Monday, 14 August 2017

CD Review: Native Invader by Tori Amos (Decca, 2017)



[SPOILERS WARNING: This is a long-form review of Amos's latest album which features some brief quotes from lyrics alongside other cross-references. If you'd prefer to make those discoveries for yourself while listening to the record, then you might want to come back and read this review at a later date. Thank you. AR]



“Knowledge sown in Gaia’s bones…/Her uncorrupted soul/Will not be possessed or owned.” Briskly intoned by Tori Amos and her daughter Natashya Hawley on the centrepiece song, “Up the Creek,” these lyrics are among those that cut closest to the heart of the concerns of Amos’s new album, Native Invader, a record which frequently turns to nature, to the rhythms of (Mother) Earth, as a source of strength and wisdom against divisive, destructive forces. As the album’s pitch-perfect title suggests, and its closing (bonus) track “Russia” makes clear, these forces may be internal as much as external, referring to illnesses and disabling thoughts that might inhabit/inhibit an individual as well as to the oppressions perpetrated by leaders against their own people or against the land itself.

Originally inspired by a Smoky Mountains road-trip undertaken last summer, the album, Amos has said, dramatically shifted its focus due to two events: the result of the US election in November, and a stroke that left her mother Mary partially paralysed and unable to speak. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Native Invader combines and fuses all these elements, resulting in a work whose overt combination of personal and political preoccupations makes it a spiritual sister to two of Amos’s masterpieces, Scarlet’s Walk (2002) and American Doll Posse (2007).

Such syntheses have always been central to Amos’s music, of course. At her best, she’s an artist with an extraordinary gift for taking the temperature of the present moment, but doing so via unpredictable excursions into myth and history, and references (variously arcane or direct) to personal experience that render her work truly unique. The aforementioned “Up the Creek,” for example, is an urgent, echoy duet that feels both edgily contemporary – synth stabs, dramatic electronic flourishes, cathartic piano breakdown – and weirdly old timey in its incorporation of the expression “Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise” (itself made into a Jerry Reed-penned, Johnny Cash-popularised song in the 1950s). That expression (apparently a favourite of Amos’s beloved Cherokee Grandfather) is suitably subverted here, not least through a title that nicely nods to the notion that the phrase might refer to the Creek people as much as a body of water.




In its allusiveness, then, Native Invader is an album that makes the listener work: don’t be surprised to find yourself inspired to brush up on the theories of Carl Sagan, Thomas Nast’s 1830 cartoon of Andrew Jackson as the “Great White Father,” or the Veil of Veronica at various points as you listen. Following such trails is not only productive and exciting, though: it also seems absolutely central to the anti-isolationist ethos of an album that stresses the value of making connections, of seeing one thing in terms of another. Of building bridges, not walls.

As an in-house production built around Amos’s collaborations with her engineer/guitarist husband Mark Hawley (plus John Philip Shenale on two tracks), Native Invader shares much the same base as its predecessor, Unrepentant Geraldines (2014), which came after two of Amos’s most ambitious collaborative projects: the epic classical song cycle Night of Hunters (2011) and the sublime musical The Light Princess (2013) at the National Theatre. But the sound here is darker, richer-toned, and more ambient than the lighter, lower-keyed arrangements on Geraldines, sometimes gesturing back to Amos’s more elaborately produced works:  from the choirgirl hotel (1998), To Venus and Back (1999), and Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009).

A case in point is the album’s stunning opener “Reindeer King,” a majestic seven minute epic on which strings and synths are used as haunting accents to Amos’s piano-work, which is gorgeously rich and deep here. In commanding voice, Amos locates the listener “at the still point of the turning world,” reporting the title character’s advice to the divided. Entrancing and cinematic, it’s a spine-tingling song, destined to be canonised as a classic in her catalogue.

Without ever quite hitting that height again, the rest of the album offers many pleasures and puzzles for the listener. Those with kneejerk objections to Hawley’s guitar-playing (which is rather dominant throughout the first half) may be as resistant to the record as those sad cases who still keep complaining when each new  Amos album turns out not to be More Boys For Pele.

