Steve Lehman

jazz cover

Selebeyone

Hailed by The New York Times as “a state-of-the-art musical thinker with a reputation for sure-footed futurism,” and “a quietly dazzling saxophonist,” Steve Lehman has built a career creating innovative new music that packs a visceral wallop. His most recent album Mise en Abîme (Pi 2014) was the #1 Jazz Album of the Year in the NPR Jazz Critics Poll and in the Los Angeles Times and his previous recording, Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi 2009) was the #1 Jazz album of the Year in The New York Times.

In 2015, Downbeat Magazine ranked him as the “#1 Rising Star Jazz Musician of the Year” and he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In addition to being one of the most accomplished musicians in jazz, Lehman also received his doctorate in Music Composition from Columbia University in 2012 and his chamber music is regularly performed by the premiere contemporary classical music ensembles around the world.

Lehman’s music has always drawn from disparate sources in distinctive ways, but with Sélébéyone, he takes an unexpected turn: drawing, from modern jazz, Senegalese rap, live electronics, and underground hip-hop, to create a unique form of urban experimentalism.

The project stands apart from almost every other jazz/hip-hop collaboration that has preceded it: this is not an album where live musicians imitate repetitive samples in 4/4 time. Instead, the musical elements – shifting rhythms, electro-acoustic harmonies, and contemporary sound design – are wholly integrated with the lyrical content. Add to that the unique juxtaposition of English and Wolof that permeates the record, and one gets the sense of the development of a whole new musical universe.

And though the music on Sélébéyone may seem like a radical departure from Lehman’s more recent ensemble work, it is actually the product of his long-standing engagement with experimental hip-hop and its surrounding community.

Lehman’s critically-acclaimed octet has released arrangements of seminal hip-hop tracks, like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Living In the World Today” and Camp Lo’s “Luchini.” And his professional ties with Meshell Ndegeocello and other pioneering members of the contemporary R&B community date back to 2004: most recently Lehman was a featured soloist on Ndegeocello and Jason Moran’s 2014 Blue Note release All Rise.

 

Michael Blanco

 

Michael Blanco

The story of bassist/composer Michael Blanco’s third album as a leader, Spirit Forward, is primarily the story of how he assembled this particular group of musicians, and how they in turn inspired the composer to write compelling music for this unique combination of musical personalities; the Michael Blanco Quartet, featuring John Ellis (tenor saxophone), Kevin Hays (piano) and Clarence Penn (drums).

The album title Spirit Forward is a bar-tending term for a type of New York cocktail made with strong spirits (like the Manhattan or Martini) that seeks to highlight and enhance the flavour of the base spirit, not to mask it. These cocktails are harmonious and balanced, yet bold.

The Mystic Chord is a six-note chord used by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and believed by him to have mystical properties. While practicing at home, Blanco discovered that he could create a bass line with an interesting 6/4 groove by spelling out this chord one note at a time.

The melody has a kind of funky, lopsided quality, and the rest of the song explores the possibilities of the “Mystic Chord” sonority, with a melodically contrasting “B” section that is in 5/4 time – juxtaposing nicely with the 6/4 groove.

With Notes From Underground , Blanco thought of the low register piano/bass counter-melody that offsets the tenor lead at various points of the tune, as well as the fact that so many of his favourite jazz clubs are in basement rooms – hence the double entendre.

Song Without Words is a tuneful composition that you could easily imagine being sung. The band loosens up and stretches out a little more, but still captures the heart-on-your-sleeve lyricism that Blanco was going for.

Finally, Spirit Forward has a swinging, open feel, and an optimistic vibe. The form has a few mixed meters, and some harmonic twists and turns that make it both challenging and fun to play.

 

Alessandro Gallenzi

 

The Tower

 

Vatican skullduggery in the Middle Ages has proved rich pickings for authors in the wake of Dan Brown’s global success, but Alessandro Gallenzi’s third novel, his most ambitious to date, follows in the footsteps of another Italian master, Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose pioneered semiotics years long before The Da Vinci Code.

Gallenzi’s historically factual protagonist, Giordano Bruno, tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition, shares the intellectual heft of Franciscan friar William of Baskerville in Eco’s novel: there is even a medieval labyrinthine library in The Tower, but the unlocking of a centuries old mystery is fast forwarded to contemporary Jordan, the responsibility of an accident prone but affable English sleuth, Peter Simms. What he lacks in gumption, he makes up for in perseverance.

