The Harbour Master
The discovery of a sex worker’s corpse in Amsterdam harbour opens a Pandora’s box of troubles for detective Henk van der Pol, who is closing in on retirement after 30 years of solid service with the police.
The problem with Henk who is based at the IJ Tunnel 3 station, and the source of the antipathy between himself and his superiors, including the blatantly ambitious Sebastiaan Bergveeld, is his curiosity.
He doesn’t let sleeping dogs lie, and inevitably his wrecking ball approach to following up leads both antagonises the criminal underworld with ties to Hungary, and ruffles the preened feathers of the political and police elite.
It is not, fortunately for the reader, in Henks’ nature to look the other way, although his journalist wife and student daughter, Nadia and Petra, must often wish that he would refrain from bringing his work home – which is a barge – or on holiday – Brussels.
Labelled by some as the Henning Mankell of Amsterdam, Daniel Pembrey, who grew up in Nottinghamshire and divides his time between London and Amsterdam, hasn’t lumbered Henk van der Pol with the introspection or the Scandinavian angst of Inspector Wallander. Henk van der Pol, au contraire, is reasonably content with his lot, and his only vice is the odd beer and dodgy choice of music.
The essence of a crime novel is the intricate web of intrigue and mystery which untangles with the closing of each chapter, and Pembrey does so with guile.
The Harbour Master reads as two short novels segued by a common thread: in this instance, the Tozser brothers, on a collision course with Van der Pol once he sticks his nose into their hobbies: prostitution, blackmail, fraud, extortion and intimidation. They are, however, mere seeds in a plot which, a few deaths later, spreads like ink on cotton.
A stolen painting, the murder of a diplomat, the kidnapping of a politician, the fate of a blood diamond and a woman beaten black and blue in a hotel, conspire to remove Van der Pol from the insufferable claustrophobia of Amsterdam’s Rosse Burt, and an international dimension is added to his probing.
More seedy than dangerous, unless you are one of the barely clad unfortunates behind a window being ogled by tourists, the Rosse Burt is never in danger of being a scene stealer whenever Pembrey the stylist unpeels Amsterdam, but you can see the promise of this notorious district in future Van der Pol investigations. For most of this engaging novel, Henk van der Pol is on a fast moving train without brakes, short of likeminded colleagues but not friends, and his denouement in The Harbour Master is handled with aplomb by Pembrey.
Monk Dreams Hallucinations and Nightmares
Like snowflakes spinning through the universe, the ten tracks on Monk Dreams Hallucinations and Nightmares have their own individual signature, a texture precious to behold because of the feelings and shapes which emanate from this homage to the creative genius of Thelmonious Monk, in this the centenary of his birth.
The breadth of this recording, as an instrument of elucidating what modern jazz is capable of, is encyclopedic; you can discover how a metrically unsettled tempo returns with cascading figures in counterpoint (Dry Bean Stew); want to know how a few more sixths in mixed winds can end a harmonic piece in ritardando, check out International Man of Mystery, or if you are curious about what it means to mix reckless abandon with breathless woodwinds and relentless brass, spend time with You Dig.
Accompanying this attractively packaged CD is the most expository of insights into the genesis and execution of each track, all original bar the closing Round Midnight which, because of its enduring appeal and association with Monk, is given a very original interpretation here, with the changing of gears from a hush to a roar richly orchestrated by the large band.
At the helm is Frank Carlberg, who set out with Monk Dreams Hallucinations and Nightmares to come up with new perspectives on Monk’s music and on compositions for large jazz ensemble in general, through balancing improvisational impulses with exciting orchestral and structural designs. Thus with Rhymes there are many allusions to Monk-like shapes in the music by the horn section, and Carlberg throws into the mix some poetry by Clark Coolridge read by Paul Lichter.
Monk Dreams Hallucinations and Nightmares is not intended by Carlberg as a tribute album, but rather as a celebration of the beauty and vitality of his music that has had the most impact on him as a musician: others have free scope here to make their mark, like Brian Landrus on clarinet on A Darker Shade of Blue Light, John Carlson on trumpet on Dry Bean Stew and Johannes Weidenmuller on bass on Rhymes.
Is the best kept for last? Not strictly true, but Round Midnight bookends the collection with Carlberg’s ‘compositional transformation’ of the original, and is worth skipping to for Kirk Knuffe’s solo on cornet, a wonderfully sustained breath of brilliance. If eleven minutes is too long and you only have half the time to sample the brilliance of Monk Dreams Hallucinations and Nightmares, then stick on You Dig when you hop out of bed. It ain’t rocket science: you gotta dig this stuff.