But those listening without prejudice will find that Hawley’s contributions add nuance and atmosphere at their best.  Warm washes of guitar reverberate through the measured, deceptively mellow first single “Cloud Riders,” on which a shooting star serves as an ambiguous portent of challenges to come, and the meltingly sensuous “Wildwood” which finds replenishment in the forest on its way to a poignant reunion. Meanwhile, there’s wah-wahing urgency to the  brilliantly intricate “Broken Arrow,” another standout track that advocates the avoidance of snap judgement reactions to political events at the same time as it urges citizens’ to vigilance of those in power. Amos drops a heart-stopping piano part behind her tribute to the resilience of “Lady Liberty” and the nation she represents: “she may seem weak/we may be battleweary/still those songlines sing.”

The album gets into somewhat stickier territory when it ventures into what has been one of Amos’s strongest suits: couples’ communication and relationship conflict. The twitchy, skeletal “Chocolate Song,” a tale of warring opposites spun from a domestic scene, works best as a rejoinder to Geraldines’s “Wild Way.” But the notion of “vowels and consonants” as “weaponry” was more dynamically explored on Night of Hunters’s great “Battle of Trees,” while the cooed opening line to the chorus sadly sounds destined for a Thorntons’ commercial. The softly pulsing “Wings” fares rather better as a song of relationship renegotiation, Amos bringing both sadness and sultriness to her delivery. Still the track doesn’t quite take flight, especially when the lyric “Sometimes big boys they need to cry” renders the theme too explicit.

More compelling and mysterious by far is the plaintive piano dirge “Breakaway,” a quiet heartbreaker that laments betrayals, words unsaid and associations regretted, Amos smuggling in a tribute to a cherished collaborator and a reference to Miss Saigon, to boot. The beautiful “Climb” movingly sketches out suggestions of childhood transgression and shaming (and the challenges of overcoming that legacy) to brisk acoustic guitar and piano, with superb lyrics to make Sylvia Plath proud.



The one-word-titled alliterative songs are among the album’s oddest impulses. “Bang” is driving and dramatic, boldly subverting anti-immigrant sentiment through astrophysical references as it defines all humans as refugees from the cosmos, “molecular machines” composed of star stuff. “One story’s end/seeds another to begin,” Amos intones, and the song builds to an exhilarating finale. “Bats,” by contrast, is drifting and ambient, Amos’s narrator anticipating the arrival of a mythological female force:  “dripped in mist sisters rise/quietly from the fens and marshes/… Keep breathing, girl.” “Benjamin” celebrates other subversives, approaching the “Juliana vs. United States” climate change case via the figure of a “science whiz” investigator. There’s some lyrical awkwardness here, but the track’s proggy, retro ambience is arresting, with bleeps and buzzes providing their own message to decode.

The song leads into the album’s closer “Mary’s Eyes,” on which Amos confronts her mother’s aphasia. In contrast to the more intense and lugubrious tone of the similarly-themed  title track of The Beekeeper (2005), the vigorous piano work and beautiful strings here give the track an uncanny jubilance, as Amos refers to attempts to communicate through music. The sentiments expressed in the chorus encapsulate the mood of an album that's as devout as it is questioning, its merging of Christian, Pagan and Native American beliefs speaking not only to Amos's personal history but to the history of America itself. In a culture that presently feels so divided and fragmented, the record seems dedicated to revealing the importance of connection, the multiple ways in which, as “Mary’s Eyes” has it,  “patterns matter/stringing sequences together matters.”

The titles of the bonus tracks, “Upside Down” and “Russia,” gesture back to two of Amos’s earliest songs. Intimate piano-only numbers which are equally delicate yet determined in tone, the former focuses on an outsider’s resolution to see the happiness of others as inspiration rather than threat. Book-ended by numbers station samples, “Russia” is more pointed, highlighting the divisions stoked by both Left and Right as it locates State surveillance in the East and West. A Russian leader (though not necessarily the one you might expect) gets name-checked, as Amos at last unfurls the album’s title here.

It's a stirring, quietly anthemic conclusion to an album which, despite a couple of underachieving moments, feels vital, its combination of the combative and the conciliatory speaking directly to our polarised period. Encompassing earth and sky, spirit and machine, science and soul, Amos has once again produced a richly absorbing record that bestows balance, bringing us back to ourselves, giving us the strength and courage to go on.

Native Invader is released on Decca Records on 8th September 2017. 

All album images by Paulina Otylie Surys.