Undoubtedly, parallels with In The Name of the Rose surface – the undermining of the Gospel by cosmic pluralism – but Gallenzi seems more interested in the ongoing discord at the interface between religion in the factious Middle East and the digitization of literature.

Simms and philologist Giulia Ripetti, a character not fully fledged, are summoned to a meeting in Jordan to probe the apparent theft by a Jesuit priest – who has naturally vamoosed – of a priceless 16th century manuscript by Bruno. Simms and Ripetti are in an out of meetings in a modern and huge Tower of Babel, where an American company, Biblia, is bent on having all the world’s literature digitized by 2020.

‘The centres of wealth and economic influence are shifting,’ Simms is told. Data is the new oil. Data and content.’ Yet Simms is a head and legs type of man, so we are always kept on the move, and Gallenzi ratchets up the tension when the story spreads its wing to Jerusalem.

Before the plot becomes viscous with suspense, Gallenzi in alternate chapters introduces us to Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, the author of the missing manuscript, and who is remembered today not for what he achieved in life – his practice of mnemonics and his development of Copernican cosmological theories – but the manner of his leaving, burned at the stake in Rome.

This isn’t a plot spoiler, as Bruno’s fate is well known to anybody with a cursory interest in the Inquisition or who has seen his famous Obi Wan Kenobi-like statue at the Campo de Fiuri, within spitting distance of the Tiber, into which his ashes were dumped.

To his credit, with inventive dialogue and a lucid explication of the arguments which polarised the Roman Church, Gallenzi humanizes what otherwise would have read as a humdrum roll call of Bruno’s cosmological and mathematical achievements.

Splendid as they are, it is only when the Inquisition gets their hands on him after a wild goose chase throughout Europe, and the noose tightens, that we begin to vicariously imagine his state of mind between the years of his arrest, torture and execution. Gallenzi, who could be forgiven for excessive use of poetic licence to depict the horror of Inquisition justice, refrains, and we enjoy spending time with the stubborn Bruno the man, not the myth.

The Tower allegorizes the semiotic fate in fiction inspired by factual events: the search for truth must wade through the currents of failure.

Joe Neal : Poet

Anatomy of a poem.

‘Lipizzaner waves confront the pebble strand, breaking into froth of a trot, then beating back again.

As an image, Lipizzaner works: the poet isn’t merely commenting on the equestrian dance of the sea as it fragments on the shore, but the allusion to the famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna is indicative of a stylized control.

Nature as dressage. But there is more. The poet informs us that the implosion of the wave, its ‘beating back again’, results in the ‘crescendo charge of white brigade, booming at the shrinking shores in bright magnificence.’ I imagine the writer, trousers rolled up, footwear in hand, standing in the sea, captivated while in the process of remembering, like the man standing on the precipice, intoxicated by the sea of fog in the Caspar David Friedrich landscape, or I can picture the poet, genuflecting before the sea’s operatic denouement, ‘the dulling soon with tide’, or rooted to the source for the poem, in homage to Turner who reputedly tied himself to the mast to better understand a storm at sea. It could read too as a lament by a defeated and exiled Trojan remembering how the siege of Troy was unlocked by the sea and the gift of a horse. ‘To part at hissing isthmus hinterland’. Widening the scope of this imagery further, perhaps the soldier licking his wounds might see between the poet’s lines the attack by serpents of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his offspring, Thymbraeus and Antiphantes, by sea serpents.

Assault of the Sea appears early in Still Rise the Sun by Joe Neal: it is a small poem of 14 lines and no line is more than seven syllables in length. In a single line, Joe packs a powerful punch. ‘As diffracted light makes a spectre of myself with rainbow halo round a saintly head’ from High Spirits, or ‘a stealth of noddle mushrooms nudge the soil away and discreetly swell upon themselves’ from The Awakening.

