Brought to Book: The Table Talk of Chris Ackroyd

Chris Ackroyd was my Art History tutor at Manchester Polytechnic (as was). A lovely, refined fellow (and I realise now I have no photograph of him). He invites me to cricket matches, and although I’m too long in the tooth to start taking an active interest in cricket now, the thought is appreciated. Anyway, he's retiring from tutoring at Manchester Metropolitan University, and is having to move out of his flat at Didsbury Halls of Residence (where he served as warden, a related post) in a hurry. He's got thousands of books which I said I would help shift for him on eBay. I taped a bookish conversation for publicity reasons, partly, but Chris’s conversation is a delight in itself.

D’Anvers, History of Art

I don’t think anyone would be interested in it, except art historians. It’s a very unusual book. I picked it up completely by accident, and I used it in my dissertation. History of art didn’t exist in Britain. It starts in Germany. Germans were ahead of the game in applying scientific, rationalistic ideas to how art evolves in the period of the Italian Renaissance or whatever. It’s D’Anvers. D, apostrophe… It’s a French name, but it’s in English, and it’s a very early example. It’s straightforward. It says, The History of Art. All of it [including music]. 

The cover’s fallen off. That might be quite a rare book actually. I found it in a second-hand bookshop.

Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation

When I was young and read more, Darkness at Noon was a really daunting, chilling, intriguing book. It’s about an interrogation. A whole novel about an interrogation. That is more objective and scientific. You might disagree with a lot of it, but it’s about how creativity and imagination works. That’s what he’s trying to explain. He talks about how jokes are structured. Now, you’ve probably come across books which try and explain why humour is funny. And they’re the most unfunny books to read. Well, so is that. But he does analyse jokes in terms of how, even in a few sentences, you set up a narrative, and then you cut across it, and he draws analogies with other ways of creating. It’s disconcerting. Not the climax you were expecting. I can’t remember it exactly. He uses some anecdotal things, like some scientist who invented the idea of molecular theory, and the idea that electrons whizz around a nucleus, which we learned at school when we were eleven or twelve in Chemistry. 

It was a mathematician, I think, and he fell asleep in front of the fire in that half-awake, half-sleeping thing, which people do find interesting, because of the the interplay between your subconscious and consciousness… And he woke up suddenly in front of the fire with this image of snakes chasing their tails, loads of them, around and around. He was trying to understand molecular theory. Snakes biting their tails. A visual metaphor. I remember little bits like that. 


There were six volumes of  Modern Painters with an Index. Some of the others, like Time and Tide, the one I mentioned – “Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland” –  they’re what I would class as “scruffy books", but because they’re Ruskins I class them together. The Ruskins I have at home are a bit special. One of them is vellum bound, and in a box, and it’s an original. 

I lodged for a while with one of my tutors, called Roger Jones, who died tragically young. He was descended from a duke. He was posh and he was clever: Oxbridge, Courtauld Institute. And some of the books that I’d bought off him (I didn’t nick them), he’d inscribed in the front, in very nice writing “R.B.S. Jones”. Roger Jones sounds a bit common. Roger, Beauchamp, and then, I think, Spencer Jones. Maybe he was related to the Spencers. I know he was aristocracy. Nicholas Penny, who is now the head of the National Gallery, taught with Roger when I was doing my degree. And Nicholas Penny was a stratospheric high-flyer; even when he was young he was destined for greatness. And they wrote a book together on Raphael. And that was the last book he did, and Nicholas Penny was his executor, along with his partner, Jane. But they were in London, so I helped them get rid of Roger’s scruffy books, because they brought in book dealers for the expensive ones. Because he had quite a collection. I mean the only warm room in the house was his, now that I think about it.

I liked him even though he wasn’t that likeable. He was an unusual guy. And Nicholas Penny rated him highly. To cut a long story short… Well, I’m not cutting a long story short. Never mind. They gave me several books actually, but particularly a Ruskin, and I think that’s a first edition…

As soon as you mention one I go off on half a bloody lecture. Sesame and Lilies was by far and away his best seller. Later in life he started to adopt weirder and weirder titles. Modern Painters tells you what it is. Stones of Venice, kind of, you know. Sesame and LiliesSesame, somehow, is men, and Lilies is women. And it’s part of his developing theory about the relation of the genders. By then he’d been through a divorce, a very messy thing for such a prominent figure in mid-Victorian London. But it outsold anything he ever wrote on art and architecture. It’s kind of an interesting insight into the Victorian mind. He gave lectures on it. It wouldn’t go down well now. Not PC. I think he gave lectures in Manchester on it. 

In the 1840s and 1850s he’s writing more specifically about art and architecture, but beginning to develop ideas as to how a society expresses itself through art and architecture. And then most of what he published in the 1860s is more to do with proto-socialism and the political economy of society really. I used to know more or less the whole chronology of what he published. Because I had to. He wrote a lot. And in the last twenty years or so of his life, he was in and out of insanity. He wrote a lot of stuff, which, on the page, is still clever, but it got more and more convoluted, with stranger and stranger Latin titles. And often he was repeating, or going over ideas that he’d been talking about for years. 

Edward William Godwin was a really interesting architect and interior designer, and a friend of Whistler’s. This is scurrilous. Ruskin dies about the same time as Queen Victoria, in 1900. He made the century out. She dies in 1901. He’s starting to go off the rails in the mid-1870s, but by then he’s an almost saintly figure, like Tolstoy, up in the Lake District, in Brantwood. People used to make pilgrimages to see him. And Godwin in the 1870s wrote a very intelligent article about contemporary architecture and design, etc. And he wrote “Is Mr Ruskin living too long?” That must have stung him. Because this was the younger generation coming up and going, "Mr Ruskin, you’re wrong to say that beauty only comes from a morally beautiful society; it comes from not so nice societies too." There was like a generation gap there. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be nasty, but they were very witty, you know. 

