Dayna Stephens

 

Gratitude

 

Life changing moments are often the seed that produces the oak, and for tenor/baritone saxophonist Dayna Stephens it was his recovery from Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, a rare kidney disorder.

The sound is distinctly American – fluent harmonies and an all encompassing wall of sound feel – but more Pat Metheny, who contributes one of the tracks, We Had A Sister, than Phil Spector.

In recovery Stephens had ample time to assemble songs infused with the light of the sun rather than the dark side of the moon, songs that would edify and irradiate, from Aaron Parks’ In A Garden to Massimo Biolcati’s Clouds, with star turns from exceptional musicians throughout, including Brad Mehldau.

Naturally, Stephens’ lyrical sax takes centre stage, cogitative and reflective, pushing the melodies towards a conceptual end, a depth of gratitude which leap frogs the inescapable uncertainty of their provenance.

Some of the tracks are new and some are old, but they each have had a walk on role in Stephens’ career: Stephens has long appreciated the visual quality of Aaron Parks’ In A Garden, and he grew up with Metheny’s haunting We Had A Sister.

Clouds has its roots in the magical sonic world of producer Louis Cole, whereas the only Stephens-penned track, The Timbre of Gratitude, is a homage to compassion and inspiration, two wells Stephens returned to time and again during his illness.

His band tuned down their instruments to incorporate a tack piano they discovered while recording Woodside Waltz, while Amber is Falling, coming in at over eight minutes, encapsulates the essence of this breezy jazz outing.

 

 

Domenico Starnone

book cover

 

Ties

Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri 

What a pleasure, two fine writers for the price of one: a thirteenth novel from a contemporary Italian master of fiction, translated by a Pulitzer Prize winning short story maestro and novelist.

Ties has the physique of a novel attired as a novella, but irrespective of its length, the absence of mise-en-scenes and a cast list shorter than a one act play – husband, wife, two kids and a neighbour – its reach is epical.

The novel opens with an evidently distressed middle aged woman berating her husband and father of two children for succumbing to the charms of a much younger mistress. “You think of us as an illness that’s kept you from growing, and without us you hope to make up for it.”

But that is the past and the second part of this triptych opens with our couple much older, wiser and together: they are planning a rare vacation, which in itself becomes a catalyst for a random occurrence of events, or so it would seem.

Starnone is not big on description, and where Lahiri excels in her translation, because dialogue is brief, is replicating the tautness of each sentence, like a tight line in which angler and fish, author and reader, are engaged in an endless act of catch and release.

Often it is akin to looking hard at a Mark Rothko canvas, where nothing appears to be happening, but viscerally you sense the simple expression of a complex thought.

Not easy to conceive, but Starnone passes Lahiri the ball, and she runs with it. Their chemistry is at its most demonstrative in this memorable passage: “I savoured the fortune of being, for a good seventy-four years, a happy transmutation of the sidereal substance that roils in the furnace of the universe, a fragment of living thinking matter, without too many aches and pains to boot, and barely scathed, purely by chance, by misfortune.”

When Robert Lowell translated Giacomo Leopardi, his approach was to keep something of the fire and finish of the originals, whereas Tim Parks learned his trade translating sales brochures for banks.

Lahiri decided to distance herself from Italian, dismantling it and rendering it invisible, of intuiting the meaning of a text. Starnone can be Vivaldi one moment and Wagner the next, but in Lahiri’s dexterous grip the English is a swaying field of fecundity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fan Brothers/Helen Hancocks

ella

The Night Gardener

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Ella, Queen of Jazz

The Night Gardener and Ella, Queen of Jazz are exquisite publications, tactilely embroidered for those who love the physical feel of a book : both in hardback and suffused with  poetic or realistic illustrations – especially the former – these are books unafraid to permeate image and plain text with metaphor and the consequence of behaviour for their younger readers.

The Night Gardener by siblings Terry and Eric from Chicago, conjures the infectious magic of Raymond Biggs’ The Snowman, though the illustrations, rendered in graphite and coloured digitally, are significantly more detailed, specifically the nocturnal scenes and the almost Edwardian urban setting.

On Grimloch Lane, a mysterious gardener, working by moonlight like a nature loving Banksy, is turning trees into animal topiaries – a rabbit, a cat, a parakeet, an owl – magnificent arboreal masterpieces, which prompt an outburst of celebration among the villagers.

The brothers Fan achieve a notable efflorescence of colour ironically once the seasons change, and autumn denudes the trees of their verdancy, but it is – for the reader – a lesson in the nature of ephemera.

Ella, Queen of Jazz, has a more serious story to relate in that the racism which threatens to derail Ella Fitzgerald’s burgeoning career in a West Hollywood night club, the Mocambo, is stymied by the intervention of Marilyn Monroe.

Hancocks’ illustrations,  crayon, watercolour, ink and pen, combined digitally, capture the ambience of a multi-cultural society on the cusp of huge change, and Fitzgerald’s story is recalled almost like a comic strip.

Published to coincide with the centenary of Fitzgerald’s birth, Hancocks addresses a serious issue which afflicted black musicians on the East and West Coasts when bebop was revolutionising jazz like Fitzgerald, Miles David, John Coltrane and, tragically, Billie Holliday, who was arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed as she lay dying.

Ella, Queen of Jazz has an important story to tell, and Hancocks does it without excessive piety.