This should not surprise us: primarily, he is a poet of observation, a sentient presence in a world who does not trespass or interfere but allows his inner eye to reveal, rather than be quietened, by the power of harmony. I have often wondered if at heart Joe was a throwback to the Romantics, because the lyric essence of much of his work has both the energy and the vision of the Lake Poets, what I experience continuously in poems like A Branch Too Far, where

wet white crystals clutch at unaccustomed

Brightness from the sky in late December

Melt of snow – creased now with drag-tail dent

As creature trails its mark in progress

To the tallest tree,’ where Joe’s take on nature is unafraid of being semi-autobiographical, or where poetry, the simple act of marrying vision and pen, becomes, most satisfyingly for the poet, a means of understanding. These poems are too, for someone who spent his early years roaming the Welsh countryside, fond tokens of time, shifting snapshots of memory and the volcanic impatience of the imagination, for the poet is traipsing across thin ice. The world he knew is being eroded as surely as the great Arctic ice is melting; time and again, careful not to bathe in nostalgic or varnish the past as one would a conker to preserve it against all on-comers, Joe can sign off with subtle regret. The second stanza in Living Memory is unambiguous and word perfect.

Gone too the red-brack farm

With tench-filled pond

From whence I saw

Lashing eels slime rain-soaked

Grass en route to breeding sea;

Now there’s only stench of factory

And grim clouds chasing off the sun.’

To wholly appreciate Joe Neal’s gifts it is necessary to hear these poems spoken and performed: his voice is as April light on stained glass, his diction the catalyst as the incandescent wattage of the words are liberated from the page. Reading the poems again and again, as it has been my pleasure on so many occasions and yet too few, I can picture the stressed syllables unsheathing their chrysalis:

‘Hush, savour now the silence

Of the white wide-faced owl,

Surprised by cloud-redempted moon’ from The Awakening.

Consensus about the function of poetry and its fate in an age dominated by social media and the regrettable trend of truncating sentences and abbreviating words is far from collective, and although English is mature enough and sufficiently adaptable to embrace the baffling and the semi-comprehensible, ready to become graspable in a newly direct way, what is striking about the poets who interest me is their hunger to forever see a world in a grain of sand. And I believe free verse, whether writing for the eye or the ear, has allowed the poet to escape the iron talons of regimental metrics.

When Joe closes That Pure Thing with the five line stanza,

For we’ve built a room inside

Our cluttered living space

Where no proud furniture

Can detract from what we share

That pure thing we call love,’ he, perhaps inadvertently, is remembering that the Italian word for room is stanza, and a room is an independent part of a house, and yet, of itself, not a home, and a stanza plays the same role in a poem, like an enfilade of rooms in a house.

 

Confession

 

Lying’s as easy as sliding off an ostrich

 

Re-fashioning the bricks

of ruined reputation

– caught scrumping groolas

from the orchards where we lived,

I joined the Cubs and dibbed

my vow of honesty,

to always tell the truth;

 

But Bob-a-Jobbing Week

put apples of temptation

in my way again, buying

Dandelion and Burdock

pop with money earned

for trimming someone’s grave;

 

Though not a Catholic,

I attest this now

for historical

integrity and wait

Joe’s stanzas manifest their core, though in different ways, as utterly natural, writing as the spirit moves him, but never with insincerity, and I suspect that Joe’s experience as a professional actor gives him tremendous faith in the arc of his sentence, so that the poetry communicates, and makes its point, which should be the function of all treasurable writing.

The Blue Egg Gallery

In December last I was ushered to the opening of an exhibition near Cork Street in London by Genieve Figgis, about whom I knew and still know little, except that she lived in Wicklow and received her degree in fine art from the Gorey School of Art.

What left an impression was less the totality of her work, than her allusion to dark narratives of history and how as an artist she inhabited the dissonance of the natural world. This was my interpretation, not hers’. There was undoubtedly, for those in attendance, an instant allure, but not for me.

Hours after the exhibition, huddled against the cold shimmying in from the rising Thames, I thought about my lack of connection with an artist from my own neck of the woods. And yet, stalking her exhibition quietly like a curious shark, I had sensed in the turbulent narrative an unspoken assimilation of a shared history

And why not: ours’ is a small island where, whether north, south, east or west, one is a slave to the same four seasons. Being islanders, though we rarely describe ourselves as thus, many in attendance at the opening of a show by Terry Dunne and Juliet Ball at The Blue Egg Gallery in Wexford in August, were born in a country at a time when Ireland gloried in its natural impregnability.

