Justin St. Germain

Son of a Gun

 

Son of a Gun is an intriguing if depressing memoir, here and there written in the style of a novel, populated by a cast of the oddest misfits you are ever likely to come across in just under 250 pages.

The author’s mother, who managed a Mexican restaurant in Tombstone before fatally turning her back on society, is discovered shot to death in a horse trailer in a desert in Arizona, murdered apparently by her fifth husband cop (she is still in her forties) who flees the scene in a pick up, shoots himself in the head, is discovered some time after, his badly decomposed body desiccated by heat like a mummy, and eaten by worms. If you think you have witnessed this scene before, you have, in CSI: Las Vegas.

So far, so bad, but it gets worse. St. Germain, whose staccato style becomes wearisome, has an extended family which includes a biological father who is a cheapskate, several absent step-fathers, a fag smoking half-cousin who borrows rent and dies alone, a junkie uncle who has tragically lost two kids and shoots up in the bathroom when he comes to stay and the family dog who, wait for it, is out of his barking mind on meds – human.  And then there’s husband number five, detective Ray, Desert Storm veteran who almost loses it when the kids beat him at Scrabble. A laugh a minute it ain’t.

The author’s attachment to the memory of his dead mother is affectionate and runs deep: several times we are reminded she was warned that a second child would mean a Caesarean birth, but she had Justin anyway, badly haemorrhages and requires a hysterectomy to save her life. Blood is the rose of mysterious disunion in this tale, which in parts reads like a Spaghetti Western version of Angela’s Ashes. There is no let up for a moment in the dystopian gloom.

The Tombstone of old Western lore, is, through the author’s lens,  a town with ten bars and no grocery store, ‘smack in the middle of the biggest drug trafficking corridor in America.’ Even the murder takes place shortly after 9/11: all that’s missing is an earthquake followed by a tsunami.

Naturally, because she is the victim, and she had five hubbies in twenty years, Debbie St. Germain is the beneficiary of the most fully rounded profile in the book. As her son writes with a detached gracefulness, ‘of all the homes she had, all the temporary places with temporary men, the worst was where she died.’

When the author grows up, which takes an age, he sleeps with a loaded rifle under his bed, which doesn’t come as a surprise. Writing a painful memoir of this nature, and it is painful, should, at most, prove cathartic, but somehow I doubt Justin St. Germain is any the better for it. Colm Toibin has referred to a coiled and accurately conveyed emotion, but my take could be summed up in a single word: bitter. St. Germain needs to get himself off to Amsterdam for a weekend, and acquire a smile.

 

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Cynan Jones

The Dig

The Dig is a perfect novella: excruciatingly brutal and extraordinarily beautiful at the same time, it is a book you will read in a single sitting.

Daniel is a farmer smack in the middle of the lambing season in Wales, attempting to cope on his own following the shock death of his young wife weeks earlier.

The badger baiter is an ex con, as wild as the animals he hunts, tortures and kills with sickening relish – badger, fox, rat – and the anti thesis of Daniel.

It is inevitable their paths will collide in a landscape torn from the pages of Ted Hughes’s Moortown Diary. Almost every death is a violent one and yet Jones dilutes the oppressiveness with a clinical style which is detached but not uninvolved.

There hasn’t been a chronicler of the vicissitudes of the underbelly of country life across the water since the death of Hughes, a writer of fiction who isn’t afraid to look at the natural world through a glass darkly, somebody who can take a chainsaw to our perceptions of country living and depict a whirlwind of carnage and violence as if conducted by Medea. Cynan Jones fits the bill.

The world of The Dig is utterly violent and relentlessly cruel: a dead lamb is decapitated with a saw before it can be removed from its mother, and captured large badgers are sadistically de-clawed with a pliers to minimise injury to the lurchers who fight them.

Some of the passages – the torture inflicted on the unfortunate badgers – are not for the faint hearted, but the story is easily elevated by the brevity and directness of the prose.

No word is unemployed. Violence is omnipresent and as such, inescapable. It is a dark story which never seeks to emerge from its sepulchral tone. Beauty has the shelf life of a lamb dying in a box shoved into an Aga.

There is no sense that the land was once idyllic, is ever anything but a battleground between man and nature. While Daniel, despite his grief, retains empathy for creatures struggling to live, he is viewed by the badger baiter as weak.

The novel dovetails to an unsurprising crescendo but with commendable skill by Jones who augments the pace and the countdown to what you assume will be a bloody reckoning with concise and sharp sentences.

