Gerard Presencer

To begin at the end: Kaspar Vadsholt’s bass on Groove Travels is like a tugboat at the mouth of an estuary, softly guiding Presencer’s plaintive trumpet, and what started out as a Billy Nicholls’ composition (I Can’t Stop Loving You), evolves into a nostalgic slow waltz, with the familiar melody.

What is refreshing about Presencer on each of the eight tracks -five original compositions – is the facility with which he shepherds the guiding strength of individual musicians from the scrum of a large orchestra, here the Danish Radio Big Band.

This is evident from his ample annotations: so on Blues for Des, inspired by a West African rhythm, he opts for the Cuban percussionist Eliel Lazo; The Devil’s Larder was originally written for drummer Chris Dagley; Pelle Friddell’s soprano saxophone is given free range on Tango of the Misunderstood, and a beautiful solo on tenor sax by Hans Ulrik is memorable on Wayne Shorter’s Footprints.

These are bonuses, because there is colour and piquancy to Presencer as composer and musician, an insatiable curiosity about the quotidian sounds which invade his air space, and he is always prepared to experiment, such as on Eleanor Rigby where he matches the groove of Mongo Santamaria with the five bar verses of the Lennon-McCartney composition.

Listen to Presencer’s version half a dozen times, and it’s less the Beatles and more a tight rhythm section with Presencer’s flugelhorn and Vadsholt’s bass changing gears.

A member of the Danish Radio Big Band, and featured soloist on US3’s version of Cantaloupe Island and on Rolling Stone Charlie Watt’s jazz projects, Presencer’s gift is distilling and harnessing a distinct style of playing or a hidden note.

Istanbul Coffee Cup has its provenance in the following: listening to a small band playing in a restaurant in Istanbul – he wrote down the rhythm – and coalescing his notes with the vibrato and phrasing of Palestinian trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf.

Tango of the Misunderstood, with Pelle Friddell on soprano tax, is as lusciously warm as the Stan Getz of O Grande Amor or Corcovado, but the key is in the phrasing, the timing of the soloing, with a thrilling seguing between Henrik Gunde on Rhodes piano and Presencer. Perhaps it is imitative of bossa nova, but Presencer is omniprescent, and Groove Travels is distinctly his baby.


Tracy K. Smith

A single poem published in The Financial Times by Tracy K. Smith caught my eye: offhand, I can’t remember which one, but an enquiry with her publisher in America has unearthed this gem of a volume.

Poems by American and European English-speaking writers are as distinct as jazz and hip-hop, though there is no Berlin Wall between what they might have in common.

What I have long admired, even envied, about American poets, is their sense of the epic, their perception of the infinite and the immeasurable.

It seems to me that much of American poetry in the past sixty years flows from three distinct sources: Whitman, Bishop and Ginsberg.

This can read as a deference to the cosmos, the innocence of sense and, finally, their validation by the ego.

One of the best, Roethke, was dismissive of the Beats with ‘effects a child of two could improve on,’ but he didn’t live long enough to pursue their tremors. Tracy K. Smith has.

And as the Nile fractures into a thousand streams at the end of its course, so too American poetry, insatiable before the vast plain of what constitutes America, both real and imaginary.

Whitman made it possible, by stretching the line beyond convention, for a poet to become, notes Ezra Pound, ‘the hollow place in the rock that echoes with time.’

So too with Smith; ‘I wandered through evenings of lit windows, laughter inside walls/ the sole steps amid streetlamps, errant stars. Nothing else below walked,’ she writes in The Speed of Belief, an elegy.

But an American elegy: the foundation is memory and reflection (Then I slept, too young to know how narrow/And grave the road before you seemed,’) before the poem is airborne on the wings of twenty syllable lines, and now she is conducting an orchestra of images, raining full tilt (Old loves turn up in dreams, still livid at every slight. Show them out./This bed is full. Our limbs tangle in sleep, but our shadows walk.)

My God, It’s Full of Stars is a long poem that isn’t exhausting, like circumnavigating a new city in the slow lane, the senses alert and inquisitive, parts two and three coasting on alexandrines, where the poet is ‘one notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.’









Patrick Modiano


Patrick Modiano, Parisian Nobel laureate, began walking the streets of his home city in earnest when he was a teenager, absorbing the idiosyncrasies of districts such as Pigalle, memorising street names, mapping each contour with the determination of an ordnance surveyor.

There is something of the nocturnal and the feral about Modiano the novelist, as if Rue Fontaine, Rue Frochot and Rue O’Dessa spring to deathly life in the somnambulism of the city’s diminishing heart beat.

What is immediate to the senses with The Black Notebook is the distinct as turpentine smell and feel of Paris in a different time and a different place, long before social media annihilated blood and guts communication, an era suffused with the tones of film noir, more Jean Luc Godard than Francois Truffaut, where each line is as tactile as braille. His world is the monochromatic miasma of the quartiers from dusk on.

In The Black Notebook, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, a writer acts on impulse to search for a woman he loved four decades earlier after happening upon a set of names in his notebooks. Not lost in translation, thankfully, is Modiano’s trademark, mood, as time slides back and forth. A fog has more pace.

The notes mirror Modiano’s real life topographical fascination for the veins and arteries of Paris, without which a single page in The Black Notebook is bereft, and in which, to paraphrase another translator of Modiano’s fiction, Euan Cameron, a curious cast of the mysterious and the sinister appear and vanish from the narrative for no obvious reason.