The impregnability, a legacy of political will, could also be suffocating for those with a creative and idiosyncratic bent, so when Joyce sought to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, he went into exile, and there was a steady queue after him in the decades that followed

Recalling the Figgis exhibition,  experiencing abroad an Irish artist’s take on the locus of my childhood,  and whose studio I am told is surrounded by what  Seamus Heaney would have described as ‘the alders dripping’, I gradually sensed an osmosis between her work and myself.

It took time, but an awakening, like the firing of clay or threading and weaving, has its own rhythm. And so, a new exhibition of work by Juliet and Terry is always an initiation into another world, where there is no turning back. There seems to be, because we share the same small turf, an enjambement between the arts, whether it is painting, sculpture, pottery, weaving and literature.

An enjambement is associated primarily with poetry, where the last sentence of a stanza connects unhesitatingly with the first line of the next. But it can also mean to encroach upon. Music filters into poetry, poetry is distilled into song, and nature is woven through the prism of personal experience, as you can see in the earthenware and tapestries in The Blue Egg.

The artist absorbs.

The imagination is a sieve.

The impulse to create is a catalyst, and the gestation commences.

It is the undefinable mystery of that chain of events which segues the artist with the viewer, which is why openings matter. Each new work has the potential of being a portal, and if you look attentively and engage the spirit level of the eye honestly, you instigate an unconscious assimilation.

And what you choose to do with that experience after you leave the gallery, is what counts. Only don’t abdicate it. As Terry Dunne says, it is just a matter of making time to observe.

I referenced enjambement earlier; poets are obsessed with the technical virtuosity of both weaving and pottery, two skills which, because of their tactility and intricate deployment of colour, provide a crucible of metaphor and simile. Terry and Juliet harvest the bounty of nature.

Ted Hughes, reflecting on Arachne’s duel with Minerva, has the weaver “feeding the cloth with colours that glowed every gradation of tints in the rainbow and where the sun shines through a shower.” These sensations are mirrored in Terry’s Autumn Falling Into Snow and Earth Energy.

It is as if the hand at the loom, fired by the patterned webs of the imagination, need to be as deft and swift and as light, as the initial source of inspiration. Terry seeks his in the colours of plants and flowers, and if you take the time to observe, if you mimic the focus and industry of the bee, you too will experience the efflorescence of the tapestry artist.

Seamus Heaney collaborated with playwrights, musicians, artists, but I think he had a specific gra for potters. It is arguable that the development of a poem apes the long view taken by the potter. He studied Sonja Landweer, and from my casual encounter with Juliet Ball’s decorative stoneware and porcelain and smoke fired vases, I can appreciate the interweave of ceramic and poetic allusions.

Heaney imagines a bridge between the buried substance used by the potter and the volcanic heat of the kiln. His couplet helped me to embrace the essence of Juliet’s brilliance, demonstrable in the ash-glazed stoneware.

“If glazes, as you say, bring down the sun

Your potter’s wheel is bringing up the earth.

This exhibition by Terry and Juliet, the latest of many in The Blue Egg Gallery curated by Mary Gallagher, amplifies our better understanding of the ancient art of craft making. Housed in two rooms flooded by natural light, the juxtaposition of an object and its space is a metamorphosis brought about by hand guided by the eye.

Our time is transient, but engagement with tapestries made from traditional materials and work rooted in the traditions of functional pottery, can transcend the busy hourglass and leave a legacy of woven or fired beauty, undimmed in lasting radiance.

Sonja Landweer

potter

One of the best, and least publicised, exhibitions at the 2016 Kilkenny Arts Festival, is Crossovers at the Rudolf Heltzel Gallery on Patrick Street, featuring eight artists, bookended in excellence by Kate Murtagh-Sheridan and Sonja Landweer, who is showing slate roof tiles on black wood block and three framed prints.