 

Jones’ characterisation of the two main characters, Daniel and the badger-baiter, is precise and whole: we walk in the wake of every step they take in the bloody fields. However, his earlier portrayal of bereavement is acute and sensitive and is essential in painting a three dimensional portrait of Daniel, the tragic sadness of whom permeates the story.

 

It is a short book, about 160 pages, but it is a simmering tour de force, an exceptional insight into a dystopian rural hell. It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet or Tarka the Otter it isn’t.

 

Christine Montross

 

Falling Into the Fire

In recent years there has been a plethora of books about psychiatry and psychology by seasoned practitioners, including the magnificent The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz in Britain and, closer to home, Music and Madness by Dr Ivor Browne and Going Mad by the late Dr. Michael Corry and Dr. Aine Tubridy, two remarkable and original practitioners who – partners at work and at home – died within a short time of each other.

Grosz, a psychoanalyst, spent twenty fiver years uncovering the hidden feelings and motivations behind the baffling behaviour of his patients. Browne and Corry and Tubridy naturally had a different approach to acute mental disorder, almost placing consciousness and emotions at the heart of psychological distress.

A book which will become a notable addition to the canon is Falling Into the Fire by Christine Montross, sub-titled, ‘A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis’. The author is being hailed as the next Oliver Sacks and though only time will tell, she can certainly write.

Unlike Grosz who shared the stories of over 30 patients, Montross is content to analyse in greater detail the harrowing tales of five patients with conditions so severe that they make the possibility of a defining epithet redundant, such as the young woman who ingests light bulbs, zippers and a box of nails.

Where Montross echoes the approach of Sacks is the realisation that the genius of the human brain is its continual creation of a sense of self, which persists even in the face of a terrible neurological disease, such as in the case of Eddie, in Fifty Thousand Dollar Skin, who spent $50,000 on 25 skin procedures to improve his appearance, spending hours scanning his face in the mirror.

Montross is a patient prober of the human condition, the mind and its mysteries, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University in America, who rules nothing in and nothing out, and whose expertise in her field stems from a conviction that the intersection between mind and body are deeply complex, and yet admits that modern psychiatry is not always sure if it is right when a mind careens and lists.

The body mystifies. The mind more so. Witnessing their complex intersections – and the unbidden ways in which the two can catastrophically fray – can unmoor us,’ writes Montross.  And yet, like Grosz, like Corry and Tubridy, like Browne, Christine Montross walks with her patients on her journey.

 

 

Ari Shavit

My Promised Land

The only problem with My Promised Land is that you will have to wait a long time before you read another book that is as passionately incisive about the good, the bad and the ugly behind the state of Israel, past and present.

What makes this 400 page plus experience intriguing is the manner in which Ari Shavit sets about his task: he begins at the beginning, the visit of European Zionists – including the author’s grandfather – to Palestine at the close of the nineteenth century, and concludes with an extremely lucid and honest depiction of different phases of the making of contemporary Israel.

Shavit thinks like a journalist and writes like one, so this is no historian’s monotonous account of the evolution of a people from the ashes of the Holocaust, and in the process he demolishes many myths.

I hadn’t fully appreciated that the new state of Israel evolved from in or around 1935, a few years before the Nazi death factories began their slaughter.

Shavit is quite brilliant at unravelling the many strands that make up Israel, and several chapters come to mind for his elucidation of a complex genesis.

The story of the burgeoning nationhood in the chapters Orange Grove 1936 and Masada 1942 are steps toward the painful absorption of the tragedy of Lydda, when Israeli excesses resulted in a ruthless slaughter of Arabs of all sexes and all ages.

Shavit doesn’t pull his punches in his depiction of what mounts to an Israeli version of Lebensraum, which I take to mean acquiring land at the expense of the local polulace. He recalls the Israeli army summoning eight prisoners to dig a mass grave for Arabs massacred in a mosque in Lydda, and then shooting them.

The dichotomy of Israel’s bloody birth is addressed by Shavit in a manner which I think does him a disservice: he stands by the forced exodus of the population of Lydda because ‘if it wasn’t for them (the army), I would not have been born.’ Which is to say I should be grateful to Michael Collins for shooting policemen dead in their beds, because without it Ireland wouldn’t be what it is now, which is nonsense. As Shavit emphasises in other chapters, there is always an alternative to evil. It is also interesting that Shavit very precisely depicts the ethnic clensing at Lydda, without once referring to it as such.

The author grapples with the complexity of Israel, the legacy of uncomfortable truths like Lydda and the early settlements in the occupied territories, with honesty and intelligence. If his conclusions, occasionally, leave me cold, his journalism doesn’t.

