Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Cinematic Soul

A sleepless night later (memo to self: Avoid hotels in Golders Green run by Russians. They tend to have all the amenities and creature comforts of an Eastern European doss-house circa 1960) and my lovely wife and I headed into the heart of London. We spent most of the day in the British Museum’s Terracotta Army exhibition (well worth it—do make sure you go if you get the chance) and had lunch in a miniscule Chinese restaurant in Soho (now that’s what you call Chinese food!). A quick trip back to chez Stasi for a change of clothes and a freshen-up, and then we headed back to the concert venue for the second night of our Barry Adamson pilgrimage.

Entitled These Are a Few of My Favourite Themes, the set was an odyssey through Adamson’s favourite themes from TV and film (including The Man from UNCLE, Dirty Harry, and Shot in the Dark) and a selection of his own instrumental work. A plethora of guest stars were also on offer, including David McAlmont, Sarah Stanton and the inimitable Nick Cave (who, manic as ever with his waving arms and bared teeth, put me in mind of a militant Magnus Magnussen).

As with the previous evening, Adamson and his band were in awesome fettle, and it was a pleasure to be there. The highlight for me, however, was Adamson’s rendition of Elmer Bernstein's The Man With the Golden Arm. It’s a great track in itself, and it’s been one of my favourite tracks since it appeared on Adamson’s Moss Side Story album, but it was made so much better by the guest appearance of Immodesty Blaize.

For those who don’t know, Immodsty is a burlesque dancer of some stature. As opposed to the generic vanilla of Dita Von Teese, she's all double chocolate chip, with a stunning, voluptuous, and brazenly healthy figure. As her name suggests, she’s certainly not backward in coming forward, and she gave a bravura performance that ended up in a gyrating explosion of hips, nipple tassels and cellulite. God love her.

The night, however, wasn’t over. As mentioned in the previous blog, Adamson would be reading a short story after the show (a tale of—as he put it—“Griminality and woe”), and I was intrigued to hear what his work would be like.

Half an hour later, and the story had been read to a jazz backing. Once he’d finished, I felt drained—and confused. This story challenged everything I know about writing, from maintaining your perspective, to staying in character, and staying in one tense. Everything about it, technically, was wrong—but it was bloody good.

The story, like the jazz accompaniment, was free and unfettered, and its components parts were tight and so well written as to be astounding. He jumped from first to third person narration with wanton abandon, from tense and character at will, and there seemed to be no obvious plot, instead happy to move from vignette to vignette, all the while painting such a vivid and acutely observed portrait of the dregs of London life it was painful. Exhibiting a startling skill for regional accents, he brought us Poles, Jamaicans, Mancs, Scousers, Cockneys and Brummies as he painted a vivid picture of desperate, down-trodden and devious individuals bouncing off one another in an East-end suburb. His insight into the mind of the obsessive-compulsive main character was a fine an example of “Show, don’t tell” as I’ve ever encountered.

This lead to another sleepless night as chez Stasi—and much introspection since. If Adamson’s story could be seen as an analogy for jazz (free, well-written, crafted, an exhibition of peerless skill), then surely I was wrong about jazz, and finally I was getting an insight into just what it was my Grandfather enjoyed in those records and endless concerts. Thus, by extension, was I wrong about poetry, which I’ve so often likened to jazz? For all my dismissive attitude toward these little snap-shots that “don’t go anywhere”, that “pose and pontificate”, was I blithely ignoring the qualities that make poetry such a widespread and appreciated art-form—and one which is so hard to master? Does my brazen lampooning of poetry say more for my paucity of depth and skill, and an inability to read and decipher subtler texts that aren’t all tits and spaceships?

Monday, 3 December 2007

Jazz Devil

Okay, I’ll admit, I didn’t go to Uni last week. Not because I was still struggling with a heavy cold, but because I was in London to see a two night show by the awesome Barry Adamson.

I’ve been listening to Adamson since I was fifteen (yes, that’s nearly twenty years. Yes, I bought his first album on cassette, and, yes, we had electricity in those days. Smart-arse), and ever since I’ve loved the unique combination of narratives (Vermillion Kisses, A Gentle Man of Colour, Here in the Hole etc), instrumentals (The Man With a Golden Arm, Checkpoint Charlie etc) and flamboyant, clever songs (Here Am I, Can’t Get Loose et al) a new Barry Adamson album presents. He’s always been on my ‘Wish-list’ of artists I wanted to see live, so you can imagine how excited I was.

Unfortunately, before Mister Adamson came on stage, we had to sit through the support act. Now, as Barry quite likes—and is influenced by—jazz, he had a jazz four-piece as his support. I just don’t get jazz, and my opinion of it can be summed up with the following quote from Otis Lee Crenshaw: “I fuckin’ hate jazz. Jazz is what you get when you push a blues quartet down a flight of stairs.”. To me it belongs in the same category as poetry. What’s the point? To me, it’s just laziness and an inability to construct something with a beginning, middle and end. Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe I’m just opinionated, ignorant and blinkered…

I have no idea if this particular quartet was good or not, but the audience seemed to appreciate it. The only thing I could say for certain was the drummer needs to get laid. I have never seen a man look more orgasmic hitting some pig-skin with a stick. He hit every single irregular beat like it was some sort of money shot, and he got so carried away that, at one point, the bassist had to slap him to stop the poor lad from jazzing all over the sax solo.

Finally (thankfully), the support vacated the stage, the Ron Jeremy/Dave Grohl amalgam on drums so bereft he had a tear in his eye, and Barry Adamson’s show got under way.

The first of two nights, this first evening was split into a sampling of tracks from his new album, and a small collection of his older stuff—and jolly good it was too. He had a tremendous band, and keyboardist Nick Plytas blew me away. Never mind this writing crap—that’s what you call talent.

It was, as these things always are, over too quickly. I enjoyed it tremendously, but that leaves me with an odd dilemma. The jazz influences on Adamson’s work are so obvious as to be glaring, but why do I enjoy his music and not, say, John Coltrane or Sunny Rollins?

Part of me knows the answer: Adamson’s music is very narrative, there’s a definite beginning, middle, and end, whereas most jazz I’ve encountered (and I grew up with jazz, as my Grandfather was a clarinet player in a jazz band and had more jazz records than God) seems so directionless and meandering. I’ve already made the analogy between jazz and poetry and—although I like Blake because he has a fierce, javelin narrative that rattles through a story at a breathless pace—most poetry I know just seems to sit with its hands in its lap lamenting this or observing that and being so awfully clever—and I hate being talked down to. By anybody.

With Adamson, however (as with Blake), I don’t feel patronised. I feel like I’m being entertained, like I’m being invited into a story or piece of music and shown something secret and shiny, as opposed to being told “I’m clever, and you’re base. You can’t understand my work. Go back to your workhouse, plebeian,” by some poet or jazz wanker. Anybody who’s read my work knows there’s nothing clever or highbrow about it—it’s straight cut adventure with some neat characters and no heirs and graces.

With this in mind, I left the concert that evening looking forward to the following nights performance. Entitled “These Are a Few of My Favourite Themes”, it was labelled as a collection of Adamson’s favourite TV and movie instrumentals, with some of his own cinema work thrown in as well. More than that, however, after the concert he would be reciting a short story he had written. Having, for many years, admired the narratives on his albums, I was looking forward to this a great deal.

Little did I know how much it would challenge my perceptions of story telling, jazz, and poetry...