My interview with Amos will be published at PopMatters next week. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Theatre Review: Apologia (Trafalgar Studios)



Following on from his popular 2008 Royal Court debut with the dual-timeline gay drama The Pride, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s second play Apologia was produced at the Bush in 2009. It’s one of a number of plays of its period (Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love and Stephen Beresford’s The Last of Haussmans spring to mind) that attempted to explore the legacy of 1960s radicalism by focusing on the generational conflict between the now-ageing radicals (often represented by a strident maternal figure) and their offspring in the present day. While these works differed a little bit in their attitudes, it’s notable that most offered a judgemental and unsympathetic take on the ’60s generation, flagging up the hypocrisies and compromises of the baby boomers in a way that seemed designed to flatter younger audiences eager to view themselves as victims of the older generation’s selfishness.

Somewhat tweaked, Kaye Campbell’s play now receives its first major revival at Trafalgar Studios in a production by Jamie Lloyd (who directed The Pride in 2013) that casts Stockard Channing as the ’60s representative. Kristin Miller is a leading art historian who was a firebrand of the radical Left in her youth. She’s just published a memoir, in which her two sons, Peter and Simon, have not been mentioned.  The dramatic device used to bring her and said sons into collision is, predictably enough, a dinner party, at which Peter, a banker, arrives with his American girlfriend Trudi, to be joined by Simon’s girlfriend, Claire, an ambitious actress currently starring in “a serialised drama that happens to follow the trajectories of various people's lives". Simon himself, a depressed failed novelist, is late to the party, but also along for the bumpy ride is Kristin’s bawdy gay pal Hugh.

It’s the most conventional of dramatic set-ups, then, and one that’s not entirely persuasive. We’re meant to see how  Kristin’s “neglect” of her sons has led them to life choices that directly oppose hers, but details such as Peter’s having met Trudi at a prayer meeting (to his mother’s horror)  never completely convince.  Kaye Campbell certainly tries for fair-mindedness in his presentation of the characters but sometimes accomplishes this by foul means, briskly scuttling two characters off-stage so that a third can deliver a sympathetic speech that’s meant to fundamentally change our view of the heroine.

Reining in his tendency for pushy touches, Lloyd’s production treats the play in an unfussy manner, with Soutra Gilmour supplying an attractive, picture frame-bordered kitchen set. The production has an interesting rhythm, its broad comic tone giving way to a quiet, tender (if overextended) mother/son scene at the mid-point. And the essential mediocrity of the material is partially compensated for by a couple of fantastic performances.

Joseph Millson doubles efficiently though not scintillatingly as the resentful sons, while Desmond Barrit gets laughs for fruitily playing Hugh as the ever-quipping quintessence of camp. (Nonetheless, the character is a stereotype, with no suggestions of interior life; it’s a jarring touch when we learn that he and Kristin are still out there attending protest marches.)
 
Channing is absolutely terrific, though, underplaying effectively to avoid making Kristin a mere monster; with stillness and economy, she suggests the doubts and disappointments lurking beneath the character’s implacable facade. Kristin’s trajectory - from icy intelligence to inevitable emotional breakdown - is highly problematic but Channing makes that arc a whole lot less gruesome than it might be, scrupulously avoiding sentimentality.

The production’s other great performance comes from Laura Carmichael (so memorable in Lloyd’s thrilling production of The Maids last year) who finds the goodness and integrity in Trudi’s comically perky politeness.  Freema Agyeman  is less assured, but gives some gusto to Claire’s run-ins with Kristin. “It’s not a soap,” goes the running gag about Claire’s TV show. Kaye Campbell’s play is, at heart, a sitcom. Its conflicts frequently feel contrived, but the cast sometimes succeed in bringing a few sparks of truth to the table.


Runs until 18th November. 

Festival Report: Transatlantyk Festival, Łódź (14 -21 July 2017)



My report on the 2017 Transatlantyk Festival is up at Film International. You can read it here.  

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre Review: Directors' Festival (Orange Tree)


Orlando James in Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall
(Photo:Robert Day)

As Paul Miller and Imogen Bond remind us in their programme note to the Orange Tree’s new Directors’ Festival,  “[d]irector training is part of the Orange Tree’s DNA”, with successful alumni going on to become artistic directors of the Open Air Theatre, Hampstead Theatre, Birmingham Rep, and other high-profile venues. During founder Sam Walters’s tenure, the fruits of the labour of the theatre’s trainees were presented at the end of each Spring season in the “Directors’ Showcase”, resulting in terrific productions of such challenging plays as Jon Fosse’s Winter [review], Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke [review] and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, the latter featuring a galvanising performance from Hamlet-to-be Paapa Essiedu.


