Portico Quartet

English: Nick Mulvey of the Portico Quartet, p...
English: Nick Mulvey of the Portico Quartet, playing at Cully Jazz Festival 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some years ago I came across the music of Jack Wylie, Duncan Bellamy, Milo Fitzpatrick and Nick Mulvey; a modern jazz sound which was given an exotic touch by Mulvey’s choice of instrument – the hang.  Together they were known as The Portico Quartet until Mulvey (and then his replacement Keir Vine) left the band.  Unsurprisingly they are now known as Portico.

I’d never given much thought as to the origins of their name until I visited Bologna.  The city is famous for its food, its university, its political history, and it’s jazz festivals.  The first clue.  When you visit you realised it has another speciality, the architectural feature known as a portico, a sort of extended porch where a roof supported by a colonnade runs alongside a building to provide a covered walkway.  In Bologna you cannot escape them, which is good news for photographers._PW_3751

We love a good portico because in one feature it provides so many things that create great composition and interest.  Contrast where light spilling between columns loses its power as it reaches further into the space, light broken by the shadows cast by those same columns.  _PW_3432There there is the repetition of identical or near identical objects which can be used to create a surprise when the pattern is broken, or simply to lead the eye further into the picture.  This being Italy you also have the wonderful ochres that colour walls and columns, given further interest by the patina of grime that develops over the years.  I must have photographed dozens of examples while I was there._PW_3421

I don’t recall it raining while I was there, but the truth is in a city of so much cover I might well not have noticed, which takes me back to the band and the origins of their name.

In Bologna to play an open air gig they were rained off, and so grabbing their instruments they regrouped under the nearest cover and began to play and improvise in this alternative venue.   As soon as you visit Bologna it becomes apparent that there could be no other explanation.

So here is my Portico Quartet, four of my favourites from the many I could have chosen.



Bologna Jazz

I mentioned in an earlier post the origins of the Portico Quartet’s name, and really where else could they have been to acquire that moniker, for apart from the city’s architectural signature it has hosted an annual jazz festival since 1958, making it even older than me!

_PW_4105The city loves jazz.  On the Sunday that I began exploring I found the central area closed to traffic, an opportunity that appeals to the Italian psyche; time for a market, or sports event, or in this case some jazz.

A small stage had been set up near to Piazza Maggiore and with consummately poor timing I arrived in between sets, but th_PW_3760e mix of music that the sound engineer was playing to crowds of pre-Christmas shoppers was superb.

Jazz clubs like Cantina Bentivoglio host bands most nights of the year
and there are other signs too.  When Bologna born actor and musician Lucio Dalla died in 2012 it is estimated that 50,000 people attended his funeral here.  He is commemorated in a subtle piece of art that adorns a wall at the junction of Via d’Azeglio and Piazza dei Celestini where his shadow plays on._PW_4380

In a Hollywood style tribute to those who have played here, since 2011 _PW_4896marble stars are are placed in the pavement of the “Strada del Jazz” (Via Rizzoli).  Dalla has a star here of course, but others who have already been honoured include Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker and of course Miles Davis.

On the day I visited a group of young musicians were taking selfies with a double bass around Miles’ star (perhaps a hint to the people of Bologna to include Charles Mingus next year?) but most of the passers-by were focused elsewhere, because however you want to celebrate jazz there is one way that beats the others hands down.

Just play._PW_4929-2

Power Trio

All the swapping of lenses that I undertook in Havana wasn’t really recommended for the health of my camera sensor, especially on the dry days when there was so much dust around that even the swiftest of changeovers was bound to let some of the stuff into the body of my Canon.

Most of it could be removed with the camera’s own sensor cleaning tool (which seems to be something akin to giving it a good shake at high-speed) but some particles remained.  I spent quite a bit of time retouching skies in my pictures where a close look originally revealed the tell-tale blobs of dust on a sensor.

