Saturday 31 January 2015

Eric Vloeimans & Residentie Orchestra: concert review

Saturday 24 January in The Hague, Netherlands

I have caught odd glimpses of  Eric Vloeimans  on Dutch tv and I looked up a few of his videos before going to the concert and there are 2 things I knew were guaranteed: brightly coloured clothes and superb trumpet playing.

The great man did not disappoint on either count: his flowery shirt would not have been out of place in Carnaby Street in the 60’s but I’m not saying whether that’s a good thing or not. His trumpet playing is the stuff that dreams are made of: a warm sound, incredible technique and an excellent tone even in the very high register.

This concert took place in a live music venue which is more used to being frequented by people less than half my age who go there to get their ears wrecked by over loud dance music and their heads wrecked by chemical substances.  Most of the audience had to strain to get half a glimpse of the stage, and we were standing. All part of a worthy attempt by the city’s symphony orchestra to reach out to the community. A great idea, but if you have a symphony concert with a guest soloist who is heading for his 60s you attract an audience with an average age of 55+ who struggled up the stairs and all looked pretty miffed when we realized the few chairs available had been snapped up by those who had nothing better to do with their Saturdays than bag a seat 45 minutes before curtain up. Well there was no curtain and there wasn’t really room for all the players on stage, they looked really uncomfortable and it was a crush for the conductor and soloist to get to their places. I can’t help thinking we might as well have all been more comfortable in the orchestra’s base, the concert hall a few moments’ bike ride away.

Vloeiman is unusual as a jazz musician in that he tends to avoid playing standards and prefers to mainly play his own music. He’s doubly unusual in that his compositions use a diatonic language with melodies which are reminiscent of folk songs, rather than a jazz vocabulary. As a listener the sensation is of listening to film music which ranged from the plain to he pretty to the exquisitely beautiful, and which is enlivened in its better moments by the soloist’s inspired interjections.

On this occasion we heard, among others, Evensong Part 1 and Imaginings. At the end of the programme he played piece called something like Song for Syria which rose to a higher level of intensity, and the encore was a piece called Lex. From what I could understand of his introduction this piece is inspired by the story of a survivor of the concentration camps who was kept alive because he entertained the prison guards with his trumpet music. Vloeiman made use of his lovely range of tone production which includes a breathy effect reminiscent of the sound of a bass flute. At the end of Lex the breathiness becomes total and the sound disappears altogether: a very moving tribute to a war victim and an emotional end to the concert.
In between we heard 2 of Satie’s Gymnopedies. I can’t see the point of making chocolate box ad style arrangements of these pieces which Eric Satie wrote for the piano, but there certainly was an Oooooooh at the end which shows it touched the tickly bits of many of the (older) audience around me. There is no accounting for taste. I kept wishing for some of the jazz energy and power which I heard in Madrid at a concert in 2012 of Satie’s music by the   Afrodisian Orchestra  directed by Miguel Angel Blanco. Now that was jazz!

I felt sorry for the players of the Residentie Orchestra for 2 reasons while I was waiting for the concert to start. Firstly, because they had no room to breathe, and secondly, I felt especially for the 2 trumpeters. How does it feel to share the stage with such a luminary? In the end, from the first orchestral trumpet notes, played with mutes in Evensong Part 1, to the triumphal tones in Song for Syria, the trumpeters in the orchestra were superb, as were the rest of the players.

When I first came to the Netherlands I found the custom of having long speeches to introduce concerts really irritating. Now that I understand more of the language I find the custom even more irritating. On this occasion there was a presenter who had prepared a Prezi that included photos and some music video clips. He came up with some names which took us all the way back to the beginnings of the crossover of jazz to classical and so on, as he thought. The quick review included the Swingle Singers: high on search engines now because of the recent death of their founder. Unfortunately the main point of showing  a clip of their music seemed to be to smirk at their 60’s hair styles and clothes, not to recognize the significance of Swingle’s great achievement in making contemporary arrangements of classical music.

This historical resume took us so far back in history that we got all the way to the 60’s: 1960’s. Sadly, no mention of Scott Joplin, Ragtime pianist who composed an opera in that style, or Duke Ellington, who in 1929 was writing extended jazz pieces in a symphonic style such as Black & Tan Fantasy.  I suppose his presentation was there for entertainment rather than to inform, but still …..