David Grossman

Falling Out of Time

David Grossman’s son Uri, a tank commander in the Israeli army, was killed during an unfortunate and unnecessary incursion into South Lebanon during another pointless Middle East war, a few weeks short of his 21st birthday.

Grossman, the celebrated author of both non-fiction and fiction, spoke out publicly against the Israeli offensive in the aftermath of his son’s death which, naturally and understandably, left himself, his wife and Uri’s siblings, devastated by the loss.

You can still Google Grossman’s touching and moving obituary to his son, and to do so is to witness the foundation of this quite remarkable pean to grief, to desolation and the lacerating legacy of bereavement, which took three years to complete.

In his novel, To the End of the Land, written before the events which foreshadow Falling Out of Time, a mother goes walkabout in an attempt to escape the disclosure of what she assumes will be the inevitable death of her son.

In Falling Out of Time, Grossman uses drama, poetry, prose, reportage, to recall the lives of bereaved parents undergoing a mini odyssey to reach out to their dead children.

At first it seems like a noble attempt by Grossman to encapsulate grief, the better to understand it, but inevitably the catharsis of writing distorts the perception of a life-altering act for someone so unexpectedly and tragically bereaved.

It is a most powerful book, almost a collection of anecdotal insights into the magnitude of love and loss, for what is one without the other, and Grossman’s skills as a poet and dramatist never waver even when the reader suspects – wrongly – that he may not have the stamina to see this through.

The writing, whilst dramatic, is rarely theatrical, and Grossman never abandons for effect the raison d’etre of his undertaking: can we overcome death and, perhaps entirely unrelated, can we reach out for the dead and free them, like Eurydice?

He explores this in a beautifully published work by Johnathan Cape with a walking wounded troupe of characters: Town Chronicler, Duke, Midwife, Centaur, Walking Man and others.

Grossman’s intention across 190 pages, an attempt to answer the above questions, and others, is a hymn to these characters, who find a solace of sorts in the communal act of breaching death’s hermetic separateness.

The solace, even though the dead are kept in storage by the gravitational effect of their world, is discovered time and again in Grossman’s storytelling and humanity in Falling Out of Time.

‘Sometimes, when we are

Together, your sorrow

Grips my sorrow,

My pain bleeds into yours

And suddenly the echo of

His mended, whole body

Comes from inside us,

And then one might briefly imagine –

He is here.’

Shez Raja Collective

Shez Raja Collective:

Soho Live

In between Esperenza Spalding at the Barbican and the surplus of evening gigs at South Bank, the city already decked with Christmas lights, one of my own personal highlights during the London Jazz Festival in 2013 was a visit to the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho.

The intimacy and the perfectly pitched acoustics of the venue contribute a sizeable ballast to Soho Live by the Shez Raja Collective, a collection of eight numbers, some of the titles of which mirror the unleashing of exuberant and bravura jazz: Adrenalize, Karmic Flow, Junk Culture and Chakras On the Wall.

The Shez Raja Collective, an assemblage of top notch talent by bassist Shez Raja, on this recording is made up of ten musicians, bringing to mind Troyk-estra at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, or the Pat Metheny Group. And there, comparisons end.

Soho Live is high octane stuff, immediately addictive, with a cacophony of styles and influences, but never to the detriment of the band’s ability, track after track, to soar, to conquer and to spring surprises.

Raja, who produced and wrote all the tracks, sets out his stall with the street smart and exceptionally groovy Adrenalize, with phenomenal and trade mark bass licks, but he allows generous space for other mesmeric solos, such as Hutchings on clarinet.

After the mellow FNUK, Quiverwish opens with vernaculur bass by the British-Asian Raja and best exemplifies what the collective is about: storming funk and magnetic ragas, with the most cohesive of rhythm sections (Chris Nickolls on drums) and fabulous interplay between Gilad Atzmon’s tenor saxophone and Aaron Liddard’s alto saxophone.

Many of the musicians are well known in jazz across the water: Soweto Kinch (rapping on Karmic Flow) on alto saxophone, Hutchings (Melt Yourself Down) and Jay Phelps (trumpet on the exquisite Freedom), while Raja, classically trained on the violin when he was a boy, has toured with Loka and even Elephant Talk, whom I saw one boozy night twenty years ago in the Clonakilty pub owned by Jimi Hendrix’s bass player, Noel Redding.

This collective was forged in 2007 and has been busy in the smithy of merging Indo-jazz and thundering grooves reminiscent of Jaco Pastorious and, dare I say it, the percussive slap bass work of Mark King from Level 42 (cue Chakras On The Wall, with Monika Lidke on vocals).