Kari Ikonen

 

Kari Ikonen

Ikonostasis

 Tracks one to five on this taut recording become increasingly longer, from the 37 second Toccatina to  Biangular and Sacrement, both breaking the four minute sound barrier.

 The brevity creates the impression of seamless transitions, but don’t be fooled: each track is an entity of its own, with an independent orbit.

 It happens that you are not gifted with the sense of an ending, for this quartet is ruthless when it decides to bring to a close what is an experimental filtering of sounds.

Like cutting a short story in mid-flow. Perhaps cutting is too serrated. Maybe editing. The experimenting which suffuses the early numbers, can be seen as a kind of foreplay, an illuminative prelude to this recording’s spine, Trinity, which comes in at almost a quarter of an hour.

 Rather than speculate on what Ikonostasis is, it makes more sense to understand the approach by Kari Ikonen, and how an introvert expansion – imagine amorphous cycles where emotional introspection and stylistic expansion are complimentary – is a fluid foundation for collaborators Ra-Kalam Bob Moses (drums), Mathias Eick (trumpet) and Louis Sclavis (bass clarinet) to do their thing. And they do it very well.

With Trinity, the delicate trumpet melodies and dreamy piano chords are sucked under by currents in slow motion: imagine a profusion of notes cantering like a mare against a head wind, and then suddenly set loose.

 This is music of the unexpected, a series of independent essences which have their own thermals and, occasionally, there is a coming together of harmony. The album’s gestation (recorded here and there, according to Ikonen) between June 2014 and October 2016, suggests an enforced hiatus.

Not so. Ikonen is a busy chap and his polymathic knowledge of contemporary music, including p-funk and the avant garde on this outing, gifts the listener a voyage from one landscape to another, such as the Persian delights of Catubada de Teheran.

The New York Standards Quartet

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Sleight of Hand

 
It’s now approaching twelve years since the New York Standards Quartet (NYSQ) came into being, its core personnel taking time out from their multifarious individual projects to revel in the shared brief of refashioning familiar and lesser- known jazz standards.

Their new release Sleight of Hand builds on their five previous albums (most recently, The New Straight Ahead and Power of 10, on Whirlwind) as saxophonist Tim Armacost, pianist David Berkman and drummer Gene Jackson welcome double bassist Daiki Yasukagawa back into the fold.

 Sleight of Hand refers to the group’s alchemy and chemistry, achieved through twelve years of touring and recording together, so there’s a common bond, which brings out the best in the arrangements they conjure.

Recorded close to Mount Fuji, Sleight of Hand’s eight numbers reflect the band’s spontaneous, transformational approach, with the title track (based on Gershwin’s But Not For Me) irresistibly playful.

Mal Waldron’s Soul Eyes and Thelonious Monk’s Ask Me Now swing with respective vibrancy and jauntiness, while the metrical changes and perky rhythms of This I Dig of You pick up on Hank Mobley’s classic Blue Note album origins.

The various key modulations in Lover Man are a world away from Billie Holiday’s lingering vocal lines as Armacost’s spritely soprano responds swiftly to Jackson’s syncopated drum accents.

1940s song Detour Ahead – perhaps mostly familiar in composer Herb Ellis’s guitar setting – translates into a luscious tenor and piano-led ballad, sensitively buoyed by Yasukagawa’s bass shaping; Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn favourite I Fall In Love Too Easily is treated to sparkling, percussion-led animation, and Armacost’s rich tenor lyricism in Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood is ravishingly restrained.

Andree A. Michaud

 

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Boundary

 

Move over Nordic noir, the Canadians are coming !

It is an understated fact that so often in modern crime fiction, with books by the bucket-load appearing fortnightly, that style is the accepted collateral of a plot as fluid as a rushing stream.

There are notable exceptions, Andree A. Michaud for one.

Michaud, multi-award winning author of ten novels, is not in a hurry, and her sentences turn into paragraphs pregnant with the shifting contours of mood.

And though the sun shines brightly over Boundary Pond, a holiday haven in the late 1960’s on the US Canadian Border, it is an illusion, for the tight knitted community is being stalked by a killer with a lust for the blood of teenage girls.

And whilst they lark about during the summer of love, belting out A Whiter Shade of Pale and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds with flowers and whatnot in their hair, a more appropriate soundtrack for Michaud’s turf is The End by The Doors.

For in Boundary Pond there is a killer on the road, and he lurks in the woods, which offers both refuge and sustenance. You can live off what the woods has to offer, but only those on the margins of Boundary choose to.

Like Pierre Landry, or war veteran Little Hawk, who survived the bloody Omaha Beach landing, and at some time or another were cloistered by the embrace of the wild.

Meanwhile, Michaud’s protagonists are not whisky-swilling loners bent over crosswords in a back street dive, listening to Wagner or Stan Getz, or sleepwalking out of another marriage. Stan Michaud, in charge of the police investigation, is determined ‘to knock on every door and to grill every last halfwit in Boundary’, for he has an acute grasp of the perils which young women expose themselves to.

Despite the obstacles –bilingualism, hostile terrain – what motivates him is a personal sense of duty to get to the bottom of the unpremeditated murder of Zaza Mulligan, by someone whose skill set includes trekking and setting traps.

And then Zaza’s best friend disappears: the randomness of the teenager’s brutal murder now acquires a more purposeful bent.

Murder and abduction aside, nothing much happens in this place, bordered by a lake and mountains, but Michaud’s prose excels in the vacuum of the ordinary, excels in the minutiae of the commonplace, where violence is a geyser in waiting.