The End of Hope (Photo: Robert Day)

Now, the OT has teamed up with St. Mary’s University to develop an MA course in Theatre Directing, and presents the work of the first graduates of the programme over ten days. The five plays staged  - James Graham’s Albert’s Boy, Brad Birch’s Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall, David Ireland’s The End of Hope, Enda Walsh’s Misterman, and Kate Tempest’s Wasted - are all contemporary works, and while it’s a shame that some older plays have not been engaged with, the high quality of the five productions is bracing.

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall (Photo: Robert Day)
Directed by Hannah de Ville and Max Elton respectively, Birch’s Even Stillness… and Ireland’s The End of Hope are both dark-hued male/female two-handers that receive pin-sharp productions here. Even Stillness … is particularly jaw-dropping. Men in meltdown appear to be a speciality of Birch’s, and while I wasn’t much of a fan of his play The Brink [review], which was produced at the OT last year, Even Stillness… is much more effective in its spiky take on the existential anxiety beneath the daily grind.


The play’s nameless protagonists are a couple undergoing two parallel corporate hells: Georgina Campbell’s Her is subjected to harassment from male colleagues, while Orlando James’s Him oscillates between cockiness and defeat: “My degree in business studies did not prepare me for being this inconsequential.”  The couple’s unhappiness ends up leading to revolt, gloriously rendered in an anarchic destruction scene scored to “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It’s an apt choice of song, as Birch’s play comes close to romanticising the couple as a form of resistance before complicating that position in the final stretch.

Birch’s default mode of swearing and scatology can become tiresome, but he’s good at honing in on divergent, discordant aspects of the contemporary world, from impotent rage at foreign wars to the embarrassment of not having contactless. The opening up of the OT’s floor may be in danger of becoming a fetish, but de Ville’s fleet, highly physical production – with a witty design by Max Dorey that freshly puts the orange into Orange Tree – is consistently dynamic and boasts brave, exposing performances from Campbell and James. 


Misterman (Photo: Robert Day)

A tour de force turn also ignites Grace Vaughan’s visceral, gripping production of Enda Walsh’s Misterman, with Ryan Donaldson’s exhilarating performance as Thomas capturing every shade of the volatility and vulnerability of a character whose harsh judgements on the inhabitants of his town inevitably lead to violence. Whether viciously ventriloquising the voices of his foes, or settling into a moment of repose as he softly sings a hymn at his father’s grave,  Donaldson’s physical inhibition and command of Walsh’s wild, poetic text, with its Beckettian and Biblical echoes, is masterful, and Richard Bell’s rich sound design pulls us further into the protagonist’s disordered psyche.  


Wasted (Photo: Robert Day)

The writing of Wasted, by the popular Kate Tempest, is less assured: punctuated by self-conscious poetic sections, this tale of three twentysomething friends, each questioning their life direction as they look back to carefree days of clubbing, is sometimes too explicit in its approach to its themes. Still, Jamie Woods’s often very funny production keeps the energy level infectiously high, and Daniel Abbott, Gemma Lawrence and Alexander Forsyth sketch out a believable rapport as the trio, with Forsyth particularly effective in conveying the condition of the title in a hilarious display of morning-after befuddlement.

Albert's Boy (Photo: Robert Day)

First seen at the Finborough in 2005, Albert’s Boy by the prolific James Graham is more sober, lower-keyed fare, and Kate Campbell’s production treats it with tenderness and wit. The play, Graham's second, dramatises an encounter between Albert Einstein and a friend, Peter Bucky, a Korean War veteran, in the former's study in 1953. As the men catch up, it becomes apparent that each has a contrasting view on warfare, with Einstein crippled by guilt over his role in the development of the atom bomb.  

Some of the dialogue in Graham's play smacks of flaunted research, but Andrew Langtree and Robert Gill - whose Einstein is sockless, avuncular, haunted, and finally disconsolate - make it a compelling duet. They're aided by a another good design by Dorey, with warmly inviting lighting that turns nightmarish in a final expressionist flourish. Throughout, Campbell's sensitive, unfussy staging is perfectly attuned to the material.

That goes for all the productions here, in fact; the work of a talented and enterprising group of directors who would all seem to have bright futures ahead of them.

