Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy

Injustice is a black current flowing through the pages of Just Mercy, an indictment of the American judicial system, if you can call it that, and as such this story of redemption is a necessary if depressing read, for this is a terrain bereft of the milk of human kindness.

Let’s examine the backdrop, the author is a public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to fighting for the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned in prisons throughout the deep American south. Most of the victims we encounter in Just Mercy are so called white trailer thrash or African American bottom feeders, people on the margins of society.

They are in fact representative-less, which is where Stevenson comes in. Motivated as a young lawyer by the sheer scale of miscarriages of justice he encounters on a daily basis, with many innocent defendants ending up on Death Row, Stevenson establishes the Equal Justice Initiative.

It helps if you have more than a passing acquaintance with the legacy of the Civils Rights Movement in the 1960s, and the long shadow cast by the Jim Crow law, which enforced racial segregation in the South from after the Civil War up until the arrival of Martin Luther King.

The story of Walter McMillian permeates this memorable and powerful investigation: McMillian, a young African American, spent six years on death row for a murder he didn’t commit, on evidence fabricated by police, and supported through thick and thin by the prosecution.

Page after page you encounter political machination, racial inequality, legal brinkmanship, an absence of either hope or charity, which explains why one in fifteen Americans born in 2001 will spend time in jail, and one in every three African Americans born in this century will be incarcerated.

Stevenson contends that the land of the free and the brave, where female prisoners have increased by 640% in the past thirty years, where disenfranchisement among the poor is higher than before 1965, where a state like Alabama has the fastest growing condemned population in the world, where judges can swop juries’ life verdicts to death sentences with the stroke of a pen, is also using its penal system to become a warehouse for the mentally ill. You don’t have to be American to be ashamed at the cesspool of injustice between the covers of Just Mercy, because this is ultimately a story about inhumanity.



Paolo Conte


It is a confession laced with irony, but nonetheless a sincere one, when I admit Paolo Conte, whom I associate with nostalgia and melancholy, is nevertheless quick to put a smile on my face when I hear him.

The fun begins with the opening track on Snob, Si sposa l’Africa, a lively and humorous introduction to fifteen songs, poems or cabaret-ballads, call them what you will, all coming in under four minutes, and sensuously evocative.

Evocative of what ? You may well ask, but take your pick: a life well lived, a septuagenarian’s wily and eclectic take on the world, paying homage to music, to colour and to love.

Following the recent passing of Georges Moustaki and Charles Aznavour, as synonymous with the weathered singer-songwriter’s view of the world as Brel and Piaf, it is to elder statesmen like Conte to whom we now turn for our regular fix of poetic fragments of brief encounters.

The scaffolding behind Conte’s songs are a medley of street reportage and poetry: in Si sposa l’Africa (Africa Weds), ‘the bride is young and sweet and has jewels of blue wood,’ in Argentina, ‘everyone is hollering down at the port, and the vessels shout let’s go, before a massive American sea, spitting out a dream gone old.’

Conte’s trademark, however, is the smoker’s voice, the cabaret-style intimacy, the primacy of the piano, the midnight beat of the bass, the gaiety of the music, the simulation of live performance.

His laid back but dramatic and throaty delivery, a gruff smoker and crooner’s voice, and his penchant for reflecting on the ordinary, but suffused with colour (‘the summer with its smile that is habitual, encircled a by a though that’s autumnal tropical’ from Tropical) is irresistible, especially when the music is similarly effusive.

If your knowledge of Italian is scatty, fear not, the CD features translations of all the songs, but you won’t need to read a word to appreciate the quite beautiful music, a jazz soundtrack for a well lived life

Nude Green Leaves and Bust

Dropped into Tate Modern recently for my annual Jackson Pollock fix but, surprise, surprise, no Pollock to be found. And no Rothko or Lee Krasner. What’s going on? However, Tate now has this gorgeous (on loan) early Picasso, Nude Green Leaves and Bust, inspired by his secret relationship with Marie-Therese Walter. A genuine tour de force and worth the trek to the Tate even if Pollock is in storage. Look out also for a superb Joan Mitchell and Sidney Nolan.


