Gregory Porter

Issues of Life

One to treasure, Issues of Life opens with the gloriously funky Moanin’, one of the strongest tracks on a demonstrably powerful collection, in which that throaty tenor of Gregory Porter is more than a match for the superlative playing throughout.

The tempo, as you would expect from a Hardbop classic, is upbeat from the off, with a fluent stream of scatting by Porter, buoyed by a soaring trumpet from Barney Girlinger. This version of the Art Blakely classic finds its first official release on this CD. Not for the last time does Porter sound like an old blues man, twice his age.

Several bands feature, including the Infinity Quartet, whose saxophonist David Murry is also a superb arranger: Be My Monster Love, lyrics by Ishmael Reed, has been interpreted by Macy Gray, but this version of the love song is more meaty, with Porter’s laid back vocal a footing for a stunning Murry solo. ‘My neck is yours, suck me until I’m anaemic,’ pleads Porter.

As a performer and a writer, you have to expect Porter to draw from a medley of influences, rooted in personal experience and the collective experience of the African-American community in America, particularly in the 1960’s, and the biographical surfaces in the great Issues of Life, a collaboration with Zak Najor from Zbonics.

That desire to invest the lyrics with his own empirical marrow is omnipresent in About the Children (accompanied by the David Murray Infinity Quartet), a gorgeous ballad with stunning bass and piano from Jaribu Shahid and Marc Cary. Hope is a Thing With Feathers is an extension of About The Children, with one notable difference: Ishmael Reed’s lyrics transmute as poetry with sharp edges.

She Danced Across the Floor, a get you out of bed on a Sunday morning track, is, frankly, faultless, electronically remixed for this CD, with an infectious ampleness to the percussion. A song for the summer in your head, on a dull January day.

1960 What? Gets the full Opolopo Kick and Bass Rerub treatment: a caustic lyric by Porter, epic in its sweep across the America of Kennedy and Johnson, ‘hey,the motor city is burnin, and that ain’t right,’ his voice as onomatopoeic as the driving bass and percussion. ‘There was a man, voice of a people, shots rang out, yes it was a gun’ is recited like an old school preacher, but with the bark of the dispossessed in the eye of a hurricane.


Nils Landgren

Redhorn Collection

Landgren has made about 500 records, and he is one of the principal reasons why the German label, ACT, is the biggest exporter of contemporary jazz from his native Sweden.

The Redhorn Collection is an invaluable introduction to Landgren, who is multi-talented, multi-faceted and multi-focal:  the consequence of his prodigious output is that there isn’t what you might call a distinctive Landgren sound, and it is often difficult to reconcile the guy behind the laid back vocal of Riders On the Storm and the crooner of Imagine.

Riders On the Storm, in recent years, has been interpreted by anybody and everybody from Baez & Cornell Tunnel Club Mix to Nigel Kennedy, but Landgren’s version is the first by a notable jazz musician to make it his own, which takes big balls.

So there is something indelible about the Landgren stamp. His Riders on the Storm is disco-cum-funk, minus the trademark Doors keyboard, with a killer horn solo by Landgren to bridge the song’s tutti: abruptly, any semblance to Ray Manzarek or Jim Morrison evaporates with a totally unnecessary rap, with indistinct lyrics, which kinda ruins it for me. Morrison depicted a killer on the road, but Landgren’s is in bed, with a hangover and two blondes.

But, and this is an important but, Landgren’s spin can be addictive, and I grew to like his idiosyncratic imprint, which perfectly describes what he does. He can take a standard, cut it up into pieces, leave out what he doesn’t like, and add something new to the mix. It isn’t eveybody’s cup of tea, but it does mean that tired songs get a kick up the ass, such as Imagine and, my favourite on the first of two CD’s in the Redhorn Collection, Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You.

This is Landgren at his most playful, but it would be a mistake to forget his roots: he has a funk master’s heart and soul and, averaging 200 days a year on the road, uses his interpretations to transcend the traditional boundaries of jazz, as we know it. And so, Knowing Me, Knowing You, doesn’t open with Bjorn and Benny’s lyrics, but a concoction of East Coast rap, with infectious couplets: ‘Remember when you felt under the weather/I’d be the one to make you green tea, or whatever.’ Excellent.

Landgren’s music comes with a smile, and the Redhorn Collection, a retrospective of  26 songs, including Landgren originals (Kibera Sunrise) and covers, James Taylor’s Fire and Rain and Sting’s Fragile, reflects the duality of his creative impulse, the grooving musician of his band Funk Unit, and the melancholic crooner.

Philip Marsden

Rising Ground/A Search for the Spirit of Place

If you can accept the premise that the history of a place can be uncoiled like a skein of wire, and that the landscape, specifically a rural one, is no less and no more than a palimpsest for our perusal and our understanding, then you will enjoy, immensely, Rising Ground by Philip Marsden.