I have shown Mr Vloeiman´s excellent clip with the Holland Baroque Orchestra several times this week and the young students have really enjoyed the music and admired his wonderful playing. It´s a moving connection of contemporary jazz with a simple accompaniment played on Baroque era instruments, plus accordion.  You can find the link on his web site.

Anyway, I was thinking about Joplin and Ellington and the origins of jazz in the USA and my mind went back to a concert in Madrid years ago, 10 years or more, by Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra.  What a fascinating night it would be to put together Marsalis and Vloeiman on stage. They are almost the same age, born in 1961 and 1963, both are working in extended forms in a classical sense, and both of course are superb jazz trumpeters. What a tantalizing prospect!

If it ever happens, Mr Vloeiman will have to ditch the flowery shirt: from what I have seen, Mr Marsalis doesn´t play the trumpet better, but he has a much more classy wardrobe.

Monday 12 January 2015

Mak Wolven & The Insiders: The Lowland Years cd

Youtube brings us new stars every day, Twitter brings new trends every 5 minutes, and new styles seem to disappear almost before anyone knows how to spell them. Isn´t it good to know there are people around who not only know how to hold their instruments, they´ve been playing them so long they´ve become part of their persona.

All this and more went through my mind last weekend in The Hague watching some old friends do what they do best: making music. When I say old friends I wish I could say old in the sense that we´ve known each other for decades. This is not true: I have only know Mak and one of his Insiders, John, for 3 years. So, yes, it´s old in the number of years on the planet sense.  Nothing to complain about there as Mak has spent these long years in many places doing many things, but always playing the music he loves most: Americana and country. The brand new cd, The Lowland Years, is a celebration of Mak´s years in the Netherlands and is also a distillation of his life experience. Mak has this music flowing in his veins, he has stories to tell, and a wonderful team of musicians around him to brings his songs to life.

Mak´s songs are beautiful and simple. Like the best country music, everything is there to tell a story. This means the arrangements have to be clean in their making and in their execution and they have to be detailed so that the most significant moments in the story are pointed up and highlighted.  Like the best country music there is a sense of economy. You don´t need a 50 piece orchestra washing around you and you don´t need a horn section covering up your tracks. Mak & The Insiders have all they need in a compact band who make a tight sound that is clean as a whistle: rhythm guitar, lead, bass and pedal  steel or slide guitar and percussion.

For the launch gig, John played caj√≥n to fit onto the limited stage area of   Foots music bar  and I have heard  him play drum kit enough times to know  that if he had had room for a kit he would have brought endless jewels of detail, interesting fills and rhythmic interest without ever overpowering the voice.
The cover painting, shown here, is from View of The Hague from the Southeast by Jan van Goyen ca. 1650 – 51, from the Haags Historisch Museum in The Hague.

I hope Mak will let me know his Soundcloud tag so that you can hear his music. Watch this space.

Thanks to Mak Wolven & The Insiders for a great cd, a fun afternoon at the bar, and for stimulating my reflections on newness, age and greatness.

Sunday 11 January 2015

Liverpool by Ken Pye: book review

The full title of this 2014 book, published by   Amberley Books , is Liverpool, the rise, fall and renaissance of a world-class city.  

Author   Ken Pye Ken Pye describes himself as:  

“a born-and-bred Liverpudlian: I am deeply proud of this fact, and of my wonderful home and its very diverse people. I have a very happy home, shared with my family and friends, and life is always full and fun. Professionally too, my life is rewarding and joyful:
This is because Liverpool has an outstanding history, and is a dynamic, creative, world-class City that is currently undergoing a major renaissance. I am fortunate in that I am in a position to continually contribute to this wonderful evolution.”

This positive attitude is the overriding characteristic of his book: there is no doubt that we are reading the work of an absolute fan of the city.

This book is useful on many levels: as a general history of England it traces the foundation of Liverpool in 1207 in King John´s reign and even goes further back to the French, Viking and Roman invaders who all contributed to make the city what it is today. It serves as a reminder of the terrible suffering inflicted on Britain during the second world war: you can see fragments of this episode in British history in the new film The Imitation Game. As a social history of the last quarter of the 20th century it is especially valuable as Mr Pye not only lived in Liverpool but was a social worker directly involved in trying to maintain peace in a society driven apart by political dogma on many sides.