Back Home

Apparently, and whether it is true or not is another day’s work, the roots of poLO, the Italian quartet, is a medley of  indie rock and post punk, although, upon a first engagement with the twelve track Back Home, their sumptuously produced second CD, neither branch surfaces, or comes close to diminishing or affecting a wonderfully spirited jazz tableau.

poLO experiment, and you can hear this in Eggplant, Mirror and Yellow Girl, perfectly manufactured, or even manicured with precision, which is no surprise when you spend time in the company of Paolo Porta (tenor sax), Valerio De Paola (guitar), Andrea Lombardini (bass) and Michele Salgarello (drums).

It would seem that Back Home, their first release on the excellent CAM JAZZ label, is the progeny of four eclectic musicians who entered a musical laboratory and not a studio, and the result is the fruit of both experiment and controlled playing, for lurking beneath the surface, like shifting ice, is harmony, always harmony.

Porta’s sax is rich and as bright as a June morning on the openingEggplant, complimented by De Paola’s guitar, an unusual partnership you might think, but it works; the sax rises Tragicomedy from its roots, coerced by Lombardini on bass and Salgarello’s attentive and lively drumming, and into this mix glides De Paola’s guitar fusion, a la Jesus and the Mary Chain, until Porta corals the movement with a wonderful solo.

It has been said that while poLO exudes a deep connection with jazz, their tonal palette is a complex blend of the acoustic-electric, and this is true, but the music is also, like a prism in reverse, attempting to get to the original source of  their inspiration.

Does this work literally? On Boris, there is a pushing of limits whilst maintaining a fidelity to the opening beat, and, not for the last time, Porta’s sax ties a kite to the melody and lets it go: abruptly, the mood shifts, the pace decreases with De Paola’s guitar playing tit for tat with the bass and drums.

For me the quintessential poLO track is Symbiosis, which has the breadth to allow you connect with the concept of balance and coherence in the organic evolution of first writing, then improvisation and finally recording, and, if you can find a quiet corner of your home, a platform to appreciate the almost bashful but forceful bass of a true maestro, Andrea Lombardini.

A dozen original tracks by a genuine band and not just session musicians playing to another’s template in a studio: what more could you ask for. Most of the songs are like arcs, but with more colours and longevity than a rainbow.


Erwin Mortier


While The Gods Were Sleeping 

Erwin Mortier has been translated into English three of four times by the fabulous Pushkin Press and his reputation, following in the footsteps of Proust, is based on the supremacy of Marcel, My Fellow Skin andShutter Speed.

He is a prosaist of the ilk of an early John Banville: acute observation, full bodied prose, incisive dialogue and adroit characterisation. For a novel of almost 400 pages, Mortier doesn’t put a foot wrong, nor does Paul Vincent, who translated While The Gods Were Sleeping from the original Dutch.

Each scene has the dexterity and the abundance of a Vermeer, even when nothing appears to be happening. Towards the end of her life, the lyrical but dependant Helen Demont is reflecting on the early 20thcentury, living on the cusp of the Great War, and musing on its impact on the lives of others such as her brother Edward, and a young English photographer, Matthew Herbert.

Mortier poses many questions without ever asking them, and in the process of filling out a scene with the ordinary and the randomness of what passes for unexceptional mundanity, he unearths surprises which can take a paragraph, a page or a chapter to fully shed its chrysalis.

So rich in detail is the prose, a gilded tributary alongside the sinuous narrative, that it is easy to forget what has taken place and be lost momentarily in the present. We are therefore unlike Helen, who fills her notebooks with the flotsam of memory, and paints in words moments of nostalgia and, in the midst of war, the indescribable.

The war doesn’t necessarily adopt centre stage, and Mortier approaches it obliquely: Helen is not in a position to witness the horror of trench warfare for herself, but through the photographs of Herbert, whom she will marry, the war to end all wars filters to the reader through her memory.

Mortier creates tableaux rather than chapters, from the destruction of homes in Flanders to Helen’s present as an aged dependent, the intermingling of tenses, where, for our narrator, ‘the echo chambers of memory seem to expand and divide like living cells.’ Mortier distills time.