Symonds, Renaissance in Italy

That’s a good volume. It was a school prize-book, I think. Kirkby College or something. And it’s nicely bound. It’s one of a series of several volumes, but I’ve only kept one. Gosh, he was a turgid writer, but he took over the mantle of writing for the British public about Italian art. He took over where Ruskin left off, but he’s a much less interesting writer. A very interesting homosexual though. He’s part of that 1890s gang. He more or less discovered Davos Platz in Switzerland. Now it’s an extremely fashionable and expensive place to go ski-ing. He was wealthy enough to be able to divide his time between Venice - he may have known Rolfe, but Symonds was up there and Rolfe was just getting by. But Symonds was going for the gondoliers, and in Davos Platz, it was the hefty young yokels. He had a gay old time, literally. Oscar Wilde’s trial happened, bang in the middle of that, and I think they had to be a bit more discreet thereafter. 

Macaulay, History of England

Now not many people read Macaulay, but you know we were talking about Thomas Carlyle, and his racy, speed-you-through the French Revolution way of approaching history? Macaulay was the one most of them read. Well they probably read both. Macaulay is much more meticulous, pain-staking, incredibly detailed. But, though you struggle with some of his essays, they’re really good. Thomas Babington Macaulay, yeah. But it’s a scruffy volume. 

Peter Ackroyd, The House of Doctor Dee

 I can’t read his novels. I love his history. I think he’s one of the best contemporary writers on English history and the history of art that there is. He’s exhilarating, and there’s an incredible amount of research and detail, but it’s not laboured, and he writes as well as anyone ever, about London. He’s published a lot of books on London. I love that kind of writing. But he wrote a biography of Dickens, for example, who I love, and he made a huge mistake, to my mind. At the end of every chapter, he intersperses a bit of his own fancy. He takes characters out of a Dickens novel and then he writes his own little fictional thing. Little bits in-between the chapters, and eventually, oh, I can’t read this, get to the next chapter. I want to know more about Dickens, not this tosh. 

I’ve tried with his novels. He chooses really interesting subjects. How do these people write as much as they do? He’s written one about Hawksmoor, a very interesting architect from the seventeenth century, in the wake of Christopher Wren. So it’s very well historically researched, but when somebody starts putting words into the mouth of a real person, it has to be really good for me to be able to bother with it. I think, why am I reading this? The non-fiction is better than the fiction. There are exceptions. Hilary Mantel wrote a book about the French Revolution, called A Place of Greater Safety. It’s about Robespierre and Danton. That’s really good. Again it’s extremely well-researched, historically researched, but it’s also an extremely good read, and doesn’t put stupid things into their mouths. 

The Old West, Time Life, four volumes inc. The Gunfighters, The Great Chiefs, The Cowboys, and The Soldiers

I don’t think you’ll get much for them, but I really enjoyed reading them. I read all of it. I know how much a cowboy hat costs. A Montana hat is different from a Texan hat. Cowboys with cowboy boots, with their heels and that, felt themselves to be a cut above the clod-hopping farmworker, and there was a certain rough elegance in cowboy boots. Really interesting. Time-Life is not negligible, and it is a bit gung-ho America, except that one of them is very good on the Indians. 

I bet Kevin Costner has read stuff like that. There are accounts in each one, whichever volume, about how taciturn cowboys were. They said very little to each other. Sometimes if you were ramrodding on a herd and that, you’re all rough and sleep on the ground, and there was a lot of camaraderie as well, but they were men of few words. I can’t remember the exact details of it, but this guy comes into a town, into the saloon, has one drink, and says one word and someone when he went out: “talks a lot doesn’t he?” 

I think Kevin Costner has made some of the best cowboy films ever. Because it used to be thought that cowboy films were over, and there was only Clint Eastwood and spaghetti westerns and strange things that came out in the sixties and seventies that were really more about the sixties and seventies than they were about cowboys. But Open Range is one of my Top Ten films, and Wyatt Earp; and again, quietly, they’re well-researched. There’s a lot of this business about cowboys not saying much, subtly woven into very clever dialogue. 

I better go soon Mike because I’m fading a bit, but it’s really interesting. 

Robert Hichens, The Green Carnation; Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde; Frank Harris, My Life and Loves 

The idea of the green carnation was that it was unnatural. The flower is a natural thing, but you don’t get green ones. Now you can get it by putting them in dye, and I think that’s what they did. Again, it’s a homosexual thing - it became a kind of tacit message, if your button-hole is a green carnation. It’s a novel, written in the 90s, based around that idea. 

Richard Ellman, a very good biography. Frank Harris. Again, another braggart. Nice old word, braggart. He boasted and that, but he really looked after Oscar Wilde. Chalk and cheese in many ways, because he was a very masculine man. And he wrote ridiculous fiction boasting about himself all the time. But when Oscar Wilde was due to get arrested, Frank Harris went to him and said, we can get you on a boat to Dieppe tonight. And he wouldn’t go. And he thought that he chose to take the punishment, on the treadmill at Reading Gaol, as a kind of self-punishment. He could have escaped. Lots of people did if they were of that social level, and they got into trouble. They’d go to Dieppe. It’s cheaper than Paris, and just across the water. And Frank Harris tried to bully him to get out of England, but he wouldn’t go. Interesting. It’s a good biography. The Frank Harris one. It’s a ripping read. He might have made up a few things, and there’s a bit of self-aggrandisement: “I told Oscar this, I told Oscar that”. He was a real figure about town, Oscar Wilde. 

