Sunday, March 16, 2008

pearls before swine

charles gayle trio
(plus support)
baltica, london ec4
sunday 18th november (london jazz festival)

the scene
: back in london for the second time this year, i emerged from the tube (newish train, still grotty-looking) into a station which possibly wasn't even built when my wife and i moved away: blackfriars, on the (extended) jubilee line... the long staircase and escalator climb up out of the tunnels beneath imposing slabs of bare stone, clean-lined blocks forming an impressive but rather unwelcoming vault above our insignificant heads... we are in metropolis... this is an area of london steeped in history; also one which (despite the "east end" connotations) is steeped in money. and which of the two would you guess is more apparent to me, as i step outside to be slapped in the face by the wet chill of a london november night?

atanase arrives promptly and the venue is right there. it's a restaurant, i knew that already. it's just round the corner, not quite opposite but the awning is within sight of the tube. no tickets, atanase just gives his name and they check us off a printout, issue a piece of paper and someone shows us to a table very close to the "stage". thus far it really isn't looking like my kind of place but, y'know, we came here for the music not the ambience.

in my naivete i was yet to experience the horror of being in a place where most patrons have the exact opposite intention. (yes, my experience of live jazz is that limited - the last time i saw it in this sort of environment, i was nineteen going on twenty, a student, and the band were friends of mine.)

* * *

we're treated to a little speech in celebration of the owner (delighted to be involved with the london jazz festival, as no doubt he might be with a room full of people) before we even get to the music. and the irritating m.c. - introduced as richard strange, as if he were the one and only of that name and surely well known to us all - makes the first of several references to how much of a true giant mr gayle is, giant being an overused word, and all that. but no-one in this yuppie place (do excuse my outdated social slur, i have no idea what one would say nowadays, thankfully) looks as if they are likely to have sat through a charles gayle album ever. in fact, as regards the (highly visible) patrons and staff, and also most of the other diners, you must be kidding. mike figgis is sitting motionless and expressionless with a friend at another table. he, one presumes, is here for the music; but it's impossible to tell what he thinks, as he literally scarcely moves a (facial) muscle throughout.

richard strange is long and thin with a hooked nose and black hat... just to make sure we all know he's a bona fide jazz eccentric. he slickly introduces the first set, a piano trio whose names are, regrettably, lost in my memory somewhere; a young japanese woman leading from the piano stool, two serious-looking black dudes on bass and traps, none of them looking like london trendies; this set, little did i know it, was to prove the high-point of my evening, in terms of unspoiled enjoyment: atanase and i both thought it was pretty good, it not being the sort of thing either of us would usually choose to listen to. the pianist writes her own music (drummer spent 90% of the time with his eyes rivetted to the score, occasionally glancing across at the piano - can't recall now if the bassist was reading or not), but she finished with a playfully reharmonised "take five", looking up with an inviting smile on her face as she introduced the theme, yet not actually making eye contact with any of her audience, so that the smile had time to grow vague before she plunged back to the keyboard... she played hard, which is probably what both atanase and i liked about her - surprisingly powerful, which is just as well since, whoever she is, she's bound to end up getting compared with satoko fujii and/or aki takase.

so far so good... things took a downturn (for us... i know that at least one person enjoyed the next lot) with the second group, led by the young russian expat zheniya strigalyev, who plays alto sax and writes, and is evidently the darling and/or discovery of the (expat) proprietors. this group, at least, had direct links to the media-fêted london jazz scene in the shape of (f-ire collective) keyboardist nick ramm. and what a motley crew the others were: basically a sextet (inc. a tenor player who took no solos and looked as if he'd been dragged off a park bench somewhere to make the gig), the group became a quartet for the second (?) number and a septet for two, with the addition of an immaculately-dressed hepcat who played pretty good trombone but uttered the most platitude-ridden, by-the-numbers vocals (either scatting ridiculously or spouting the sort of "hey everybody, things are bad, we gotta love each other and be nice" nonsense which is supposed to get the crowd going... and, depressingly, it did, partly no doubt because the guy was black and therefore cool and beyond reproach - oops, did i say that out loud? sorry, we don't talk about that sort of thing in polite britain, it might lead liberals to uncomfortable self-discoveries)... atanase went so far as to use the word "disgrace" about halfway through this set, and it would have been hard to disagree. everything about it was smug, easy, thrown together to please a brainless, air-kissing crowd and make them all feel good about themselves. the most depressing aspect of the whole performance is that the leader himself blows a pretty fair, dolphyish alto, with a powerful sound and the germ of his own style, yet his writing (for this band at least) is simply the same post-post-modern chucked-together genre-hopping crap that the capital's media types are pimping week in, week out at the moment... the only trace of strigalyev's own heritage was the "standard" (my companion recognised this as a russian folk tune), which was also, far from coincidentally, the most convincing number in the set. and apart from that, it's difficult to be sure which of the following left the worst taste in my mouth: the blandness, the smug, self-congratulatory feel of the whole thing... or the way in which the audience lapped it up.