While The Gods Were Sleeping is the epic recollection of a mind which remains restless, history truncated and revisited, the past a shadow of a storm cloud which never quite manages to leave.


Terry Riley

Marking the 50th anniversary of Terry Riley’s pioneering masterpiece In C Mali, Africa Express has now released the first African version of the minimalist classic.
This new version was recorded at the Maison des Jeunes youth club in Bamako, Mali, and is led by contemporary conductor André de Ridder. The album features the cream of new artists from Bamako, among them AdamaKoita, Bijou, Cheick Diallo and ModiboDiawara alongside Africa Express stalwarts Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Jeff Wootton and Nick Zinner. 
Co-produced and mixed by Andi Toma (Mouse on Mars), the album will be released via Transgressive Records on digital formats, with a CD and limited edition vinyl.
Recently, Africa Express and Tate Modern presented a one-off performance of the piece on the Bridge of the Turbine Gallery at Tate Modern in London.  
Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ is often cited as the first minimalist composition and continues to receive numerous performances around the world every year from musicians of all standards and musical backgrounds – from classical to rock to jazz to non-Western. 
The various recordings made over the years reflect the all-encompassing nature of the work: Riley celebrates his 80th year on the planet in 2015, and he continues to be an active composer.
In the new recording, the ensemble feeds the piece with ancient threads of musical wisdom and humanity indicating that this work is a vessel ready to receive and be shaped by the spontaneous feelings and colours of the musicians. 
Hailed as a revolutionary force in popular music, Africa Express brings together musicians from different cultures, genres and generations to break boundaries and offer new perspectives, and has produced a series of extraordinary live shows since its first public performance with a now legendary five-hour set at Glastonbury 2007. 
The full list of performers on Africa Express Presents… In C Mal is:
AdamaKoita: KamelN’goni
Alou Coulibaly: Calabash
Andi Toma: Additional Percussion, Kalimba
André de Ridder: Violin, Baritone-guitar, Kalimba
BadouMbaye: Djembe, Percussion
Brian Eno, Bijou, Olugbenga: Vocals
Cheick Diallo: Flutes
Damon Albarn: Melodica
DefilySako, ModiboDiawara : Kora
Guindo Sala: Imzad
KalifaKoné, MéméKoné: Balafon
Nick Zinner, Jeff Wootton: Guitar

Richard Brautigan

Trout Fishing in America

I came to Trout Fishing in America, an apparently legendary book which I had never heard of but which has been reissued, by a writer I also never heard of and who died young by his own hand thirty years ago, expecting to be ensnared by a world not too dissimilar from In Our Time or A River Runs Through It, a novella which I have read and re-read too many times to be good for me.

But hey, if you like fishing, and specifically fly fishing, there isn’t nearly enough fishing literature out there to satiate the perennial desire to know more about the silver torpedoes ghosting beneath a ruffled river surface, like How to Fish by Chris Yates and Reflections on the Beauty of Angling by Alexander Schwab.

Trout Fishing in America is not A River Runs Through It. It is not a guide to fishing. It is not a manual to help you dream of fish running in spate rivers in the spring, or a step by step introduction to guiding transparent gut through the eye of a hook coated in pheasant or rabbit hackle.

What it is though is an opportunity to spend time in the company of a truly original and imaginative prosaist, who can conjure an image with the poetic flourish of Walt Whitman (‘It lay there white belly up like a school bus covered with snow.’), while nailing a line with all the economy of a Hemingway or a Mailer: ‘Worsewick Horse Springs was nothing fancy. Somebody put some boards across the creek. That was it.’

It has been said that only a hedonist could cram so much life onto a single page, and Brautigan was one of the most prominent and prolific chroniclers on the counter culture in America, on a par with Kerouac and Burrows: he was unusual in that he was prodigious. Ten novels and ten collections of poetry.

He was found dead in 1984, just 49, beside a bottle of booze and a .44 calibre gun. Trout Fishing in America lives up to a Brautigan truism: the more preposterous the situation, the funnier the book. The similes and metaphors come at a rate of knots, but they always seem appropriate.