Mr Pye and I were both born in Liverpool: he is just  a few years older than me so many of his memories are also mine. Many of his personal experiences ring true with my own. On the other hand, he stayed in the city whereas I left aged 18 and have returned only sporadically for family visits.

Like Mr Pye, I think of Liverpool people as being hardworking and generous: I remember being told how my great grandmother and her neighbours cleaned not just their own home but also scrubbed the pavement in the street in front of their terraced home: I remember that my grandfather opened his newsagents shop at 5.30 in the morning then went to do a day´s work in a factory in Speke and joined my grandmother to lock up the shop at 8 in the evening.

So, like Mr Pye, I wondered why the perception of the city around Britain was so poisoned. I remember going to a job interview in the south of England in the 80’s where the regional manager of a certain retail company was surprised that I turned up on time and dressed in a suit. He said he thought all Liverpool people were just layabouts and trouble makers and what a nice change it was to see someone like me.  I remember one of the few occasions in my life when I felt in danger of physical attack was in the early 80´s when I was with some friends in the south of England and they were infuriated that the “mad and crooked” leaders of the Liverpool city council were sending redundancy notices to council workers by taxi: as if I was responsible for this evil madness.

Those were very dark days indeed.

Mr Pye describes the dark days and is much better qualified than me to attribute blame and identify those responsible. Read his account and weep.

On a lighter note, I almost laughed aloud when I got to page 86 and the quote that Queen Victoria visited Liverpool in 1851 and declared that she had “never before seen together so large a number of well dressed gentlemen”. I am constantly astonished at how seriously the younger Liverpool people today take their appearance and this quote made me realize it is not a new phenomenon.


Mr Pye lists many innovations which were unique to the city of Liverpool. It is impossible to list them here: you should read the book to make the most of them. I can only mention as  examples the world´s first ever commercial wet dock and the introduction of the steam railway engines, tried out in Liverpool in the great age of inventors and entrepreneurs.

 Mr Pye is quite right to highlight the renaissance of Liverpool in the first decade of this century. He traces this back to the impact of the International Garden Festival in 1984, the nomination of Liverpool as European City of Culture in 2008, and the fact that Liverpool was the only English city to be represented at the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010.

In 1984 I was living in south London and I met a retired couple from California who had come to London on their way to Liverpool. Imagine my surprise that anyone would come all the way from the USA to visit Liverpool. Yet it was true: in the end I arranged for them to stay with my parents and they became long lasting friends who went back to California telling everyone what a beautiful city Liverpool was, thanks in large part to the Garden Festival.

In February 2010 I was working in Madrid in Spain and I attended a  conference  on social inclusion in music education. The presentation by Peter Garden, representing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, was outstanding both in the sheer quantity of actions initiated by his team and by the quality of their results. His presentation stood head and shoulders above every other speaker that day and made it clear to all those present that Liverpool was a city to be listened to. One phrase of his that struck a chord was that the RLPO orchestra “played the soundtrack to the 2008 European Cultural Capital”.   

In 2010 I was in China in the summer to speak at an education   conference   in    Beijing   and was able to visit  the World Expo in Shanghai. When I visited the Liverpool pavilion I was overwhelmed by the upbeat, positive image shown in the video and in the photo presentations. The funny thing was that when I talked to the university students who were manning the stand they said that it was only the old Liverpool people like me who were surprised: to everyone else this vibrant, forward-looking image was just what they expected from modern Liverpool.   

So, thank you, Mr Pye, for this really interesting book. If you asked me what could be added I would ask for more about the  Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra , a jewel in the city´s crown.

 Finally,  here is a question: in the story of Liverpool´s renaissance Mr Pye details how the figure of Michael (Lord) Heseltine plays a crucial role. If Liverpool´s story were to be played out in 2015 who would play the role of Minister for Liverpool?  Who among the current cabinet would be interested enough in a failing city in the north-west of England to spend time, energy and political capital on finding a solution? It´s a chilling thought. 


Here is the site for Liverpool tourist information