This is a recording to treasure and if you have trouble getting out of the sack in the morning, then I recommend either Eastern Revolution or Freedom (Jay Phelps magnificent on trumpet) with Kinch on sax, with Raja echoing the four string ingenuity of Bakithi Kumalo.

 

Fringe Magnetic

Clocca

It isn’t often that great novelists are cited as inspiration for great recordings, but David Mitchell, now resident in Cork, and Don Dellilo have walk on roles in Fringe Magnetic’s eclectic Clocca, very much Rory Simmons’ gig, because he wrote all the music.

Esoteric titles aside (Only A Poltroon Despises Pedantry, Buffalo, Buffalo, Buffalo,)Clocca remains an experience, with intriguing arrangements by Simmons: Only A Poltroon, one of the shorter tracks, has the discernible air of an east European polka, but the mood is lowered straight after with Clocca, as if a different band took to the stage, with Simmons’ horn reminiscent of Davis in New York on the cusp of A Kind of Blue, before the mood switches like a twilight storm.

The musicianship is wonderful (Simmons on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ivo Neame on piano and accordion, to name but two out of nine musicians, excluding the vocals of Elisabeth Nygaard, Andrew Plummer and Emilia Martensson) with exquisite marriage of vocal and music heard first on the Nygaard-penned Cross the Border.

What appeals about this recording is the diversity of composition which facilitates the breadth of musical styles at Simmons’ disposal, and he ain’t afraid to experiment with the stew: Buffalo, Buffalo, Buffalo opens with Jasper Holby’s bass and  Natalie Rozario’s plucked cello like a tight jazz duo, suddenly joined by Robin Fincker’s playful clarinet and, surprise, Tori Freestone’s flute.

About 15 years ago I saw an English band in Clonakility, called Elephant Talk, andFringe Magnetic has that similar big band chemistry: switching harmony like a breeze, exquisite interplay of styles and an inventiveness that never runs out of steam. This is a collection not laced by what you might call a singular mood.

The consistency is twofold: the imaginative and seductive compositions of Simmons (his generosity of spirit to his fellow musicians) and – quite simply – the wonderful playing. If ever you wanted a collection of new songs to take your head for a walk, Clocca is it.

The perfect blend of the instruments, the definitive coruscation of  musicians on top of their game, is demonstrative on Matryoshka, with Kit Massey’s violin and Neame’s accordian in particular, with consistent tempo among repeat metric patterns. This is Fringe Magnetic’s third and, apparently, final album.

The Steve Gadd Band

Gadditude

It’s not every day you have the pleasure of reviewing an album as good as Gadditude by the West Coast ensemble, the Steve Gadd Band, drummer Gadd’s tenth outing as leader of a group of musicians better know for their association with James Taylor and a host of others, including Steely Dan and Chick Corea, and on this recording we are the beneficiaries of many musical styles, primarily American, since the mid 1960s.

My only quibble is that I might have arranged the tracks differently, bookending the collection’s nine compositions – five originals- with the upbeat Cavaliero and Green Foam, which for me capture the charming and relaxed essence of this quite extraordinary achievement: the CD tails off with Radiohead’s Scatterbrain, an interesting – if unconvincing – experiment. Brad Mehldau it is not.

Legend has it that U2’s last album (can’t remember the name) was recorded across several continents, in numerous studios and over four years, and still wasn’t very good when the odyssey concluded in talismanic Dublin.

However, the musicians on Gadditude, among the most accomplished in the business in any genre, took a week to record one of the best records you will hear in the past 12 months in guitarist’s Michael Landau’s studio. The moral of the story is magic happens when a tight quintet of gifted musical friends are left alone in a studio that happens to be in Pacific Palisades in California.

Mood is established from the beginning with Landau’s Africa, recalling the Bitches Brew era of Miles Davis, the body of the tune held together by Landau’s slinky guitar and Larry Goldings’ hovering Hammon organ cushion. Gadd’s love of snare drum is the backbone of Goldings’ Ask Me, a ballad that could have been composed to the ebb and flow of the sea: the band steps from the shadows in, naturally, Keith Jarrett’s Country, with stupendous horn by Walt Fowler.

Next are two tour-de-forces, like a segued San Andreas Fault, and both originals, the exceptional Cavaliero and Green Foam. They are intrinsically Californian in tempo, with Gadd’s behind the beat groove in the first and a catchy Landau guitar in the second, recalling the bluesy experimentation of The Doors’ Morrison Hotel. Two excellent tracks for the car, with a long and clear road ahead, a cerulean sky above and a missus or two in the front and back.