As I’m shooting for a client next weekend I dashed into Newcastle this morning to remedy the problem with the help of a specialist, and half an hour later we were as good as new.  So what should I point my lens at while I was there?

APW_1223For a little while I toyed with the potential that these round seating areas provided, but the I couldn’t align the overhead shot quite as I wanted without risking camera or photographer disappearing over a parapet.  No, something else was needed.

Now Newcastle is used to people behaving strangely at all times of the day and night (it used to be the party city of choice for students, stags and hens) so the behaviour of these young ladies didn’t raise too much of an eyebrow, especially as the cause of their gyrations was just beside me.

A great little band comprising of drums, trumpet and most importantly baritone sax were ripping out some great rasping rhythms.  Not quite the Havana experience and a lot less gentrified.  I didn’t hear them play Guantanamera once!


Black and White Notes

APW_0169When I was younger there was a popular TV series starring James Bolam and Barbara Flynn called The Beiderbecke Affair  which dealt with a mystery relating to the theft of a collection of records by Bix Beiderbecke.  I had no idea at that time that Beiderbecke was a real and very significant jazz cornetist and composer; I just know that I enjoyed the series.  Whether this was down to the fruitiness of Barbara Flynn’s voice, which was always welcome, the jazz soundtrack (in the style of, rather than by Bix) or the quality of the writing I can’t remember.  The series, and the two that followed were written by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, Alan Plater.

Plater, who had studied at Newcastle University co-wrote the musical Close the Coalhouse Doora political docudrama of the 1960’s based on the work of another northern writer; Sid Chaplin, born in a pit village but who went on to become an artist rather than artisan.  Chaplin may be better known for another James Bolam series; When the boat comes in.  

Another alumnus of Newcastle University was Ian Carr, who read English Literature there, becoming friends with Chaplin as he did so.  Carr completes the loop, for as well as being a noted writer about jazz (his biographies of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett are outstanding) was a trumpet player and composer, who wrote a suite of music dedicated to Chaplin entitled Northumbrian Sketches.  I say closed the loop, but not quite.  In his role as associate professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London he worked with a young man developing as a saxophonist and composer by the name of Tim Garland.

This weekend sees the Gateshead International Jazz Festival take place, and this evening the main hall played host to a fantastic concert.  The first part featured the Northern Sinfonia, augmented by Tim Whitehead (who had played in Carr’s band Nucleus), Henry Lowther and Andy Champion in the first performance of Northumbrian Sketches to take place in the region.

After the interval this was mirrored by another suite of music for jazz musicians and strings when Tim Garland premiered his Songs to the North Sky, inspired by his love for the region which developed when he was commissioned to write for the Sinfonia some years ago.  Although a “softy southerner” he put down roots here, and his family remain here while he travels. Both sets were outstanding, but Garland’s was given another veneer of quality by the inclusion of his colleagues from the Lighthouse Trio, Gwilym Simcock and Asaf Sirkis.  For me the highlight of the evening was when these three played a 40 minute set in between the two orchestral pieces.

Simcock must be ranked amongst the top jazz pianists currently performing anywhere in the world and gives a virtuoso performance at the keys and under the lid, damping, plucking, beating and stroking the strings independently of the keyboard.  Garland is similarly proficient, but it was Sirkis who fascinated me all evening.  As a former pianist and singer, I am at a loss to explain what it is about creative drummers that fascinates me.  Bill Bruford was the first to mesmerise me, and more recently Seb Rochford has done the same, both having the ability to work independently of the rhythm they provide to develop light and shade, humour and drama within their work.  As former band mates of Bruford, it seem right that Garland and Simcock should have appointed Sirkis who also fits that mould.  Looking like the love child of David Suchet and Brian Eno, he enjoys every exquisite touch of his colleagues, but then delivers his own contributions in equal measure ranging from moments of battery to passages of erratically ticking clocks.  This included a one man tour de force centering around his virtuosity with the hang.  Superb.

