Berating The Sum Of The Parts

Sage, Gateshead (as reflected in the Tyne)
Sage, Gateshead (as reflected in the Tyne)

The Gateshead International Jazz Festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary and over those years I’ve enjoyed some remarkable performances from Courtney Pine & The Jazz Warriors, Bill Bruford & Michiel Borstlap, John Dankworth & Cleo Laine, Branford Marsalis, and most recently Tim Garland’s Lighthouse Trio, among others.

When the initial billing for this year’s event was announced I had no hesitation in booking a couple of tickets for Esperanza Spalding; a prodigious talent (though she rejects the term) who taught herself violin when only five, is a multiple Grammy award winner, and a favourite of the Obamas to perform at The White House.

As so often happens with jazz gigs, there is a fluidity to bookings as performers add guests who happen to be in town, or take the opportunity to play something experimental, so as the months went by between ticket purchase and actual performance things changed.  It was no longer Esperanza who was billed but The Spring Quartet; a veritable jazz supergroup comprising Spalding and her pianist Leo Genovese, Jack DeJohnette (at 71 a veteran with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Freddy Hubbard and Keith Jarrett on his CV), and Joe Lovano.

Come the concert they received a standing ovation from much of the audience.  But not me.  I was disappointed.

That guru of how teams operate, Raymond Meredith Belbin, would say that four or five is the ideal number for a successful team and that they should between them cover 9 specialisms, or failing that have one dominant “shaper” role and the rest be subservient “team workers”.  The right combination of personalities is more important than the individual skills of the members, so that a well-balanced group of average individuals can outperform a group of stars where the team make up has been ignored.  I think the Spring Quartet should perhaps read his work.

Spalding is renowned for two things; her skilful bass playing (on electric or double bass) and her exquisite, acrobatic yet incredibly accurate vocal ability.  The former was drowned out by her colleagues and the latter put to use on only one number where a scat intro was barely enough to showcase the woman who so beautifully recorded Fall In.   She stood beatifically behind the instrument that dwarfed her slender frame reminding me of an indulgent mother sipping tea while her three sons throw a tantrum.  Three shapers and one team worker perhaps?

It seems I’m not alone in this view; their performance at Lincoln Center was described as “muddy” and I felt the same.

Still the evening wasn’t a complete loss.  The venue for the festival is the eternally stunning Sage, always a favourite to photograph.  Yesterday she and the environment around her provided the clarity that I missed elsewhere.

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Contrast is what makes photography interesting.*

Dashing into Newcastle today for an errand, I wasn’t sure what I’d find.  Many businesses would be closed for Good Friday, yet the major stores were all open.  Would the city be thronged with shoppers?  As it happened it wasn’t, which was strange given the slight rise in temperatures which was accompanied by blue skies and sunshine.

No matter if I don’t find people, perhaps today I’d focus on architecture?  From the roof of the car park it was impossible to ignore the magnificent curves of Gateshead’s Sage music and arts centre, and this inspired me to shoot some bracketed images for HDR processing later.  My hall has long been adorned with a moody photograph of the multiple towers of San Gimignano, and as this will be going elsewhere in my impending separation I decided to process the Sage in similar manner by way of a parting tribute!

Even the car park itself had possibilities for an abstract shot, but as it happened the architectural theme was not to be.


Passing by Grey’s Monument it was impossible to ignore the number of evangelists carrying large yellow, numberplate-like signs bearing the message “John 3:7”.

“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”

Well it is nearly Easter after all.  I began to shoot some candids here, not sure what I would do with the images but certain I’d know it if I saw it!

It was as I photographed the last of the sign-wielders that I spotted another symbol of the season, albeit one corrupted to advertise a clothing store by riding a diminutive penny-farthing.  I wonder how effective this is as a marketing ploy?

_MG_0902-EditMaking my way back to the car park I was presented with an image that is always tempting.  People standing in doorways make great subjects, because the doorway creates a natural frame.  When the subject is photogenic in their own right it is all the more tempting.

_MG_0914-EditYet it was none of these that was my favourite image of the day.  A quickly snatched shot of an incongruous juxtaposition was my favourite.  I’d like to have framed it better, but I had to act quickly because one of the players was on the move, though the other was clearly settling down for a while.  Nevertheless a sharp stone corner provides a demarcation line between the subjects almost like a mirror, or the binding of two facing pages in a book.

A homeless woman sits or crouches with a thin blanket over her knees, and as many layers as she can muster to protect her against the coming night’s cold.  She is small and almost certainly hungry.

As I spot her she is joined on the corner by a well fed young woman taking a smoking break, presumably from a nearby Italian restaurant.  In contrast she is wearing little, and the clothes that she does have are stretched and pulled by a body that refuses to conform to some remembered size label.  She has no need to protect herself from the cold, she will shortly be back indoors and earning a living, but in the meantime she enjoys the extravagance of a cigarette.  It is an extravagance that her neighbour cannot replicate.   On seeing the other woman she turns her head away, and shortly afterwards moved to a new smoking spot, seeming offended by the person at her feet, and yet the real look of contempt is on the face of the woman she scorns.  She may be down, but she can still feel superior.


*Quote from leading cinematographer Conrad Hall