with no clear power source.  I think one can “borrow” energy from the quantum vacuum, but it does expect very swift repayment even for the tiniest of loans.  I have a feeling its debt collection makes even the least forgiving and most violent of loan sharks seem the very height of patient forbearance.  It’s not even as if the X-Men have a big meal before a major session of world-saving, or enjoy a slap-up dinner when they get home.  I have to do little more than cycle over the Itchen Bridge to find myself in urgent need of a pretty substantial snack, while Magneto can hurl around whole armoured divisions without scarfing so much as a handful of raisins.  I feel that the Laws of Thermodynamics are there for everyone’s benefit and should not be flouted willy-nilly: it’s basically an invitation to the dread Anarch to let the curtain fall and allow universal darkness to cover all.

The stage now set and the impracticality of fictional superpowers being, I like to think, firmly established, I will now go on to discuss actual superpowers witnesses by the author.  Given the nature of my life, these will relate to the production of music – though I think there could be side benefits in other areas of life.

On Saturday I went up to London for my musical fix – though I will admit to taking in a little music (and poetry) in Winchester on my way thanks to the excellent FAP in the Attic at the Railway Inn: which, as its name suggests, nestles close to Winchester station making it a convenient point to break a journey.  Well, that would normally be true but we seem to be going through an extended phase of Southampton being cut off from the rest of the world by engineering works and so my “rail” journey was only marginally swifter than walking.  I don’t often go to London for music – I think I only did it twice in 2017 – as it is a relatively expensive and time-consuming option and because there is so much music available locally.  Indeed, I feel slightly like I am betraying my adopted home city by going to gigs in London.  On this occasion, I missed a number of interesting gigs within walking distance of my flat though, despite popular belief, I do not (and can not) go to every gig howsoever hard I may try.

I went up to London to see Marius Neset at King’s Place (Hall One)  – which is a rather fine venue, guarded by supercilious metal goats (which will be the name of my first heavy rock band).  I first saw him playing with the London Sinfonietta at Turner Sims back in 2016 and that concert really blew me away.  I decided then that if he were to return to these shores I would make a serious effort to see him and this excursion made good on that pledge.  This time he was playing as a quintet – three of whom had been with him in Southampton – but the vibraphone. marimba and chimes player was new to me (more on him later).

Marius is my first suggestion for an actual superhuman.  At times watching him play the saxophone reminded me of observing albatross off the Otago peninsular in New Zealand.  With the albatross I kept thinking that they would have to flap a wing soon, with Marius I thought that he must have to breathe at some stage in this extended virtuosic solo but, in both cases, I was disappointed.  The man has frankly inhuman breath control and/or lung capacity – though did have the decency to appear slightly out-of-breath when speaking between the extended pieces.  I am also convinced he was producing polyphony from the saxophone – something which I had assumed was impossible with a reeded instrument.  I suppose these skills may be of limited use outside of playing woodwind, though I suspect if he ever fancied a stint as a pearl diver he would be a natural: though my recollection of John Steinbeck’s take on that career is that Mr Neset is probably better off sticking with the music.

Such superhuman skills would certainly inspire a degree of awe in me, but these were applied to a series of glorious jazz compositions and with incredible musicality.  He even continued the work that Gilad Atzmon had started a couple of weeks ago and has left me convinced that the soprano sax is a sensible musical instrument and not, as I had previously thought, a terrible, squeaky mistake by Adolphe Sax.  I may not be an expert on the saxophone, but a friend who was also at the gig is a very fine sax player and also rated the playing as the best he’d ever seen.  It is early in 2018, but I am taking little risk in saying that Saturday night will be on my list of the best of the year – possibly even the decade.

The whole quintet were of the standard you’d need to support such stunning sax playing, but it was Jim Hart, the vibraphone and marimba player, who is my second superhuman of the evening.  My longest finger is some 3.5″ from base to tip (I know as I have literally just measured it: my guess had been longer, but then I am a man).  My attempt to play Scarlatti requires me to play a note on the piano with a finger in my left-hand and then immediately play the same note with a finger from my right hand.  This relative minor crossing of my longish (for a human) fingers in a relatively confined space is proving quite the challenge to make work.  The risk of a finger-jam is never very distant and all the notes do not yet reliably sound in the right order.  (Does the melodeon have a more QWERTY-style keyboard to reduce the risk of finger-jams, I wonder?)  Mr Hart was playing using a pair of 18″ (my guesstimate) long sticks (probably not the technical term) in each hand, hitting up to four notes on his “keyboards” simultaneously with the sticks in the left and right hands crossing each other in a blur of movement and not the slightest hint that a collision was even the remotest of outside possibilities.  I still can’t entirely believe the evidence of my own eyes, but if I was going to “gift” anyone with Wolverine-style blades I think Jim would be the least likely to become a danger to himself and others.

So good was the gig, that I even stuck around afterwards to get a CD signed by the great man himself (as shown above).  Unusually, I seem to find myself in agreement with the Daily Telegraph who gave the concert it 5 out of 5: which doesn’t leave the lad much room to improve but I’d still be reluctant to bet against him managing it.  Should he return to these shores, I’m certainly keen to go see him give it a try!

Based on the gig, I have been inspired to try and learn circular breathing, though fear this may end up looking more like an impression of an asthmatic squirrel in the midst of an attack.  Certainly, the omens so far are less than encouraging.  Perhaps more practically, I feel it is time for my first clarinet lesson – so expect a post in about 20 years revealing how it went!