I used photos from a gig I went to last Tuesday in a series of watercolour exercises aimed at gradually reducing the amount of line and paint I apply to the paper. The top two were the last I did, the rest are a jumble of earlier attempts. The more white paper I leave the better the effect. The gig was by the fabulous Bonfire Radicals, an experimental folk band.
Last week I went to my first live gig since lockdown. Lara Jones opened. Lara is a saxophonist who builds tracks that incorporate sounds she hunted down and recorded, from the noises of the railway station to her wife’s heartbeat. This was in St John’s Church in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. I was drawing in the dark and some distance away. A diminutive fiigure in that setting, she cast huge shadows.
Lara was opening for an hour long performance of Pendulums by Andrew Woodhead. This is a sumptuous piece in which a six piece jazz band improvised, synchronising with pre-recorded animated visuals, depicting shifting geometric shapes representing the mathematics of campanology, and with eight church bells sounded by ringers in the belfry.
Folk singer Rhiannon Giddens brings together musical traditions from her mixed race heritage in the southern States of the USA (her parents married only 3 years after the unconstitutional ban was overturned), along with Gaelic and wider sources. She is a phenomenal and versatile performer with ballet and opera composing credits to her name and recently appointed the artistic director of the Silk Road ensemble founded by cellist Yo Yo Ma. She is also a music historian. She traces the history of the banjo from its African roots through the travelling bands of enslaved then indentured musicians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the appropriation of this genre into black-face minstrelsy continuing well into the twentieth century, and the general abandonment of this tainted culture by its originating people such that the banjo associates today with white folk music.
The preface to David Olosuga’s book Black and British describes how Enoch “Rivers of Blood” Powell fantasised a history in which empire is excised, returning to an imagined time of Britons untainted by rule, misdeed and othered people. This is indeed the history served up by our schools. However, we cannot understand ourselves without history, and there is no history save that it contains Black and colonial history, out and inward migration, the rich mix of cultures and ideas that shapes our everyday heritage. Stripped down history to pretend a white narrative is thin gruel indeed.
On Sunday I chanced upon a live concert by Rhiannon Giddens and her partner, Francesco Turrisi, from her home in Ireland, relayed from Santa Barbara. These are the sketches I did live and playing back the show. You can see I was really challenged trying to capture the shape of her face and features while singing, and I put the gallery of attempts below as a record. By contrast Turrisi was quite easy to capture but he sat still and faced away from the camera looking at Giddens. In the sketch above, she is playing the viola and her face is full of shifting expressions as she looks back at him.
My guitar teacher is a sucker for Brazilian rhythms, though her interests span the globe. I am currently working on both the melody and accompaniment to a pair of Brazilian songs “Minha Jangada” and “Praia do Janga” running back to back with change of key between. The first of these is on this wonderfully pixellated monochrome video, which feels like a possible source for further artwork. Previously, I was learning two Klezmer pieces written by Josi Hartmann in commemoration of the Holocaust, one of which is here. My taking up guitar later in life led my wife to do what she had dreamed of from a child and learn to play the flute.
Zen Brush 2 app, iphone 7, fingers.
I went to Abbey Road Resurfaced, a recreation of the Beatles iconic album live with Jack Goodall [Paul], Rob Peters [John], Emma Reading [George] and Jack Smith [Ringo]. It was brilliant and enjoyable gig. It deserves to be promoted more widely and to larger audiences – the front man and organiser is Rob Peters (email@example.com).
Emma is my lovely guitar teacher who has taught me from scratch from my being unable to read music or keep a beat. She was playing guitar and electric sitar.
These sketches were done in a pocket book in the dark at arms length and with Emma hidden behind a pillar. I could not capture the elegance of her left wrist and hand as she played.
Birmingham Jazz put on live gigs Friday nights. Here are Greg Abate– Sax; Elliott Sansom– Piano; Ben Muirhead– Bass and (not shown because I was sitting behind a pillar) Nathan England-Jones– Drums.