still, who cares about any of that, we still had charles gayle to come, both of us pretty excited about this since neither of us had seen him before... this was gayle's own trio, not the ad-hoc group which had toured the uk, a matter of weeks previously; and that in turn led to hopes that the leader might have brought his tenor with him on this occasion... unfortunately not. still, the fact that the man himself took the stage with his white alto was not a major disappointment: gayle in the flesh, just a few feet away from me, was very striking and visually quite magnetic, though his sly-eyed drummer michael wimberley gives him plenty of competition in that regard; bassist gerald benson (? i think) remains diffident and unassuming throughout, but in any case it's the leader to whom the eye keeps returning. knowing inevitably some key details of gayle's life story, i find it impossible not to look at him as if the years of homelessness, or perhaps the years since, or maybe both, have somehow burned away all that was impure within him, leaving only that which is true and essential, a most remarkable appearance which brought the word "saint" irresistibly to mind - seriously. this is the first time that has ever happened to me upon encountering another human being. [the full resonance of this "saint" business will not be clear until i run the sonny simmons piece!]

i felt suddenly privileged to be in the same room as this man. (i was stone cold sober for this concert btw.) and never mind m.c. strange with his unctuous and empty-sounding homily ("charles gayle truly is a giant of jazz")... never mind that the owners and management would probably be happy with another set from the "local" boy... beyond the restaurant area, plenty of people are up against the mezzanine balcony, clearly here for the gig not the food - surely the audience would see this remarkable man and want to listen to him? but that's the problem... though some of us did, we were in the minority, at least down the front; and the chit-chat started so soon and so loudly, there was no getting away from it, and it totally ruined the performance for me.

or rather, it ruined my experience of it: in theory i might yet remove some of my own negative associations, and thus re-experience the performance... trouble is, it wasn't just me who noticed. gayle did too - could tell very early on that although there were listeners out there, the venue itself, the occasion, was simply too caught up in its own beauty and smugness to notice he was even there, never mind hear his music. as a result, he made no direct effort to communicate at all; atanase, after watching him very closely for the first couple of numbers (i was terribly distracted, he less so), murmured to me that gayle was disappearing entirely inside himself as he played... and one could hardly blame him.

somehow he did manage to play, without really being fully present among us: the alto playing was frequently beautiful (when i could force myself to concentrate for a while), the piano playing knotty yet strangely beautiful too; and there was no faulting the band: benson had the nervous, sensitive look of a horse almost, fine-featured and with a string-player's delicate fingers - he seemed at times embarrassed to be there, so shy was his manner but there was certainly nothing wrong with his playing, which was supple and supportive throughout; wimberley seemed to be having a whale of a time, enjoying the playing, whipping the music along - and casting frequent sidelong glances at his leader. this, though, was showmanship, playing to the gallery: wimberley, in a sort of african pyjama suit (best guess!), was very comfortable indeed, alone among the players in that respect, and his sly glances were really just photo-ops, since one imagines he must have seen the disappearing act any number of times in places such as this, and would know by now that that's the last we'd see of mr gayle until the music stopped.

by midway through the set i was fantasising about ordering a jug of water, then stepping a few paces over to our right and throwing it in the faces of the two young women behind my companion's shoulder: "beautiful people" both, one blonde and english, one eurasian, both female, chattily engrossed in each other's radiant company in a manner which (in retrospect) seems to me to sum up perfectly the whole place: completely shallow, completely hollow, obsessed entirely with the paper-thin veneer that is its own glossy being. i really was so carried away at times with this fantasy that i had to force myself to think about the consequences, to realise that if i did what i really, really wanted to do, the resulting disruption would scarcely improve the ambience and would simply result in my own ejection forthwith... it was maddening, sickening, ultimately just depressing (in a way i could never have foreseen: looking back, the whole experience cast a long shadow over the next month or so).

well, the set ended after maybe an hour..? who knows, i was hardly a reliable judge of anything at that point. and the players vanished behind the white wall at the end of the room; and the audience duly remembered their required roles as sea-lions (the two women "multi-tasking" by not interrupting their fascinating conversation), so that when m.c. strange stepped back up and reminded us that it was our decision whether or not to have more music, everyone was unanimous that they wanted more of what they hadn't been listening to. so the band reappeared; gayle sat at the piano and played his version of "naima", locked away in himself all the while; then, as the question hovered of whether or not to play the alto again, he looked briefly out at no-one in particular, with a look that said the same as his face had said all evening, on the rare occasions (between songs) that he deigned to be among us: and the look said anything i might tell you would be wasted, and it left me feeling sad and angry and ashamed.