He asks why do we react so strongly to certain places, like Newgrange, and why do layers of story and meaning build up around particular features in the landscape? From the outset, it helps if you realise that the readership Rising Ground is aimed at is primarily English, or should I say British, and not Irish. On this island, as Patrick Kavanagh put it eloquently, the source of the Iliad was a local row, and well documented.

It seems to me, after reading Rising Ground, that the Irish relationship with the history of our townlands, the umbilical connection between our history and the land – the Great Famine – our obsession with ownership of a half acre and the curious reverence for the natural world, pre-dating Christianity, and so enmeshed in the early and late poems of Seamus Heaney, for example, is encoded into our DNA to a greater degree than our neighbours.

It could be that Christinity in Ireland never fully exorcised the Celtic influence of our imaginative and creative ancestors, so that a people capable of creating its own alphabet in the sixth century (ogham), and which took the bother to carve what they were thinking into rock, is manifest today through our literary skill with a tongue that is not our own.

Marsden’s loci are certain places in Cornwall – Bodmin Moor and Upper Fal – a terrain every inch as magical and as ancient as the blueprint Tolkein used in The Lord of the Rings, and Marsden’s love for his native land, in his own words its ageless integrity, is sure to ‘pour beneficence’ over those smart enough to appreciate it.

He adopts a hands on approach to the work before him, whether re-building a mid-nineteenth century farmhouse in the sylvan and idyllic Ardevora, or immersing himself by hiking and trekking in the moors, spending a night in huts and outhouses, like Turner, for the purpose of sharpening his senses, and honing his awareness of orientation, with, perhaps theses words of Tolkien ringing in his ears: ‘The Road goes ever on and on/Down from the door where it began./Now far ahead the Road has gone,/And I must follow, if I can,/Pursuing it with eager feet,/Until it joins some larger way/Where many paths and errands meet./And whither then? I cannot say.’

Marsden notes that the concept of a sacred landscape – in England –  has recently slid into the academic mainstream, and that interpretation of the landscape’s character, natural and man shaped, has become localised. If you believe, as I do, in Ned Culleton’s call for a greater appreciation of heritage to which we are heirs and guardians (On Our Own Ground), then Rising Ground will afford you many hours of pleasure.

Sinfonia on Fire

1993 was a seismic year for conductor Fergus Sheil: he was honing his craft with the annual Wexford Festival Opera, and Wexford Sinfonia held its first rehearsal.

The opera to which he was attached, Ferdinand Herold’s Zampa, left a lasting impression on the young conductor, so much so that he opened Sunday afternoon’s concert with its rousing overture.

1993, in retrospect, was a vintage year for artistic director Elaine Padmore and the Festival: she unearthed the Canadian conductor Yves Abel – who conducted Zampa – and resuscitated a little known opera, but a gem, Cherevichki, by a composer who was also on Sunday’s programme, Tchaikovsky, directed by the soon to be great Francesa Zambello, at her fourth and last outing at Wexford.

Revisiting the overture again, you can see the attraction for Sheil: it is infectious, lively, spontaneous, which explains its almost universal popularity – it has been recycled incidentally often in animation, Banquet Bust, The Band Concert and Two Gun Mickey – and is best described as happiness in eight minutes and 54 seconds, or there about. And because it opens at 90 mph, both orchestra and conductor are connected instantly, and the enthusiasm swiftly engages the audience, as the triumphal fanfare is addictive. Shame, however, about the rest of the opera.

The first time I saw violinist Ioana Pectu-Colan perform, outside of Ensemble Avalon, was with Philip Glass in Dundalk, and the last time was at Wexford Opera House, soloing in Glass’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by, who else, Fergus Sheil. She returned on Sunday for a musical mano e mano with Beth McNinch, in Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major KV 364, in which Mozart specified that the viola be tuned up a semi-tone and played in D major to counter balance the brilliance of the violin.

A most amiable joust, then. There are, as the programme noted, irrepressible high spirits, yet Wexford Sinfonia – no percussion – was sufficiently at one with Sheil’s sensitive guidance to embellish Mozart’s unstated poignancy, an enchanting palimpsest with the reversal of roles of the violin and the viola.

The composer intended that both instruments should soar, and Sunday’s concert was blessed by the performance of both Pectu-Colan and McNinch, the effortless virtuosity of whom was never in danger of being disassociated from the sensuous expressiveness of a large orchestra, from the opening tutti to the coda. In a word, magical, a performance framed by Sheil’s composure, which also attest to his warmth and breadth of vision.