The Directors' Festival runs until 29th July. Further information here.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Book Review: Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner (Jonathan Cape, 2017)




Nicholas Hytner’s twelve year tenure as Artistic Director of the National Theatre is widely regarded as among the most successful and dynamic directorships of one of Britain’s flagship cultural institutions. Hytner took over the role from Trevor Nunn in 2003, and immediately shook things up at the Southbank venue via a game-changing £10 ticket scheme and some unexpected programming; the inclusion of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera in his first season allegedly prompted one NT regular to call the box office and enquire: “I want to see this new opera, but who is Jerry Springer?”

Buoyed by that successful and slightly subversive first season, Hytner went on to preside over an exceptionally fertile and creative period in the NT’s history, one that combined new plays and adaptations (such as The History Boys and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) with sharp revivals (Rattigan’s After the Dance), crowd-pleasing entertainments (the Cumber-Miller Frankenstein, One Man, Two Guvnors, and War Horse) and a smattering of exquisite, innovative musicals, both imported (Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change) and brand new (Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s The Light Princess).

Such successes mean that Hytner’s account of his time at the NT (published just a few months before he launches his new venture, The Bridge Theatre) has been eagerly awaited, not only by those of us who saw a great deal of the productions staged under his tenure, but also by those interested in the UK theatre scene more broadly. Sadly, though, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre proves disappointing: the book is erroneously advertised, unillustrated, and indifferently written, though not without a few scattered insights to keep the reader on board.

Unlike former directors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, whose accounts of their time at the NT were presented in journal form, Hytner “kept no diary” (p.15) during his tenure. This means that Balancing Acts lacks the sense of immediate, day-to-day ups-and-downs that are conveyed so vividly in Hall and Eyre’s books, and instead adopts a necessarily more retrospective approach. The book begins quite strongly: after an introduction that sketches out a “typical” day running the NT, Hytner describes his route to this much-coveted position. He contextualises the early 21st century London theatre scene with brisk precision, noting the vogue at that time for intimate, studio venues (such as the Donmar Warehouse, where he himself directed a galvanising production of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending in 2000) and the need for the National “to be the big public alternative” (p.40) to those smaller spaces.

As it progresses, though, Balancing Acts starts to feel more and more like a book with an identity crisis, and one that fails to fully make good on its subtitle. By far the most satisfying sections are those in which Hytner indeed takes the reader “behind the scenes” of the theatre: his reflections on the development of particular productions (such as his “euphoric” experience on The History Boys, his Iraq War-referencing Henry V, and his hugely ambitious staging of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) are all interesting, as are his accounts of important innovations like the £10 ticket scheme, and NT Live, which broadcasts productions to cinemas worldwide.

But, in totality, the book feels partial and fragmented, with strange focus and odd digressions. Hytner laments that he does not have “space to mention many … excellent new plays” (p.293) and emphasises that “the book does not record everything that happened at the National Theatre between 2003 and 2015” (p. 287). Naturally enough, but, if space is such a consideration, then why waste time on lengthy accounts of his film work and pre-NT musical productions, neither of which are directly relevant to this project? Ultimately, the book seems uncertain about what it’s trying to accomplish: it’s a strange hybrid of a text, more a general career retrospective than a comprehensive portrait of the NT’s workings.



Hytner offers some engaging general commentaries on, for example, “the negotiations with contemporary sensibility that old plays normally require” (p.180) and “the challenge of bridging the gap between Shakespeare’s world and our own” (p.31). But the white heat of collaboration, the  personalities of the directors and actors and designers  involved, are not conveyed very vividly, and the book certainly lacks the characterful, textured quality of  another artistic director’s recent swansong publication: Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet: Globe to Globe. 

There’s also a disproportionate emphasis on hits: while Hytner is frank in identifying a few disappointing productions, he never once goes in to bat for an underrated show, preferring to focus on what he terms “hot tickets”. (Pretty much all that he has to say about Deborah Warner’s great Fiona Shaw-starring production of Mother Courage and her Children, for example, is that Shaw is “always a hot ticket.”) While the financial complications of running the NT receive some illuminating reflections, Hytner gradually comes to seem as preoccupied with box office as any Hollywood mogul.

In terms of style, Hytner’s writing veers uneasily between confession (“in the safety of the rehearsal room I … confront all the stuff that threatens to be too painful in the world outside” [p.126]) and evasiveness (he claims to have no memory at all of the interview that secured him the NT job). And I’m not sure what’s going on in the closing “Casts and Creatives” chapter, which consists of a seemingly random selection of brief remarks about stage moments and performances, some already mentioned in the book, and many not even connected to Hytner’s work at the NT.