Modiano was born in Occupied Paris in 1945, and published his first novel, La Place d’etoile when he was just 22. The Black Notebook is a fine example of the mesmerising fusion of the present and the past of Paris as a singular backdrop to an investigation played out on the border between dreams and reality. Forewarned is forearmed: you have to expect that Modiano can ramble, but the diversion is never entirely pointless, and the adjective-free prose sparkles, even in translation.

In The Black Notebook, the author Jean retraces his nocturnal footsteps in the 14th arrondissement, like a drunk who drinks again to retrace what he got up to the night before: around the left bank, in and out of cheap hotels and crepuscular cafes, stepping on and off the conveyor belt of rotating time, floating wraith-like through the fog of memory expecting to moor once again with an amorous blast from the past.

In Paysage, Baudelaire  writes: ‘And when I glimpse an unsubstantial ghost/Crossing the teeming scene Parisian/I always feel this phantom from the past/Is gently going to crib again.’ This is the city of Modiano, ‘where the present no longer counted, with its indistinguishable days in their doleful light.’

The Black Notebook is one of a series of Modiano novels published by MacLehose Press, including In The Café of Lost Youth, where four narrators – a student, a private detective hired by an aggrieved husband, the heroine herself and one of her lovers – summon a reflection of Jacqueline Delanque, better known as Louki, whose life is one of aimless drifting.

Like The Black Notebook, ever present in In The Café of Lost Youth is Paris, anthropomorphized by Modiano’s sketches of the city which read as if directed by Jean Renoir in his La Regle du jeu heyday: solitary and lonely journeys on the last metro, late night walks along empty boulevards and cafes where the elderly sift through memories of their vanished adolescence, when the future was an orchard in blossom and promised so much. Shadow and light writing, but beautifully precise, leaving the reader with a feeling of both presence and absence.






Franco Basaglia


The Man Who Closed the Asylums

By John Foot


Franco Basaglia arrived at the grim Gorizia asylum in 1961 armed with nothing more than a set of beliefs about the treatment and welfare of the mentally sick who, incarcerated interminably, were sidelined by Italian society.

The Man Who Closed the Asylums by John Foot is about what happened in the next decade after the pioneering and charming Basaglia and a team of cohorts revolutionised the institutionalisation and care of Italy’s most vulnerable, hitherto condemned to one of Dante’s circles of hell.

Basaglia compared Gorizia to a concentration camp, a by-product of an asylum system which was morally bankrupt, where the behaviour of patients was exacerbated and not understood or ameliorated by institutional care, and he slowly but deliberately to overturn both Gorizia and the asylum network in Italy.

He achieved this by connecting with so called anti-psychiatry movements throughout Europe, a term first coined in 1967, where institutional power was contested, and though Basaglia, like R.D. Laing, rejected the label ‘anti-psychiatry’, he had empathy for its ideals, though with or without the movement, his first hand experience taught him that people are mentally ill above all because they have been excluded.

With his fellow Gorizians – ten doctors – because collective thinking and a working ensemble was essential to Basaglia, he proceeded to humanise asylums by giving patients back their dignity, after having been, as paraphrased by Laing, invalidated as human beings.

Basaglia, Foot argues, was the catalyst for the introduction of the 180 Law a decade later, which set down the following principles (a) asylums were on their way out (b) no new psychiatric hospitals would be built and (b) patients were acknowledged as fully paid up members of society.

As Foot notes, “it surprised nobody that the closing down of the asylum system was much easier said than done,” and critics felt the mentally ill would be abandoned, but The Man Who Closed the Asylums is an important record of how one man, in the beginning, refused to accept a state of affairs in a notoriously conservative country. Compelling.





Mississippi to Sahara


Segueing American blues to distant West African origins may not be the bridge too far that we expect: John Coltrane and Miles Davis were ever sensitive to common ground between the two.

In as much as this compelling recording is the offspring of two cultures, so is its composer and principal architect, Faris Amine, son of a Touareg mother who died when he was still a boy, and an Italian father.

The lasting impact of his mother’s death is his severance from the umbilical cord of one side of his heritage, Algeria: his father, who travelled widely, introduced him to a broad spectrum of Western music.

Turned on the blues by Jimi Hendrix, it wasn’t until he heard Tinariwen’s second album Amassakoul that a light was switched on, specifically the catalyst of his mother’s culture and influence which lay dormant in his imagination like a seed waiting for the end of a drought.

He blossomed as both as an interpreter and composer: where once he was happy to mimic the blues, which he still loves, a pursuance of Touareg culture erupted into his own exploration of its quintessences. He can sing a mean assoul.

Mississippi to Sahara is exactly as it says on the tin, an album of blues sieved by a Touareg style, and from Death Letter to The Soul of A Man (Oulhawen win Tidit to Ma Ihan Iman Nagadem), Faris has produced a personal resolution that is not a compromise or a melting pot.

See it more as a crucible, fed by distinct but malleable currents,as original as the Mayfly which is born of water and made of air.

It was Sedryk who first contemplated the idea of a blues album in a Touareg style, but it was authenticity and simplicity he sought. Faris more than delivers.

If you need the bait of one song to bite, try Trouble So Hard (Assouf Id Nekman), a synthesis of the aforementioned, more a coalition of two colours than a hybrid, and tinged with the melancholy which gives the blues its cache.