Landau’s guitar is gorgeous on the Abdullah Ibrahim-composed The Mountain, with a memorable solo from Walt Fowler, who also came into his own on the previous track, Green Foam. The Mountain isn’t an extension of the grooving riff of Cavaliero and Green Foam, but is unique of itself, and the energized romp and jazz flavoured shuffle with a velvety rhythm cushion returns for Who Knows Blues and The Windup. This is the album for the summer ahead.

 

 

Gisle Torvik/Karl Seglem

 

 

 

Gisle Torvik :Tranquil Fjord

Karl Seglem: NyeSongar.no

The cover of Torvik’s Tranquil Fjord features a placid lake on the cusp of dawn, or is it dusk, the ideal metaphor for his musicianship, for – though relatively young in jazz years – he is an innovative stylist with a mature head on young shoulders.

Tranquil Fjord, released by Ozella, a truly inspirational jazz label, features Torvik on guitar, Auduan Ellingsen on bass and Hermund Nygard on drums, but there are certain trackss, Kryssande, for example, when the sound is much greater than the sum of the parts.

The eponymous Tranquil Ford opens this ten track collection with the majority coming in under five minutes, and is emblematic what you can expect from what follows: Torvik opening and leading from the front with blues-inspired solos and, on occasion, a classic arrangement in the grand European tradition.

What is unique about Torvik and indeed Gisle Torvik (producer on Tranquil Ford) is the distinctly Scandinavian sound is not diluted by looking to America. Torvik’s playing can be as cool as ice caught in afternoon sun, but he plays cat and mouse with tempo, such as on Endelaus Veg, which has the vibe of West Coast Americana, with superb interplay between the double bass and the held in check drumming.

Where Tranquil Ford succeeds on all levels is the sustainment of mood: if you like the opening track, and you will, Tranquil Ford will hold you in its spell until the end, forty two minutes later.

A tree from the same branch is NyeSongar.no by saxophonist Karl Seglem, nine tracks just coming under an hour from a sublime quartet with, to my ear, a notable contribution from Sigurd Hole on bass.

The songs bear witness to the tightness of the playing, the intimacy of a quartet at ease with itself, demonstrably so Desembersongen and Inn I juni. It has been said of Seglem that he brings to his music the three essentials you need to survive a Scandinavian winter: calm, warmth and energy.

There is about NyeSongar.no a warm fog of synergy blowing in from a sea of tranquility, as Seglem, in what is just his second album, a succesfful and endearing attempt to capture the mood of winter and the peculiar palette of snow. To that end he dovetails melody with the mystical sound of the extreme landscape of Norway. I cannot think of two better jazz albums to help you through the winter.

Troyk-Estra

 

Troyk-Estra : Live at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2013.

 

You can tell a lot about people by asking what Cheltenham means to them. Inevitably, festival will feature in the answer. Book Festival, racing festival, jazz festival.

I haven’t been to Cheltenham to see the racing, but after listening to this superb eight track CD from Troyk-Estra, I might just pay a visit to the jazz festival.

According to the sleeve notes,  20 members play on the recording – four on trombone and four on trumpet – and you can, from the off, expect something gloriously raucous.

To begin at the beginning: the Troyka trio (Chris Montague on guitar, Joshua Blackmore on drums and Kit Downes on keyboards) has been at the cutting edge of jazz for the past four years, and this recording is the result of an epic collusion with an orchestra conducted by the Royal Academy of Music’s Nick Smart.

It has been noted elsewhere that Troyk-Estra is a blend of meth metal and electronic noise, with more than a passing nod to the influence of Loose Tubes founder Django Bates. But I beg to differ: Troyk-Estra has moments, many in fact, when the sound is in a universe of its own.

Montague’s Gain Noon Soon opens like a dawn chorus competition between the trumpets and keyboards, but Josh Blackmore’s percussion and Louis Van Der Westhuizen’s bass dovetail the separate parts into an energetic flow, with strong tenor solos, and what began as a suggestion is now an effusive harmony.

There is, admittedly, resonances of the direction Miles Davis was going in when he performed Bitches Brew on Live AtThe Fillmore East – once he added Keith Jarrett – but doesn’t distract from the synchronous pitch of the performance.

As with much modern jazz, bands are continuously about making space with sound:Coley opens with a blast, like a jazz band from the fifties, underpinned by great bass and percussion, switching mood in a beat; alternatively Hip Clan is guided to shore by a lustrous guitar, with the pulse of a clock ticking, almost Pink Floyd-like, and ushers the inevitable orchestral tsunami of Neon BirthsTroyk-Estra : Live at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2013 is epic undertaking, adroitly executed.