In a predictably glowing review, Richard Eyre praises Hytner’s book for conveying  “the anatomy and psychology of a large organisation.” In fact, that’s precisely what Balancing Acts fails to achieve. The book is worth reading for its scattered observations, such as Hytner’s sage remarks about directors’ personal investment in a play: “[D]irectors too determined to use a play as a vehicle for their own preoccupations can send it down a dead end where it locks its audience out. When you discover a personal stake in a play, you need to balance your connection to it with your need to connect it to its audience” (p.26). As the book’s title indicates, that notion of “balance” is central to Hytner’s conception of theatre, which he describes early on as a series of negotiations between art and commerce, vision and compromise. It’s a shame, then, that, when it comes to combining the specifics of particular productions  with general reflections on theatre as an art-form,  this highly anticipated publication fails to get the balance right.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

CD Review: Nightfall, Quercus (ECM, 2017)



Quite a lot’s been said, in recent years, about so-called Slow Cinema, the minimalist, observational aesthetic that characterises a certain strand of contemporary filmmaking, including work by the likes of Tsai Ming-liang, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Apichatpong Weerasethtkal and Bela Tarr. While theres no denying that the films of these directors are challenging, and may, at their weakest, induce frustration, there can also be something gloriously subversive about their languorous approach and the way that it requires the viewer to take their time, to look closer and really work with the images. Indeed, Thomas Elsaesser sees the form as an act of organised resistance (analogous to the Slow food movement) that challenges the hyper, fast-cut style of most contemporary filmmaking - and, I would add, the incessant, damagingly choppy experience of online activity,  referred to by James Wolcott as the hyperspace of attention-deficit culture.

If theres a musical equivalent to the profound pleasures offered by Slow Cinema at its best, then one prime exponent is Quercus, the folk jazz trio comprising June Tabor (vocals), Huw Warren (piano) and Iain Ballamy (saxaphones). A wonderful sense of spaciousness and expansiveness, an attentive, meditative quality, characterises this group’s music, and the results are deeply restorative and rewarding. 

Art cinema has often been cited by Tabor as an influence on her work; after all, her second solo album, Ashes and Diamonds, was named for the final part of Andrzej Wajdas War Trilogy, while the elliptical, image-rich qualities of folk ballads (and some contemporary song writing, such as Lal Watersons and Bill Caddick's) have been compared by her to film narrative, something that she discussed with me in interview back in 2011. The cinematic aspects of Quercus’s work have to do with ambience, the way in which they offer the listener spaces to pause and reflect. Instant easy-listening the album is not. But the deeper you dig, the richer the findings.



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Tabor and Warren have, of course, been collaborating fruitfully since the 1980s, but Ballamy is newer to the fold, completing the trio after appearing on Tabor's 2005 release At the Wood’s Heart. The fruits of the group’s labour were first released on their self-titled debut album – a 2006 live performance finally issued by the great ECM label in 2013. From its artwork to its content, Nightfall feels like a complement to, and extension of, that record. (Th title comes from Edward Thomas’s poem “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”: “The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood/This Eastertide call into mind the men,/Now far from home, who, with their sweetness should/Have gathered them and will do never again.”) 

From the first spare opening note, Ballamy, Warren and Tabor continue to bring out the best in each other; their combination of elements – metropolitan jazz/classical stylings wedded to songs of tradition (mostly drawn from Somerset sources this time) – proves, once again, intoxicating. The group’s distilled approach, in which every note counts, doesn’t result in austerity: instead, there’s a stealth sensuality to the record, evident in Warren’s lithe and rhythmic piano work, in Ballamy’s billowing, shadowing sax playing, and in the commanding intensity of Tabor’s magnificent vocals.

As on the first album, the opening track here is from Robbie Burns’s pen: this time the venerable “Auld Lang Syne”, pleasingly defamilarised with a subtly altered tune, the song is shifted from its usual employment as a hearty singalong to an intimate, deeply personal expression. The misty ambience conjured on “On Berrow Sands,” would have fitted comfortably on Tabor’s great sea-themed album Ashore, the track revolving around the hypnotic, trancelike repetitions of the gulls’ warning to sailors. There’s a similar attention to atmosphere on the captivatingly languid “The Shepherd and His Dog” on which an otherworldly arrangement renders an everyday pastoral scene mystical and mysterious: a passage from Hardy as directed by Ingmar Bergman.