Asaf Sirks Kit (Hang on floor at right)
Asaf Sirkis’ Kit (Hang on floor at right)

There were many present who were older than me.  There may have been some younger than my daughter Holly, but regardless of the age of the audience everyone lapped it  up.  How could they not.  Lighthouse left us beaming.

For the first time, some of these images were shot not by me, but by my young apprentice!

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I Fall in Love Too Easily

Miles Davis
Miles Davis (Photo credit: Christophe Losberger (sitatof))

I don’t know where I acquired it or who shared it with me, but I have a piece of music in my library with an album reference USSM10405195 that lasts 6.19 minutes and purports to be “I fall in love too easily” by Miles Davis.  I say purports to be because, although the underlying metadata with this file suggests that it is from Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963-1964, I’ve heard that album’s  version of the track and the two are quite different.

The mystery version consists of no more than a dozen or so notes in Miles’ unmistakably reedy tone cutting sharply through a gentle and mellow piano accompaniment presumably by Bill Evans.  How does that then last for over six minutes?  The phrase loops a dozen times or so before the track ends.

Those few notes are exquisite and achingly capture the song’s title, but repeated over and over become irritating and predictable.  A metaphor?  I had questioned the artists’ judgement many times in taking such poignancy and destroying it through repeating it until it becomes commonplace, but had never researched whether there was a motive to that.  Was it a comment on the relationships in Miles life?  Did each burn brightly before being replaced by another?  Was it a criticism of the emotion itself, with each episode a unique high experienced  that lovers felt could only apply to them, yet around them was being endlessly repeated?

Only recently when a good friend used a similar phrase was I reminded of this piece and looked into it again, to discover that this was never the true recording.  With careful listening it is possible to spot the point where the introduction from one version of the song (as with much of Miles’ work there are many recorded versions) has been edited and duplicated to create the file on my computer.

In trying to get to the bottom of the mystery I discovered that the music was written by Jule Styne, and with the addition of lyrics by Sammy Cahn became a jazz standard in the hands of Frank Sinatra, though interestingly the original lasts just a couple of minutes.  Some of Miles’ live versions extend to twelve or thirteen which in a way reflects my experience with this mystery recording – something short and exquisite stretched beyond it’s original intention.

Sammy Cahn told the story of the original creation of the song saying:

This song was written one night in Palm Springs. When I sang the last line, Jule Styne looked over at me and said, ‘So. That’s it.’ I knew he felt we could have written on, but I felt I had said all there was to say, and if I had it to do over, I would stop right there again.

There is probably a metaphor in there for my photography too.  The act of taking a picture can be time-consuming if you plan a shot and want to light it perfectly, tweaking elements and poses until you achieve the absolute moment of perfection.  (I’m reminded of Rankin’s two programmes for the BBC where he recreated some classic fashion and Hollywood shots.  For all of his effort none seemed to come close to the original in my opinion).  Street photography by contrast is far more immediate, but I’m always tempted to go beyond that initial collection of digital information in photoshop and will often revisit those shots later to find them overworked.

It seems that I don’t fall in love too easily – at least as far as the image is concerned so when travelling this week I was hugely frustrated to be faced with a beautifully hazy sky coupled with interesting, rolling landscapes of stacked planes, peppered with trees still naked of foliage as I drove through County Durham.  The trouble was that because I was on a motorway I couldn’t stop to grab those immediately gratifying shots.  By the time I left the A1 the sun was setting, but still a possibility if I was lucky._MG_9936

I caught a glimpse of a red disc through bushes just as I approached an opportunity to park.  Swiftly I stopped, grabbed camera, changed lenses and made my way down a slope towards the field where I had spotted the scarlet circle.  My way was blocked by hawthorns and I wasn’t dressed for the fight.  Backtrack a little down the layby and I found my route, reached the field and…  the circle had virtually gone.

Maybe I’m just one of those who is destined to have to work at love!