Algernon Swinburne, Love’s Cross-Currents

What an unpleasant little man he was. Interesting again. Vigorously homosexual. There were male brothels in St Johns Wood where you could go and get whipped. You could get anything you wanted. Oscar Wilde need not have been so public about what he was doing. He need not have got into trouble. Swinburne was at it like a rabbit. 

It’s what they call an epistolatory novel. It’s written in letters. I can’t remember what the story is about, because it gets a bit complicated, but it is what it says on the cover, Love’s Cross-Currents, and it’s the ups and downs of being in love. I think it’s ambiguous again. 

God knows where I picked these things up. It’s just browsing in second-hand bookshops. These aren’t specialist bookshops. 

W. Wilkie Collins, The Life of William Collins

Wilkie Collins is the novelist who wrote The Woman in White and The Moonstone, and he was the son of the artist William Collins. Turner did a very interesting painting to do with the funeral of William Collins (this is like the 1840s).

Dennis Wheatley, The Devil and All His Works

Devil-worship. It’s a hard-backed thing. I did buy a lot of stuff on whim, and think, I might look at that and then hardly did. Or I might have a drink after I’d been to the Oxfam shop and flick through it and not go back to it. 

J.G. Robertson, The History of German Literature 

Actually rather good. Very thorough. Tedious, but it is what it says. 

Paul Maas, Textual Criticism

See I just go off on one. Textual Criticism

It wasn’t just Darwin that undermined that ability to believe in the truth of the Bible and the Scriptures and so on. It was actually Textual Criticism that properly brought down the whole fiction that the Bible had been dictated by God 6,000 years ago. Because people started to study the original Hebrew text from which the Bible had been originally translated. And from the study of language, and the development of Hebrew, they were able to work out that they were thousands of years apart, some of the original texts. It’s like Ruskin said, geology also undermined the whole thing. The earth and humankind couldn’t be 6,000 years old. It was millions. The tap, tap, tap of the geologist’s hammer, he said, is what spoiled my ability to believe in Christianity, as I was taught it. But it is a dry and tedious little book. 

G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

 I think the Surrealists were interested in The Man Who Was Thursday. I seem to remember Andre Breton talks about it. I don’t know the detail, and I’ve not read it. 

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

It’s a very good read, because Daniel Defoe would have been around in the early 1800s, or later? But he’s writing about the Plague of the mid-seventeenth century. A very vivid account of people trying to get away from London, and not having anywhere to go, and how some people died, even though they hadn’t been near anybody who was infected. Other people were in amongst them and survived. He’s a good writer, Daniel Defoe. 

J. Hampden Jackson, Marx, Proudhon and European Socialism

Proudhon was a writer in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was very important for the development of anarchist ideas, when anarchism wasn’t just about throwing bombs, it was about creating more humane, small-scale societies in contrast to places like Manchester. So there’s a continuity through it. William Morris and News From Nowhere was popular with hippies. It does connect. This idea of an alternative to an industrialised and materialistic society. 

Naomi Klein, Fences & Windows 

She’s a good writer. A very sensible hard-headed Feminist writer. There’s one of them, not that one: one of her early ones, I can’t remember what it’s called. She talks a lot about how the genders are divided at school. She also talks a lot about product placement, putting Coca Cola machines in schools, and in America, part of the school finances comes from the things that are in the corridor. So she’s very good at cutting through that stuff. 

One of the other ones, it might be Fences & Windows, is about how some Feminists deface and alter billboard advertising, so they turn things like a woman in a fur coat, and they paint blood on it, and how they adapt and subvert the advertising message into a political message. That’s an interesting one. 

1001 Books You Must Read, ed. Boxall  

It’s interesting to dip into, and I’m sure there’s another 1000 that aren’t in there, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to have to go in a bit, Mike. But I might have a drink on the way out. 

John Matthews, The Mystic Grail; Dan Burstein, Secrets of the Code; Richard Andrews & Paul Schellenberger, The Tomb of God; Lynn Picknett, Mary Magdelene; Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code; Graham Phillips, Act of God, et al 

You think you’ve uncovered the Christian side of me, but no. It’s to do with this course I’ve been doing for a few years on art and spirituality. It’s a big argument: essentially it’s still Darwinism against the Creationists. They’re variations on those themes. Some of them are whacky, by Americans, frankly. Not just Americans, but you know what I mean? They’re so certain in countering the whole tradition of enlightenment and rationality. Flat denial.

William Hazlitt, Table Talk

That’s falling to bits. It was one of the first books I owned, actually. Hazlitt was an important writer. Table Talk is like dinner-party conversations but each chapter is on a theme. Hazlitt is early eighteenth-century. 

Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship; Julian Symons, Thomas Carlyle 

Julian Symons is again 1890s. He’s part of that group - I think he was a poet as well - around Whistler and so on. But Carlyle was in a previous generation. He was in Chelsea. I mentioned Edward William Godwin, the architect who wrote “Is Mr Ruskin living too long?” He designed a lot of the houses in Tite Street, Chelsea. Again, this turns into a lecture. There was a thing in the mid century which they referred to in London as “the Great Stink”, because all the sewage went into the Thames, and one of the first really effective sewage systems was designed to cleanse London, and it was like a herringbone system of sewers by a man called Bazalgette. Phenomenal. If he was an architect above ground he’d be as famous as Christopher Wren. He cleaned up the Thames. This was in the 1860s. And then they developed the Embankment. The bit that sounds like what it is, an embankment, because formerly it was mud flats with shit all over it. It stank to live in Chelsea. And then Chelsea becomes a fashionable place to live. Whistler’s house in Tite Street was designed by Edward William Godwin. Oscar Wilde was lodging with somebody down the road, an artist (I can’t remember his name). Again, designed by Godwin, and just around the corner is this eminence grise Thomas Carlyle. And Whistler paints Carlyle. So a tight-knit intellectual circle. And Julian Symons was part of that, so it’s not that odd that he would be writing about Thomas Carlyle, who probably by then was out of fashion an an historian, but still an interesting intellectual. Have a little dip into The French Revolution. It goes at the speed of a stagecoach. Out of control. I never got to the end of it, but I read enough. It’s good. 

I’m going to have to go, because I’m really flagging now. 

But this is interesting and next time I’ll be in better fitness. But books are interesting. You’re probably already getting a glimpse of how ambitious I was to know about this, that and bloody everything. I never read anything cover to cover, but… 

Kate Bush: A Dissenting View

I write these words with some trepidation. Must it really fall to my lot to be the little boy watching the Emperor’s parade who states the obvious? Is no-one courageous enough to boldly say “Kate Bush is rubbish”? 

Well not rubbish exactly, but not the transcendental genius and god-like avatar that everyone in the media is proclaiming. We can discount  John Humphrys’ opinion, of course, but when the singer adorns the cover of the new Mojo, with the gushing tag-line 


and further, 


... well, something just snapped. 

May I just say that Kate Bush is alright if your ideal of femininity is Glinda the Good Witch of the South. For deeper, more complex insights into the female condition, might I offer Bjork, a more consistently innovative artist, P.J. Harvey, who could eat Kate Bush for breakfast were she not a vegetarian, and Jenny Hvall and Susanna Wallumrod, whose joint album, Meshes of Voice is as captivating as Aerial is said to be, and a lot more edgy (and still waiting a review here)? And ... Laura Nyro.

Why Laura Nyro? Well, there I was, away from home for the first time, in 1977, grooving to ‘I Am the Blues’ by Laura Nyro (it must have been on a cassette) in my little bedsit, when, quite by chance, a neighbour's radio issued forth with ‘Wuthering Heights’, the then current hit by youthful sensation Kate Bush. The close juxtaposition didn't do Bush any favours: 'Wuthering Heights" seemed very prissy and fey by comparison.  

Unfair, I know. That competitive mentality, where the claim of one artist cancels out another, is self-defeating and juvenile, and opposed to my deep-held views about inclusiveness and respect for individuality. I know. I’m just saying what happened, and the drift of my thoughts, and the conclusion I reached back then. 

And somehow, the Kate Bush prejudice lay unexamined through all the subsequent decades, though, like everyone else, I tapped an appreciative foot to ‘Running Up That Hill’ in 1985.

I can’t here critique Aerial or its successor, 50 Words For Snow, or pass comment on her triumphant comeback concert because a) I haven’t heard them and b) I wasn’t there. I mainly dislike the unthinking, uncritical critical consensus that deems that Kate Bush can do no wrong, and object, on principle, to media-prescribed compulsory worship.

But not to be negative, we do have things to be grateful to Kate Bush for. I know that Jon Thorne was inspired to take up the string bass after hearing Danny Thompson on Hounds of Love, and has shadowed the maestro to the point of dedicating a music suite to him (Watching the Well, Manchester Jazz Festival, 2007), and has stepped into his shoes by accompanying Donovan in live performance.  

I also have a happy memory of playing Charades in a Lancaster park where Sue’s gay friend mimed ‘Running Up That Hill’ by running up a hill! In my mind’s eye, I see him running backwards. Was “backwards” part of the lyric, or am I (or possibly Sue’s gay friend) confusing ‘Running Up That Hill’ with ‘I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas’? 


Steam Engine Marvels and Noble Don’t Knows

This two-part youtube posting came to my attention yesterday: - 

Fascinating in its own right, and exemplary in a number of ways. 

Surprisingly, it is unscripted. Only a few broadcasters have the command and authority to extemporise freely on air: famously, the historian A.J.P. Taylor, and virtually no other. 

In several places, Alex concedes that he might have the facts wrong, and when he doesn’t know something, he says so. How refreshing! How innocent! This, in a culture where politicians and pundits would sooner die than admit that there’s anything they don’t know, or worse, that they might be wrong. It seems that only neurological scientists and steam train buffs (i.e. those with deep and long-held expertise in arcane and specialised areas) have the humility to own to their own ignorance. 

There’s a winning directness and ease about the presentation. Look, and be charmed at the interaction of homemade model animation and stock documentary footage. Listen, and learn something about a subject you didn’t think you cared about. Enthusiasm, wonder and love make for the best entertainment and the most painless instruction. 

Shall I declare an interest? I am the film-maker’s doting uncle, and Alex does for steam trains what I try to do for folk music and jazz: viz. freeze the past by celebrating the overlooked and lost. It might be a family trait, actually. That’s the men-folk of the family (Dad with stamps and coins, me with records, Ant ditto, Mark with cars, Alex with steam trains). The women I think, manage to live in the moment more successfully. 