The sketches are done small in a pocket book, soft pencil on rough paper, some of them inked over at the time or a day or so later.
I only started drawing in the final few tracks, letting the music guide the pencil. What i wish I had captured is the way the pianist and bassist grinned at each other at the feats they were performing.
This was athletic music, rhythmic, dexterous, controlled, coordinated and, above all, fast jamming. Abate has clearly been around, but these other guys, the Elliott Samson Trio, are young, barely out of college.
I came across Post Modern Jukebox for their great cover of George Michael’s Careless Whisper (at the time, I was practicing that melody myself, badly, on guitar). They are a rotating musical collective playing current songs with a 1930s jazz twist, brainchild of New York jazz pianist Scott Bradlee. My daughter and I got into watching their prolific output on YouTube. Try Haley Reinhart singing Radiohead’s Creep or again singing All about the Bass with a three other vocalists.
They are still on a UK tour. We saw them in snowbound Birmingham on 2nd March. For me the star was diminutive, understated clarinettist and saxophonist Chloe Feoranzo. I did not get the names of the guys – the bassist, the trombonist and the tap dancer. The other singer shown below is Dani Armstrong (the linked video is not official – the best I could find is shot from the audience in another performance). The unnamed pianist in this performance was not Scott Bradlee (a real franchise this operation!). Ahead of Dani’s Chandelier, he slowly captured the audience’s attention by building a series of cadenzas, subtly shifting the key with each iteration. Not pictured here is Emma Hatton, English singer who took on Haley Reinhart’s numbers on this tour.
These were drawn afterwards from memory and poor quality shots taken on my phone from far away.
As I say, PMJ is not a band but an ever-changing collective. I would like it if they gave more credit to the singers and musicians they recruit as they roll through each country on tour. They deserved the plaudits and I have had to scour the net and twitter to identify those I could.
Ambrose Bierce’s admirably concise narrative tells of a man, Williamson, rising to walk to the distant pasture to speak on a particular matter with Andrew, his brother, the overseer, there supervising a dozen slaves; crossing a close-cropped field, level and without any means of concealment, and disappearing such that no person hears of or sees him again, so that he is declared dead and his estate is distributed according to the law. The sole testimony is from a neighbour, Wren, who saw both Williamson’s presence and then, immediately after, his absence but who was distracted at the moment of disappearance. The woman, Williamson’s wife, black servant Sam and boy, Wren’s son, who were each greatly disturbed by the actual event, were deemed incompetent. What had become of Mr Williamson? Bierce states clearly, it was not the business of this narrative to answer that question. The central event itself is not examined and the reader is left to fill in the details.
I came to this story though David Lang’s opera of the same name, a chance finding on Spotify. Listening to this several times without any idea of its cast or staging nor the story or setting, the sense came to me of the neuroticism of oppression: that the act of oppression was driving the white folks mad and that myth and superstition were interwoven with horror and despair.
Mac Wellman’s libretto expands the original story to some 18 pages, seeing the events from the perspectives of the different actors,yet without resolving Bierce’s central question.
At the heart of the piece is the tightly self-constrained testimony of Andrew, the overseer, explaining his principles of managing slaves and maintaining self respect, which collapses into anger and rhythmic evocative nonsense: “His name was Clock, of the tribe of Clock. But I fear his true mode of locomotion, like that of Prince Zandor, was more humble, the singleton crutch, or cane, of the tribe of Crutch, or Cane”. Andrew clarifies that seemingly random shouted words were the attributes, or names, of the slaves working in that distant field: Round, Square, Juniper, Crabgrass, Candlestick, Limbo, Clock, Bumblebee, Jackass, Crawdad, Nuisance, Puissance, Doorbell, Virginia Creeper. The slaves are the chorus and Virginia Creeper their caller. The overseer’s words become but an echo of the chorus’ ritual chanting: they are building a nation, seeking an erasure of John C. Calhoun (who promulgated that slavery was more than a “necessary evil” but was a social good) and invoking Prince Zandor, the one-legged red-coated predatory demon from their ancestral mythology.