and so charles gayle stood up, and the band left, to more vacuous applause... wimberley, leaving the "stage", was greeted ostentatiously by our hostess (either the manageress, proprietor, who knows or cares), kissed on both cheeks in such a way as to ensure that the whole room saw it - it has to be said he didn't look too discomfited. and that is about all i remember; the experience of leaving a place which i hope never to revisit has been mercifully erased from my memory.


centrifuge said...

ok, maybe the photo looks a bit melodramatic... i'm looking to the same source each time, so it's often a question of "nearest match" ;-)

nevertheless you can be sure i'm not exaggerating about my reactions to the gig (or to the audience and venue). actually, getting this article written has been a total pain - which is why it's taken so very long to do it. only in the last few days has it finally occurred to me that i didn't get round to writing it because i didn't want to land myself back with all the emotions i went through at the time...

...possibly the experience from the back of the venue was totally different..? but then you're still stuck with the plain fact that gayle apparently wanted no part of it. well... like i say, i don't blame him.

sonny simmons/tight meat article will follow soon! really..!

david_grundy said...

thanks for finally getting this written up, cent! it does indeed sound like a painful experience; your outrage burns through that article, and I entirely sympathise. A lot of avant-garde(ish) music today seems so totally vacuous as to be just as reprehensible as the commercialised pap it's supposed to be rebelling agsint - f-ire collective et al. There must have been a similar contrast between Gayle and the other groups, I imagine, as there was between Polar Bear and Taylor/Braxton at the RFH last year.
I wonder what you would think of the music gayle performed if you had heard it as a recording, rather than experiencing it live? would you have noticed the same going-in-on-himself? (admittedly, you note in your review that you were finding it difficult to pay attention to the music, what with the unctuous/vacuous distraction a few tables away).

centrifuge said...

"There must have been a similar contrast between Gayle and the other groups... as there was between Polar Bear and Taylor/Braxton"

sheesh, it wasn't *that* extreme ;-)

actually, as you yourself note, it's very hard for me to make any cosntructive comments about the music since i was so thoroughly distracted. but overall it's the place, the people who turn up to these things which left me downcast... not so much the opening acts, so i suppose i'm answering my own question (as asked in the piece) regarding zheniya strigalyev: yeah, most of the music sounded like crap to me, but it's not even that which really turns me off, so much as the cynical ease with which that stuff is peddled and the readiness with which certain people lap it up. i suppose it *was* an insult to put the second group on before gayle, but it's so obviously what people would be expecting - apparently his name is practically synonymous with the restaurant, which (in turn) is trying hard to get itself thought of as a jazz venue... in any case i didn't really think about how insulting it was to put polar bear on before the taylor/braxton gig until afterwards...

but yes, it would be interesting to have heard the recording... could i have told anything from it? who knows...

Frédito said...

Salut Centrifuge ; merci pour ce compte rendu d'une pénible expérience, que j'ai pourtant eu plaisir à lire. Je ne sais pas trop quoi ajouter, seulement que je compatis à ta douleur ce soir-là.

My greetings to Richard Strange ;o)

centrifuge said...

hehe :)

merci de ton commentaire fred... a+

ubu xxiii said...

I'm sorry to hear of your experience, cent. It sounds totally horrendous. It's a pity you didn't choose the gig at the Red rose (RIP) earlier in the year when Gayle played with William Parker & Mark Sanders. Muy bueno, tho it wasn't free jazz as such, since Gayle (who else?) gave lots of visual cues en route. I remember there was also an intelligent support act in the shape of Neil Metcalfe & Steve Beresford, unlike certain other gigs of 2007.
I had an unfortunate experience at a Noah Howard gig, where the man had gathered Evan Parker, John Edwards & Chris Corsano. After a few honks & screams he proceeded to deliver a programme of boogaloo, in the manner of Dr. John's greatest hits. What a waste.
The venue, east London's Spitz wasn't quite so awful as the 1 you describe. It tends to be full music fans of a sort, who look like typical 'Wire' readers, who enjoy altering their consciousness to the sound of 'Mars' or 'Sunburnt hand of the man'. I think some them actually lapped up Howard's set.

centrifuge said...

red rose (rip) coming up - my one and only gig there (atanase's, too), but one which will be up there in the hall of fame forever - albeit not from a musical pov as such! sonny the sinner coming soonish... *first* there's a whole bunch of related mid-70s stuff on the way: braxtothon '08 is underway, as i speak! just in time for the vernal equinox, the full moon and easter in short succession and in that order :)

yeah, i've heard the gayle recordings (of both r3 and kk provenance) and it is a shame i couldn't see that, i would've loved to, but that's not what was in store for me - i guess i got what i needed, which was the beginning of a hard few weeks..! there is still lots to remember fondly from that trip to london, so it took me some time to realise that a fit of sub-depression followed on from it. what *both* gigs had in common is that they reinforced in me what guys like kk and yourself doubtless always knew, i.e. *how far outnumbered* we really are and how little our beautiful music is valued. yeah, i knew it too, but it was like having my nose rubbed right in the truth of it, two different ways, first one night then the next.