Manchester Jazz Festival Pt 3, Fri 25-Sun 27 July, with Matt Owens, Papanosh, Beats & Pieces, Parshmaune, Sam Healey, Paradise Trio, The Music Place Choir

Friday 25, Day 7 

Matt Owens

Keys is the subtitle of Matt Owens’ performance at St Ann’s Church, and there, squeezed in front of the altar-rails beside a grand piano, electric keyboard, two microphones and a tangle of cables, is a sculpture of keys hanging on strings. This is a sure indication that Kirsty Almeida is involved, because Kirsty excites creative energy across the boundaries. And so does Kirsty’s long-standing accomplice, Matt Owens. There is no doubt that Owens is a excellent bassist and peerless accompanist, but his own music is rich with a sense of limitless possibility.

David Muñoz, Matt Owens and John Ellis 

The opening piece - David Muñoz on piano and John Ellis on keyboard flank Owens on upright bass – sounds like the theme from some lush, glamorous and exciting film, perhaps made in the sixties. Rather prosaically, it has the working title, ‘New Idea’. The next piece, again freshly minted, is a tune with a gospel flavour called ‘Ray’. Its dedicatee is visible in the apse to the side, listening intently, and cradled in his mother’s arms. Then Kirsty puts down little Ray, takes a few steps to the altar front, and proceeds to sing a luminous new song called ‘Restless’, with music by Owens. 

It’s clear by now that Matt Owens has a genius for swooning melodies and is a pastoralist in the venerable musical tradition of George Butterworth, John Taverner and Mike Westbrook: his prowess on bass is just an incidental spin-off.  The realisation dawns on everyone in St Ann’s Church: this is my lucky day. 

And fortune continues to smile: with a playful piece described as “Tchaikovsky meets tango”, a spiritual invocation on which Ellis plays the church organ (an especially memorable moment, this) and an exploration of Latin America in tandem with pianist David Muñoz, who, with bursting heart, offers an unpremeditated autobiographical sketch (born in Chile in 1973, a terrible time and place). 

It’s less like a concert and more like being clasped to the bosom of an affectionate family, the experience was so intimate and, at times – like the communal singing during ‘Going Back to the Village’ – a sweet, sweet embarrassment.

David Muñoz, Kirsty Almeida and John Ellis 


Papanosh (Festival Pavilion) are so French. But how? I mean, they eschew obvious signifiers like berets and striped jerseys and all those other silly cliches. Yet the fact remains: their music owes nothing to USA jazz, and precious little to British jazz. They have that peculiar Gallic attitude to pleasure, and abandon themselves with more intensity and strenuousness than the English have ever felt comfortable with. Their enthusiastic embrace of anarchy, too, is very French – the music is characterised by theatrical swerves of tone. And the idea of life as a carnival, and the circus as an apt metaphor for life’s absurdity: well, that is part Antonin Artaud and part Jacques Tati, and finds expression in the band’s freakish, fantastic inventiveness. Sebastien Palis’ organ is a surreal art object in itself, with its trailing wires and twinkling valves (it sounds great too, when he begins to play). Raphael Quenehen is a brilliant saxophonist, at one point blowing two horns simultaneously, just like Roland Kirk. And Quentin Ghomari, doubling on trumpet and trombone (though not at the same time), has an acute grasp of dynamics and engineers some mercurial changes. Of all the events at this year’s Manchester Jazz Festival, this is the one I would most like to relive, if the chance should come again. I was the person nodding off in the front row. 

The modus operandi of the much vaunted Beats & Pieces Big Band (Festival Pavilion) is clear by the second number: big, brassy and populist, albeit with traces of ambiguity that hint at the genuinely radical. Once in every generation in every major conurbation in the developed world, some visionary musician will gather together the most conspicuously talented players of his generation and run with it. The readiest comparisons to Beats & Pieces in Manchester in the twenty-teens (is that the proper word?) would be Loose Tubes in London in the eighties, or the Stan Kenton Orchestra in L.A. in the fifties. Really, there is a comparable wealth of talent  – Sam Healey on saxophone is a real fire-breather, and I was impressed by trumpeter Nick Walters’ ability to surf the cacophony. The evident excitement and anticipation in the Pavilion is not confined to the audience alone. The fourteen musicians of Beats & Pieces gratefully seize the opportunity to transcend small group confines. 

The second half is all new, and exhilarating in its balance of large-scale musical concepts and individual freedom: though the charts were very complicated, there were only three music stands on stage. The unexpected appearance of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ is a sop to populism. And dance we did (some of us), despite the complexity and shifting rhythms, and the deafening sound of the band in full cry (another reference point might be Buddy Rich). The genial director Ben Cottrell orchestrates all the thunderous roar.

Beats & Pieces Big Band

Saturday 26, Day 8 

A low-key day at the Festival, although I miss the best acts, receiving glowing word concerning The Wagon Train, Billy Buckley’s twanging poke about in USA roots, and Mr Wilson’s Second Liners live up to the buzz. “Glowing word” is an understatement; this is a declaration of love! (Actually directed at an individual in the group: I shall say no more.)

No, I catch Parshmaune (Festival Pavilion), who reflect the sensory overload of the inner city with lightning juxtapositions, quotations, merging rhythms, evolving jazz funk and real-time interventions by Timmy Montague, with the woolly hat and headphones at the back, intently peering into his laptop. Actually, his input is not so obvious, but, at a guess, he’s responsible whenever a hollow clang emerges from Tyrone Isaac-Stuart’s otherwise agile alto saxophone. There’s lots of urban immediacy, as when brief solos are exchanged, each topped with the ‘Here Comes the Bride’ jingle. This is presumably a comment on the constant steam of wedding parties emerging from the Town Hall opposite. 