The album’s centrepiece is a thrillingly dramatic and powerful rendering of “The Manchester Angel”. The song starts off looking like it’s going to be about a faithless soldier’s seduction of “a pretty young doxy” but twists into a tale of war as separator. Tabor delivers a series of negations with stunning power, and Ballamy’s sax soars with the heroine’s resolution. And I’ve never heard a better version of “The Cuckoo”, the song treated to a twinkling, delicate arrangement that does the floating verses ample justice – as intimations of Love Gone Wrong are offset by the birds’ recipe for happiness: “we are single and free”.

The more contemporary material – including two terrific instrumental duets composed by Ballamy and Warren - also compels. A biting “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is directed inwards and outwards in just the right way. Wistful sax and piano re-purpose Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, as Tabor’s vocals shift through irony, scorn, amusement and acceptance.  Personally I could live without another version of Sondheim/Bernstein’s West Side Story warhorse “Somewhere” (which closes the album), but Tabor’s control and dramatic power succeed in bringing some freshness to the piece.

That’s true of all the tracks here, in fact. In a cluttered, pushy, snap judgement-dependent culture, Nightfall captivates by slowing us down, giving us room to breathe, making us listen closely and thereby experience these songs afresh. It's a glorious record. 




Sunday, 28 May 2017

Concert Review: Shelter from the Storm, Barb Jungr, Jamie Safir, Davide Mantovani (The Other Palace, 25th May 2017)



Recorded in a sweltering New York studio in summer 2015, and released early last year, Barb Jungr’s album Shelter from the Storm (Linn Records) [review] was a fine collaboration with the award-winning pianist Laurence Hobgood, the pair’s fresh and vibrant versions of a range of material – showtunes, Dylan and Cohen, Bowie and Mitchell – supplemented by some strong original tracks, all linked, as the album’s subtitle emphasized, as “Songs of Hope for Troubled Times.”

I wasn’t able to see Jungr and Hobgood perform the album live during their tour last year, so was glad to have the opportunity to catch the show at The Other Palace (formerly the St. James Theatre) on Thursday night, where the performance was the third edition in the venue’s new “Jazz Divas” programme.

With the album’s US-based personnel (not only Hobgood, but also Michael Olatuja on double bass and Wilson Torres on percussion) otherwise engaged, Thursday night found Jungr taking to the stage with her regular bassist Davide Mantovani and the young pianist Jamie Safir (fresh off a plane from Mallorca). From the opening “Something’s Coming” through the dynamically shifting rhythms of “Shelter from the Storm” to the penultimate “What the World Needs Now is Love” (hilariously prefaced by Jungr), the musicians proved more than up to the task of navigating Jungr and Hobgood’s idiosyncratic arrangements, often fleshing out the album versions with distinctive flourishes and spontaneous interplay all their own. Mantovani’s  work was characteristically elegant, subtle and supple, and Safir’s playing was a pure delight, by turns passionate and playful, and generating several spontaneous rounds of applause from the audience.

In great voice, Jungr herself was radiant as always, creating a warm and witty ambience for the evening, illuminating songs old and new in revelatory ways. Bruce Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” was revealed as a beautiful torch song, Jungr leaning hard into the “Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t” lyric. “Bali Hai” was approached via Brexit. “Life on Mars?/Space Oddity” was fruitfully developed  from the more skeletal album version, with stunning playing from Mantovani and Safir. “All Along the Watchtower”, with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” elegantly entwined in its folds, was taut and powerful. Tracks drawn from elsewhere in Jungr’s repertoire – such as her jaunty-deadly jazz strut through Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and a gospel-influenced, singalong “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”  to close – were also appreciated. She and Hobgood’s own compositions sat snugly beside this diverse material, with a soulful “Hymn to Nina” and a soaring “Venus Rising” among the standouts.

While even the most talented contemporary songwriters have struggled, so far, to write very profoundly about the US in the Time of Trump, Jungr brilliantly hot-wires us to the present moment by turning the clock back, finding relevant content in older material. Her version of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” was achingly poignant and deeply moving in this context, its chorus – “Good morning, America, how are you?/Don’t you know me, I’m your native son” – turning gradually into a devastating enquiry from a soul betrayed. Her vibrantly funky take on “Woodstock” also reinvigorates the song as an urgent anthem for our age.  Loving and subversive, witty and engaged, Jungr and her collaborators help us find our way back to the garden.

Further information on the "Jazz Divas" series at The Other Palace here.