Aeneas Astray

 

aeneas-2
There is a memorable scene in Robert Graves’ I Cladius where the poet Virgil is summoned by Augustus to recite from the Aeneid before the imperial family.
No pressure then. But Virgil was a trained orator, acclaimed for his reading of the Eclogues in Roman theatres before an enthusiastic but critical audience.
Virgil’s habit was to release extracts from epic poems in gestation, with intervals of months and even years, a source of frustration for Augustus, because the evolving Aeneid cemented his divinity for posterity.
The provenance of the relationship between the poet and Rome’s first emperor was turbulent: post the bloody mayhem of Octavian and Mark Anthony’s proscription, which did for Cicero, the estate of Virgil’s father was confiscated.
And though he was compensated once Octavian morphed into August, Virgil didn’t forget the land confiscations in either his Bucolics or Eclogues.
Later in life, as the Aeneid found its legs gradually, and as Virgil traced the historical line from Aeneas to Augustus, (derided by Seamus Heaney for its imperial certitude), both patron and poet were singing from the same hymn sheet.
The aforementioned theatrical reading of the hexameters before the imperial family is comically imagined by Graves – the yawning of the lascivious Livilla – for plot considerations, but in reality Octavia fainted at Virgil’s mention of her recently departed son, Marcellus.
Because of his patron, Virgil adopts an axiomatic connection in the Aeneid’s dozen books between the exiled Trojans and the early Romans, and the future Roman state the descendants of Aeneas are destined to found.
Seamus Heaney relates in Stepping Stones how Father Michael McGlinchey at school first referred to book VI of the Aeneid (book IX was the set text), in which the Sibyl of Cumae, a prophetess, takes Aeneas to the Underworld to see the spirits of the dead, including his father, and the yet unborn.
Aeneid Book VI, which Heaney had more or less finished at the time of his sudden death, mirrors the poet’s life-long love affair with and passion for the ancient text, the charged yearning of Fr. McGlinchy’s lament: ‘Och boys, I wish it were Book Six.’
“That was when the seed that would grow into this golden bough was first planted,” said Catherine Heaney at the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas in June. “I have said before that it became a kind of touchstone for him. He himself called it ‘a constant presence’ – and it was a text that he would return to time and again in his work and at pivotal moments in his life.”
How does Heaney cope with Virgil’s mellifluousness? Rather well, because he has to surmount the first and tallest hurdle, namely segueing the ancient corridor between Virgil’s time and ours’.
And thus the voice and the words are unquestionably Heaney’s: the dead Palinurus tells Aeneas-
‘Now surf keeps me dandled/The shore winds loll me and roll me.’ The choice of loll for somebody who has drowned is perfect, but only Heaney would have seen the connection. Palinurus, the trusty pilot, lolling involuntarily like a doomed ship.
In Edith Hamilton’s translation, the Sibyl warns Aeneas that the descent to the underworld is easy, but “to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven, that is labor indeed.” Heaney eschews elaboration: “But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air/That is the task, that is the undertaking.’
Many lines which float giddily on the memory are, admittedly, buoyed by effortless metaphorical dexterity:
In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold.
Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods
Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf.
Heaney once wrote that what the reader experiences in translation is radically and logically different from what the native speaker experiences, “phonetics and feelings being so intimately related in the human make-up.” He had a tendency to demur at the torpor of translation.
When Robert Lowell translated Homer’s The Killing of Lykaon, he viewed his task as one voice running through multiple personalities, and Heaney was an admirer of Lowell’s version of Brunetto Latini canto in Near The Ocean.
And at a reading by 17 poets of Heaney’s poems to mark his 70th birthday in Dun Laoghaire, the most memorable was the most moving and alos the only translation, Mid-Term Break read in Lithuanian by Tomas Venclova, a reminder that tone is everything in the writing of poetry.
And so it is with this translation of Aeneid VI, the verbal texture of Heaney (read aloud ‘The ravenous triple maw /Yawns open, snaffles the sop it has been thrown/ Until next thing the enormous flanks go slack) encapsulates Heaney’s attitude to telling a story of a yearned for encounter with a departed father.
But Aeneid Book VI is ‘neither a version nor a crib’, perhaps a form of homage, having drawn on Virgil’s last work following the death of his own father in 1986, and the birth of his first grand-child.
One section of the translation, The Golden Bough, opened Seeing Things in 1991, but in the last years of his life, having cleared the pitch for five decades, Heaney set upon the translation in its entirety.
Heaney believed that the poem arrived with self-consciousness giving way to self-forgetfulness: what I admire most about his Aeneid Book IV is the realisation that only because love is strong enough is the meeting brought about between father and son, between the living and the dead.