Zuri Jarrett-Boswell, crouched over his keys, has the virtuosity to handle every situation, and Isaac-Stuart projects crafty mischievousness via his alto horn. His fellow saxophonist, Reiss Beckles, is a more diffident player. Jack Polley and Peter Hill (bass and drums) nicely dislocate the jazz funk conventions. Hearteningly, in Shirley Tetteh, the group contains that rare thing in jazz: a female guitarist. This means that  Deirdre Cartwright and Kathy Dyson are no longer alone. 

Occasionally MJF will employ a cabaret singer to fulfil their populist brief. This is always a mistake. For the finale of the last Saturday of the Festival, nouveau soul singer Charlie Cooper lives her Beyoncé fantasy in the big tent (Festival Pavilion) to overwhelming indifference. The spectacle is so dispiriting that I leave before the Hackney Colliery Band, another post-modern New Orleans-style marching band, can turn the situation around. 

Charlie Cooper

Sunday 27, Day 9 

Sam Healey, Luke Flowers and Stuart McCallum 

I and everyone else want to hear more of Sam Healey, who brought the house down at Beats and Pieces on Friday. But if the capacity crowd for the Sam Healey Quintet at the Fesitval Pavilion are, like me, expecting a blowing session shoot-out from the fastest saxophone in the West, we soon learn to adapt to a different reality. Healey tentatively lays out a theme on piano, and the musicians drift into a state of trance. The other mode is cathartic grandeur, which is the default mode of guitarist Stuart McCallum, which drummer Luke Flowers leavens with steamroller funk. Titles like ‘Death and Impermanence’ also set Healey apart from the common jazz herd. “I’ve never been good at titles,” he blushingly confesses. Here, his bravura technique is placed resolutely at the service of the sublime. After the show, jazz promoter Janet Higgins tells me that Healey, like herself, is a Buddhist, and suddenly the preceding events all make sense. She hands me a flyer for Healey’s upcoming date at The Slug and Lettuce (August 5th), and I promise I’ll be there. 

Richard Iles

In contrast, the Paradise Trio (Festival Pavilion) offer something I’ve searched for all Jazz Festival, possibly all my life. In a word: jazz. ‘Paradise’ is the right word, because jazz at this level of accomplishment contains rich spiritual nourishment, with the three musicians embodying distinct yet sympathetic varieties of beauty? Richard Iles’ flugelhorn pours forth an unbroken thread of burnished grace in linear space; whereas pianist Les Chisnall is a harmonist, and a profoundly elegant one, and Mike Walker, as we can readily hear, is simply the most songful guitarist in the world. The feeling is of limitless resource, and power held in check. Walker, a force of nature when inclined, favours weightless chords that float in the air, and essays a plangent lyricism that is one of the most affecting sounds in jazz. The music is paradisal too because it represents an ideal of life: Iles’ ‘Appleton Avenue’, Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ and, especially, Walker’s ‘The Clockmaker’, are luminous, transient moments to last for eternity. 

Les Chisnall

                                                                                Mike Walker

The last word, however, comes from The Music Place Choir (Festival Pavilion), a sixty-strong community choir from Altrincham with a programme of Richard Rodgers tunes. It’s one of those gigs that disarm criticism. This is partly because of the inspirational leadership of Clare Morel, the sense of togetherness exuded by the ladies and gentlemen of the choir, the deathless potency of Rodgers’ melodies, and, well, the undeniable fact that everyone present is having a whale of a time. Or, if they’re not, their fixed smiles give a reasonable impression that they are. 

It’s disarming too, because Richard Rodgers and Ivor Novella were my own mother’s domestic muses. She used to sing these songs about the house when we were kids. How interesting to probe into the source of the songs that come unbidden into our heads. Coincidence and the subconscious play a large part. ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, for example, is a great song to accompany the ceremony of spring cleaning, although the spring cleaner with her mop and bucket might be oblivious to the connection. Similarly, my mum was very fond of he’s-rubbish-but-I-love-him songs like ‘Bill (He’s Just My Bill)’ , again for fathomless reasons. ‘Edelweiss’, from the Choir’s repertoire, is a song associated in my mind with my first brush against Nazis.

The voices, effective in unison though fragile individually, are bolstered by a bona fide great voice in Alison Owen, whose flexibility and force derive from the more recent tradition of soul music, although the ladies and gentlemen of the choir are delighted to have her. There’s also a small jazz combo on hand, and again, t.l.a.g.o.t.c. are gratefully accommodating. The stirring, if secular, sound of sixty raised voices (plus audience) proclaiming, for the second time that afternoon, ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ brings the 2014 Manchester Jazz Festival to a memorable close. Everyone agrees that it’s been a vintage year.   

    Clare Morel, Alison Owen and the Music Place Choir 

Manchester Jazz Festival Pt 2, Tue 22 - Thu 24 July, inc The Imaginary Delta, The Bad Plus, Ex-Easter Island Head, Engine Room Favourites, Tin Men & The Telephone

Tuesday 22, Day 4 

Carles Benavent and Jordi Bonell 

Jaco Pastorius is the obvious role-model for any bass virtuoso who dares to elevate the instrument beyond its simple time-keeping role, although they might want wish to be spared his martyrdom. Carles Benavent is better placed than anyone to fill that Pastorius-shaped hole. Presumably Miles Davis, Paco de Lucía and Chick Corea thought so when they employed him. And he is less obviously tormented – as far as one can tell from his personable stage manner – and his cultural inheritance, which includes the richest of the Spanish flamenco tradition, transfers very nicely to the bass. 

Benavent’s bass playing is mellifluous, attractive, and fluid. Sometimes he played in unison with his guitarist partner, Jordi Bonell, and sometimes he played in counterpoint, so the extraordinary profusion of notes not only doubled but multiplied: the effect was like riding on a bubbling current of rhythm. 