i've heard the audience boot of the howard gig - i liked it, the one time i listened to it, but there were a few eyebrow-raising moments for sure and i wasn't even paying full attenion - on this occasion i am glad i WASN'T there to get the visual experience! i read already a very amusing anecdote about parker having to dance offstage, looking as if he was hoping the ground would swallow him up... i am sure there will be better occasions to see parker (which i still haven't) and that's gotta be true of chris corsano too...

thanks for your thoughts, always a pleasure to hear from you :)

Roches Noires said...

What an excellent write-up! I must admit to chuckling throughout. I'm certain it was not amusing at the time (or even now).

I went to the Ornette Coleman concert at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in Feb this year, with much of the same experience.

There were only about two-thirds of those with the corporate tickets at the front remaining, as we all watched them simply get up and leave between songs. The kids seated in front of me, dragged by their dad for a bit o' good ol' jazz, were busy playing on their PSP. Then interspersed among the audience were those of us that could spell his name applauding as loud as possible should the venerable man be slight of hearing.

An incredibly odd and disconcerting experience, I must admit.


Rod... said...

... just read your article... brilliant, if poignant. I relocated from London years ago but go down there quite a bit as I only live a hundred miles or so north (or the sticks as they are known dahn sarth). I saw Charles Gayle in Liverpool and Derby when he toured with Sanders and Parker - he was brilliant on both occasions in sympathetic venues run by enthusiasts and I was going to the Red Rose but illness intervened... I also intended to go see him at the London Jazz Festival - the gig you attended - but thought - umm, restaurant, I'm probably going to have the same experience that you so eloquently describe - and being a short-tempered old bastard would no doubt have been asked to leave at some point! If I hadn't have seen Mr Gayle in such sympathetic surroundings there would have been no choice but go - thankfully the provincial audience were made up of people who wanted to be there to hear the music. They were not disappointed. On the same note - I saw Sonny Rollins at the Barbican as part of the LJF (which had a dismal line-up last year, to say the least, the only two acts of interest for me, Rollins and Gayle) - he played magnificently all the way through - but people came in late, some bunch of fuckwits chattered on until told to shut the f*** up - small disturbances, admittedly, but one wondered: Why are you here? London jazz gigs amuse me anyway - the frantic attempts of some elder brethren to look hip always guaranteed to raise a smile. Thanks again for a stimulating post - we are not alone!

centrifuge said...

thanks to both of you for your kind comments!

RN - that sounds pretty similar to what i experienced, only probably even worse! you were in HK anyway, i take it, hadn't gone there just for the concert..?

rod - like you say, one wonders why such people attend at all; apparently there is some cachet (at least in london) to being seen at such events. it's ridiculous though, and the fact that places tolerate such behaviour says (i think) quite a lot about the british attitude to art and culture - people pay lip service to the idea, they know they're "supposed" to have some interest in these things, so middle-class trendies may view jazz concerts as being one of those things to go to on the "way up" - as we all know, when one has "arrived" and made it big, one goes to the opera, the ballet and the symphony hall (and joins an exclusive golf club). and the british wonder why the continentals regard them as a nation of philistines...

fredito shared a concert recently on h&h, from a smallish venue (by the sound of it) in chicago - the m.c. repeated himself at the start of each set, unnecessarily introducing the band every time etc - BUT at least he made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the audience was expected to be QUIET during the performance.

"the frantic attempts of some elder brethren to look hip" - yes, i myself have noticed this on my infrequent trips back to the capital :)

Roches Noires said...

Cent - yes, I live here, in the cultural wasteland of steel buildings and bankers. Actually, an outrageously unfair comment: HK has huge quantities of culture, it just unfortunately gets overshadowed by people here to make money and only money. And so I continue to live vicariously through everyone else's musical experiences over the internet...!


centrifuge said...

RN - yes, i must admit i know HK by reputation as "babylon", pretty much. (of course there have been major contributions to cinema from that part of the world, but again, in recent years that seems to have been dominated by money... competing with hollywood in the marketplace i guess... actually i'm way out-of-date on cinema so i'd better shut up!)

centrifuge said...

btw... LONG after the event, i finally remembered the name of the japanese pianist whose trio opened the evening (and probably played the most enjoyable set): she was chihiro yamanaka

six yers after the gig? really?!