Pink Martini

Get Happy

It’s ironic that one of the highlights of Get Happy is a track that is anything but: Kitty Come Home, however, is in good company, because the members of Pink Martini and various guests, including Rufus Wainwright with an achingly beautiful vocal lamenting the aforementioned lost kitty, have a surplus of technique, talent and imagination to cover songs from all eras and all corners of the globe.

Get Happy opens with the swinging Ich dich liebe, as sung originally in the film, Freddy und das Lied der Prairie, by Mamie Van Doren, reprised by Pink Martini stalwart China Forbes in a bilingual tour-de-force. Wisely, the tempo is maintained immediately by Quizas, quizas, quizas, with new co-lead singer, Storm Large, demonstrably a match for the orchestration adapted from the Brazilian 1961 classic, Maysa, Amor…e Maysa.

Thus far, Pink Martini’s assembled cast of hundreds – I jest – is happy to plunder songs from the 1960s, and we don’t have to wait too long for the first of many pearls: an exquisite Mandarin vocal by Meow Meow, I’m Waiting For You to Come Back, with a sulphurous trumpet from Gavin Bondy accommodating the sultry piano of Thomas M. Lauderdale. When Meow switches to English and asks you ‘to come back,’ it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

Next is the highly rhythmic and Oriental Omide zendegani, originally performed by Dinah Shore in 1965, though perhaps not in the language it was written, Farsi, as it is here by the effusive Storm Large. Sadness permeates the opening handful of tracks on Get Happy, and accordingly Ari Shapiro caresses Yo te quiero siempre with the delicate finesse of Nicholas Crosa’s autumnal solo violin.

Both Je ne t’aimes plus (China Forbes and Philippe Katerine) and Zundoko-bushi move proceedings from the bath to the bed, or the bed to the bath, whatever takes your fancy, with the latter the first real opportunity to sample the upbeat disposition of Get Happy, and Pink Martini’s famous luxurious orchestral arrangement.

Other novas in this galaxy of delights include a Ravel-like rendition of Pana cand nu te iubeam (in the original Romanian by the multilingual Large), China Forbe’s Dietrich-like vocal on Irving Berlin’s What’II I do? and – memorably – the irrepressible Wainwright at his sonorous best with Kitty Come Home, written of course by his mum, Anna McGarrigle. Quite above extraordinary.

The birds in the tress call your name

Nothing’s changed

All’s the same.’

Maria Venegas


Bulletproof Vest

The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter

As befitting a memoir with one foot in Mexico, though which occasionally reads like fiction, Bulletproof Vest, The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter, is the good, the bad and the mostly ugly story of the life and extraordinary times of Maria Venegas’ father, the irrepressible and, for a budding writer, the utterly irresistible Jose Manuel Venegas.

The 300 page novel opens like a Sam Peckinpah movie: Jose, a cat with more than nine lives, is being ferried to hospital with a stab wound a hair away from his jugular vein, while his assailant, whom he shot at point blank after a card game, is destined for the mortuary.

Death spreads its shadow like a vulture drying its wings in Bulletproof Vest: its omnipresence from the bloody beginning to the bloody end is deployed to chilling and never less than entertaining effect by the author who has, for the most part, a front row view of her father’s way with a gun.

Freud would have had a field day with Jose’s mum, who prompted him to shoot his first man. He was 12. And as the Mexican stand offs continue to mount, and Jose puts a hole in many people, including himself and, mortally, his likeable brother-in-law, you begin to think that those who draw a living by the sword don’t necessarily die by it.

Bulletproof Vest, the cover of which features a young Jose astride a horse, hand hovering over his holstered gun, sombrero blotting out the sun, a latter day Pancho Villa, is a breathless read, and credit is due to Venegas’ brilliance as a stylist, as if Cormac McCarthy was holding the pen of William Faulkner.

However, any comparison does her a disservice: she has a unique voice, with a gift for dialogue, switching seamlessly between Spanish and English, and effortlessly conveys the past and the present of Chicago, where she was raised after her family fled Mexico, and the village of Le Pena, scene of her father’s last stand. Perhaps that should read one of many.

The father she portrays in the first half of the book from memory – a largely absent figure who quits America to go on the run – is one dimensional: a gun toting nutter. It is only when Maria Venegas finishes college, takes up writing in New York and decides to learn more about her father by spending time with him on his ranch, that a more sympathetic portrayal is unveiled, something along the lines that a rose with one thorn is still a rose.

In the concluding chapters we hear what was either missing or misconstrued at the beginning, Jose Venegas speaking for himself. Bulleproof Vest is a landscape where the violence is never less than a thunderstorm away, especially when the drug cartels move in, but it is also a moving memoir bestrode by a paterfamilias you are unlikely to meet again anytime soon.