He played a song dedicated to Jaco Pastorius, and another one dedicated to Paco de Lucía called ‘De perdidos al río’, which, Benavent usefully translated, means “If you get lost, go to the river”. On ‘Por dioss’ Bonell tried out another guitar sound, which was fuzzier and dirtier (I wonder how they would sound on two acoustic guitars? As beautiful as Segovia, I expect.) The two men were now trading solos with implausible precision, and making a game of telepathy in their duets. A blues in bulerías rhythm turned out to be ‘Footsteps’ by Wayne Shorter. 

It was all very intricate, very busy, very Spanish and vastly enjoyable. 

Jackie Kay and Adam Fairhall 

You know this lot (The Imaginary Delta, RNCM Theatre) could have been the next Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain if they’d listened to me. They had the potential to be quite as crowd-pulling, with music that drew on trad jazz (lovingly reinterpreting ancient jazz idioms with a freshness that came as an electric shock) and the hard-core avant-garde (albeit with all the portentousness and boring bits removed) . There was a theatrical element that could be developed, and the paranormal aspect was a unique selling-point – when the long-gone singer Victoria Spivey was summoned from blues Valhalla to join forces with the band: well, that was a priceless piece of coup de theatre to set alongside the elephants in Aida

Instead, The Imaginary Delta have reconvened for an evening of ‘jazz and poetry’. These dread words are usually an instant turn-off, but anything touched by Adam Fairhall, a homegrown autodidact and musical genius, is bound to be good. My faith is justified before even a note is played, when the wonderful vibes player Corey Mwamba makes an unannounced entrance alongside the other musicians. 

Hard to imagine it working as well with any other poet than Jackie Kay (except perhaps Nikki Giovanni). Kay has a modest bearing, a Scottish accent that exudes warmth, and an openness that cuts to the emotional heart. And she is a very good poet. Fairhall has provided settings for her series of poems about Bessie Smith. “Every note she sang, she bent her voice to her will,” ran one line. The same might be said of Kay, who overcomes her evident nervousness, and never misses a cue. 

The music is new, with Fairhall finding just the right sound textures for Kay’s images: say, Corey’s thumb-piano to suggest the desolation of the Deep South as Bessie’s Pullman trundles past. New, even when the stately ‘Arabian Fantasy’ triggers recognition with the avidity of the Imaginary Delta’s Greatest Hit. And here it is, the disembodied voice of Ivy Smith (Ivy, rather than Bessie), miraculously reconfigured by Paul J Rogers’ stick remote. New, I say, because the following solos by James Allsopp on bass clarinet, Chris Bridges on trombone (who has obviously absorbed both Roy Williams and Alan Tomlinson) and Steve Chadwick on cornet are fresh minted and of the moment. What is explicit in the poetry is implicit in Steve Chadwick’s horn, which combines elegance and immensity in a way that would be familiar to turn-of-the-twentieth-century New Orleans. 

A dead-march is inspired by Kay’s image of a graveyard where Bessie’s ghost haunts her lovers. The music then follows the archetypal pattern of a New Orleans funeral: Fairhall dispels the dirge with some steaming train time boogie woogie, and the other musicians leap aboard, heroic in their affirmation of life’s energies. They stand as a symbol of generations of musicians who have given their all and who, in the end, have shared the fate of Bessie Smith: “she had a laugh, and that was all she had.”   

Adam Fairhall, Chris Bridges, Steve Chadwick, Tim Fairhall, James Allsopp, Gaz Hughes, Corey Mwamba and Paul J Rogers  

Wednesday 23, Day 5 

Two pianists, or rather, a pianist and a piano trio divert me today. Alexander Hawkins (St Ann’s Church) draws equally on jazz and classical, as much Messiaen as Duke Ellington, but both are transformed by Hawkins’ bravura technique. He may dazzle with cascades of notes, or - such are the dynamic extremes - charm with a serene and airy lyricism. The music he extracts is rich, serious and elevated, and seems to belong in the beautiful and sacred space of St Ann’s Church. 

Alexander Hawkins

When he calms a bit, the listener catches echoes of the past – a glimpse of Gershwin, perhaps, or Mussorgsky offering Pictures at an Exhibition in some grand saloon. This, it must be said, is akin to the eye making out faces from the random patterns on an ancient mossy wall. Then something tangible emerges from the tonal thicket, and what’s more, it’s recognisably jazz: a fantastic re-imagining of ‘Take the A Train’. Hesitant at first, the train starts with spluttering, spasmodic runs before gathering speed at an alarming rate. It’s derailed a few times by fugitive rhythms, but that only adds to the excitement. And then in, short order, following the logic of free association and the community of jazz genii, Hawkins essays ‘Love in Outer Space’ by Sun Ra, replicating each part of the Arkestra, including the percussion, on one or more of the 88 keys of the piano, which, the way Hawkins plays, is a one-man Arkestra. 

His open-ended explorations last precisely the hour allotted in the schedule, and end as they began, with Hawkins bent under the lid of the piano, crooning “siii” and “saaa” into the piano’s interior, listening hard to the resonance. 

The Bad Plus

The Bad Plus enter the large stage of the dark auditorium of RNCM Theatre and pianist Ethan Iverson essays a simple theme of song-like simplicity; the bass enters; Iverson fills in the chords with atonal harmonies, reshaping the piece. David King, on drums increases the intensity with a splashing cymbal and emphatic backbeat. Now the tune is positively florid and King is giving it ten to the dozen, but the original tune can still be detected beneath the frenetic activity. The climax comes: pp suddenly follows ff (a favourite trick of The Bad Plus). The simple theme is restored in its dying fall. A snare beat signals finality; rapturous applause and whoops follow. This is ‘Pound For Pound’ by bassist Reid Anderson, and it characterises The Bad Plus methodology and The Bad Plus appeal. Anticipation sharpens about what will come next. 