As is the norm with many of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, the provenance tells a different story. So it is with Blue Poles, the stand out painting in the current exhibition devoted to American expressionism at the Royal Academy in London. Pollock was not in the habit of giving names to his drip technique paintings, so Blue Poles started out as Number 11 when it was conceived in 1952. Two years later, Pollock had a change of heart and it became Blue Poles. It was acquired by a museum in Australia in the early 1970’s, and there it has remained until it popped up in this show, perhaps the most important in the Academy since the turn of the century. It’s absolutely huge – five metres long – and is veined by every method of casting paint onto a canvas, a visual translation of a score inspired by, perhaps, Charlie Parker. This is one of those mercurial works that you simply don’t look at, but look into, and breathes the essence of Pollock. And if you like Blue Poles, you should after skip across the road to the Blue Posts hostelry for a sundowner.
School of Velocity
Unusually for me, I finished School of Velocity, all 224 pages of straightforward prose, where each word is as important as a note on a staff, in one sitting, a tribute to the author’s dexterous handling of the potential minefield of music as overarching metaphor in fiction.
But Rubin wears his knowledge of classical music lightly, with the expertise of Tom Wolfe incorporating space technology in The Right Stuff, so that fiction is so deftly embroidered by fact that pianist Jan de Vries, who is in the prime of his career when a major setback occurs, could be mistaken for a genuine Columbia recording hopeful.
That he isn’t is due to Rubin’s skill in making the music and its colourful appendage of descriptions and definitions a slave to the story, which, though decades pass, is suffused by the presence, real and imagined, of the mercurial Dirk Noosen, whose walk-on role during Jan’s lonely adolescence is a shadow which long outlives the light which spawned it.
Dirk, who gets the best dialogue, is not as fully fleshed out as Jan, for it is unlikely that the narrative arc, especially when the latter is crippled by auditory hallucinations and his career as a performing artist suffers, could have borne the weight of both. So we see the charismatic and mysterious Dirk through the eyes of Jan, with whom we are on intimate terms, because he is as self-revelatory as Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Brilliantly but tactfully, as we revisit the pianist’s bitter-sweet memories of unresolved encounters with his adolescent soulmate, Rubin strips the gloss from Dirk for the reader long before Jan sees the woods for the trees.
Or does he? Is it the author’s intention that the profligate Dirk is a Dutch Sebastian Flyte to the aesthetic Jan’s Charles Ryder, where whatever once bound them together is never clearly defined. After all, one swallow does not a summer make.
Luminously unfolded until the surprising denouement, this is a novel about the repercussions of repression and a lifetime of regret, and the volatility of revisiting unanswered questions and unspoken passions.
There is on Corea Change a glorious double bass run by Andrew Robb intertwined by the machinations of Konrad Wiszniewski’s sax, brought to an abrupt conclusion by Euan Stevenson’s piano, which in fact bookends the number, encapsulating all that is magnificent about this second release from New Focus.
Throughout there is pure jazz, both sax and piano trading blows while knitted by a phenomenally paced bass, with Wiszniewski playing out of his skin. Now listen to the tracks on either side of Corea Change, Ascension and Braeside.
Ascension opens with a funereal violin before it is elevated by The Glasgow String Quartet, a tune that wouldn’t be out of place on an Ealing Studio soundtrack of the 1940’s, plaintively atmospheric and distinct from Corea Change.
Braeside is quintessentially chamber music, not dissimilar in tone or pace to Ascension, but the hallmark of On Song, with 13 original compositions, with the String Quartet featured on eight, is the juxtaposition of many styles, predominantly jazz and classical, and the ebullience of the playing, which is always infectious.
You are not always gifted with a successful mix of the sombre and joie de vivre whenever a tenor sax and a quartet of strings get into the ring together, but here it works, time and again. Perhaps the reason is to be found in the almost sonata-like approach to the compositions:exposition, development, and recapitulation, in which the opening sequence is stated, then expanded, and finally restated.
On Song is an experience for the adventurous ear. Stevenson and Wiszniewski make for a chilled pairing, and the benefits of the collaboration are omnipresent: take Green Park where the flute and sax are gilded by the thrusting but evenly paced energy of the quartet. Destination Unknown follows and Stevenson’s piano saves it from rambling into middle of the road turf, with Wiszniewski’s swooping sax capriciously playful as a feather lost in rising thermals.
There is an articulate cohesiveness to On Song, a melting pot of jazz idioms and classical nuances, but what is finally memorable is the improvisatory freshness, the wellspring of familiarity, the coalition of many forces, a canvas which can accommodate both lightning speed bass and weightless sax, and which, to be frank, makes for a charming encounter.