Coincidence or Something Subliminal?

Having photographed a number of waves yesterday, and chosen a surfer for my portrait I wanted an appropriate title.  Soft Cell‘s “Say Hello and Wave Goodbye” was playing on my mind for some time, but even the most tenuous links to my pictures weren’t happening for me, so I ended up with a song by Sting against my better judgement.  To be fair, I do love the Dream of the Blue Turtles, probably because the band he assembled included a shipload of jazz talent including Omar Hakim, Kenny Kirkland and the incredibly lyrical saxophonist Branford MarsalisLove is the Seventh Wave provided my inspiration; appropriate as there is an urban myth amongst surfers that the 7th wave is always better than the six that precede it.

Anyway, I digress.  Earlier in the day before deciding on my wave theme I had an idea that shooting people candidly at bus stops might be interesting.  Waiting for buses requires people to find a way of passing the time or engaging in polite, and perhaps unwanted, conversation with someone else in the queue.  Either might produce some interesting expressions or movement.

I shot a few odds and ends but was saving myself for the bus station thinking that I would find a wealth of material there.  It proved otherwise, the waiting areas just weren’t conducive to my needs, but the same harsh light that has been around this week was cutting a swathe through an opening in the side of the building.  I was reminded of another image by Trent Parke from his Dream/Life series, and whilst there wasn’t enough darkness around to replicate the full effect with a wide shot, I was able to frame a couple of passers-by who were dressed in light clothing against a darker background to get the effect shown here.

In each case though I think they needed a mass of normally exposed people around them to give them the truly surreal effect.  As it is they look a lot like mistakes so I gave the idea no more thought.  (This the second time I’ve failed to replicate his work!)

So back to the 7th Wave, and having chosen that option I googled it to remind myself more of the thinking behind the theory, and was vaguely aware that the images option seemed to consist largely of underwater shots of people in turbulent water.  I thought no more of it until this evening when I was researching Mr Parke once more.  There were the same images, from a collection entitled… The Seventh Wave.  How spooky is that?

I went out the following day to shoot my portrait, which is of John, with no attempt to emulate Parke.  I wanted to find someone at a bus stop but bumped into John just beside one (that counts doesn’t it?) and knew I wanted to photograph him.   I’m normally not a fan of spot colour, but when I realised that he would be my entry for 11th November it seemed the right thing to do.

Like Midas in a Polyester Suit

The consequence of listening to, and writing about, Joni Mitchell‘s Mingus yesterday is that today I have had The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines to deal with.  Not in the sense of a problematic domestic service provider, but in the sense of the song becoming an earworm.

Joni Mitchell – The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines

I shouldn’t complain; it’s a great song featuring the crispest of brass arrangements and a percolating Pastorius bass line coupled with some of Joni’s wittiest lyrics bemoaning her lack of fortune in the casinos while in the presence of a player with incredible luck;

But the cleaner from Des Moines
Could put a coin
In the door of a John
And get twenty for one

The persistence of Joni’s hooks did at least give me an idea of somewhere different for today’s portrait; one of the seaside amusement arcades.

It is literally years since I’ve been, but found that little had changed.  The slots machines still featured the same imagery

I’m losing my taste for fruit

The coin cascades remained full of loose change that would never see the inside of someone’s pocket,

and of course there was the scourge of every parent and idol of the Toy Story aliens; the Claw!


Even given the cool and cloudy day outside I was surprised how many people were in here, yet I saw no winners.  Apart from the proprietors of course.  Perhaps this was why the punters were in no hurry to have their picture taken as they left having lost pounds through a diet free method.

So I left the “fool’s paradise” and returned to my usual haunt along the promenade where I spotted Nyasha and his family.  This brave Zimbabwean was fresh from a dip in the North Sea when I encountered him, something I wouldn’t fancy although he assured me it wasn’t too bad!  Good timing on my part to meet him just as I left the flashing lights behind.

It’s just luck!