‘The Empire Strikes Backward’ (cute titles are another feature) has a trickier time signature and more strenuous activity, and illustrates the trio’s ability to deliver hummable melodies in 7/8 time. ‘Gold Prisms Incorporated’ utilises repetitive chords and boasts a pounding back beat, but the mock rock is subverted by a passage of free time and ascending chordal arpeggios are set to a dark, ominous drone. The music fractures completely, before the bombastic riff makes a conquering return, only to be superseded in another quick change by a new far-out rhythm. A bass solo climaxes this piece and more ravenous applause follows. 

And so it goes on. There were more players in The Imaginary Delta at last night’s concert in the theatre, but somehow the trio seem larger, and their presence expands to fill the space in inverse ratio to actual physical size. I ponder this during Iverson’s solo on ‘You Are’, a practical application of Bach-like mathematics to the chamber jazz format. Heads are now involuntarily nodding.      

Me, I think it was great as prog-rock but deficient as jazz, and, personally, I regard jazz as the higher art-form. The promised performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring didn’t materialise. I have mixed feelings about this. 

Thursday 24, Day 6 

Ex-Easter Island Head

Ex-Easter Island Head (St Ann’s Church) seemed to have stumbled upon a new method of making music, which is quite an achievement at this stage of the game. Benjamin D. Duvall, Jonathan Herring and Ben Fair lay electric guitars on a flat surface and beat them with mallets. There are a few refinements, which would be mysterious even if my view wasn’t obstructed in the 12th pew down: the direction the guitars face seems to be important, and the spot on the guitar body where the strike lands affects the sound. With an overlay of (conventional) percussion and augmented by discreet electronics, EEIH sound like a cross between a gamelan orchestra and Velvet Underground. 

Then, not content with pioneering one innovative instrumental technique, EEIH have come up with another. Again, I’m not sure how they did this, but gently tapping the strings with a trembling hand and waving the other hand over the guitar, as if it were a theramin, produce ethereal, oscillating chords that quiver in the air. Then it’s back to the mallets and slapping. But this was not horrible noise. On the contrary, it was beguiling and hypnotic. If it was shocking, it was shocking because it was so new, but the music was more mellifluous than not. When something resembling an orthodox thrash emerged towards the end, the effect was transcendent. I have seen the future of rock ’n’ roll… 

Martin Archer and Mick Beck with Seth Bennett 

Martin Archer is the chief engineer of Engine Room Favourites (Festival Pavilion). He cavorts about the place with a mischievous grin and orchestrates the mayhem by waving his arms. Everywhere there is a welter of taps, rustles, bangs, scrapes and whirrs (I was going to add bonks, forgetting my childhood lexicon of rude words) from the four-strong percussion team (including veteran drummer/composer Peter Fairclough). Sometimes, as in the opening piece, they pull off a user-friendly Coltrane: it’s Ascension without the tears, with Corey Mwamba bopping brightly on the bottles as Archer offers long legato phrases on the soprano saxophone, and Graham Clark (at the tip of the hat from Archer) responds with an extraordinarily lovely yet astringent fiddle solo. 

What’s great about Engine Room Favourites is the spontaneity and freshness. The music never stops evolving, but it invariably grows into something quite unexpected. There are champion soloists like Mick Beck on tenor sax, but the usual head-solo-solo-head thing is not an option: instead, individuals work in odd combinations – vibes and piano; vibes, bass and tenor; or soprano alone – the better to counter the barrage of percussion that shadows their every move. Or they may attempt lone acts of rhythmic derring-do, say speeding up or retarding the beat. This encounters a warm response from Seth Bennett, an unstoppable force of nature on bass. 

And then, in the tumult of the climactic number (did they call it ’Satin Lantern’?), there’s another surprise: the musicians, who have all been pushing and pulling in their various ways towards the shared goal of ecstasy, suddenly all gel and play a proper written theme which coalesces into surging groove-music! 

It was extraordinary, and all the more valuable for providing a glimpse into a vibrant and hidden music scene, one totally off the London radar. Engine Room Favourites thrive in Sheffield and environs, and amount to nothing less than a revolutionary revelation!      

Of course, MJF has always been susceptible to high concepts, so when Tin Men and the Telephone (RNCM Theatre), a piano trio from Amsterdam, propose a technologically interactive, ideas-based performance, it meets with a ready response from the Festival promoters. 

Ideas like what? Oh, accompanying a Sharápova tennis match at Wimbledon, projected onto a screen backkdrop: a groovy vamp for when play is interrupted, and ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ for sustained volleys. Or shaping melodies for a cut-up commentary from the recent World Cup (the words “de bal” featured heavily). Or, having successfully matched melody with human speech, attempting the same trick with a herd of cows (the bow of bassist Lucas Dols comes in handy here). In a nice touch, the on-screen cows turn their heads en-masse in the direction of the music. 

Best of all, audience members are invited to turn on their mobile phones and influence the performance according to some on-screen directions (“faster”, “bass solo”, “please stop now” etc.) The suspicion grew that the ideas were more interesting than the music, which was a bit like throwaway Bad Plus, but it was certainly entertaining.

Tin Men and the Telephone  

Diego Amador, described as a flamenco piano player (which would be something to see), is not having a good night. His original error, from which he never really recovers, is to share a double-bill with Tin Men and the Telephone. 

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