As can happen at this time of year, Her Indoors and I have attempted to avoid the gloomy weather, high winds and sideways rain of life in pre-xmas Hertfordshire by jetting off in search of some much-needed winter sun, and so I find myself here in a rather smashing hotel room in Lanzarote this Saturday afternoon tapping away whilst outside amongst the leafy palms and Landscaped Gardens With Heated Pool, sideways rain and high winds lash out amongst the gloomy weather which the meteorological Gods have so kindly laid on for us. Nary five weeks ago I can remember archly pontificating at the kitchen table back at the Gables that if we wanted to guarantee good weather, we’d need to go that bit further south. Lanzarote lies about 120 miles west of West Africa, and consequently boasts hot, dry, even arid, weather all year round, so it seemed a fairly safe bet that it should, all things being equal, be the diametric weather opposite of, say, Rhyl at this time of year. I now feel a bit like Michael Fish on the day after the big Hurricane, since in the celestial weather rosta, Rhyl and Lanzarote would appear to be drawn about equal.
Still, a change is as good as a rest, even a rainy change, and the inclement pelting precipitation might be God’s way of picking out the British tourists amongst the international holiday making community. Used, as we are, to making do in the pissing rain, Brits of all ages and sizes can be seen proudly walking up and down the front in the regulation shorts, sandals and socks for Him and pedal pushers and espadrilles for Her, except this time the top halves are protected from the elements with primary coloured waterproof fashion accessories, or anoraks. Just when you think that the Brits abroad couldn’t possibly get frumpier, we pull something like that out of the hat, or in the case of that internationally accepted icon of ultimate eroticism, the transparent plastic Pack-A-Mack, it actually gets pulled out of the jacket pocket. Of course, this all goes on under the amused beady eyes of the Germans, Swedes and Danes who sit elegantly and wisely in the hotel bar elegantly and wisely drinking lager. Now, in 2014, it’s getting less and less clear who won the bloody war.
However, I’m enjoying the change- as much as I love The Volvo and its palatial ergonomic leather interior, it has been most unusual to spend an entire week without having to sit inside it for between a third and half of my waking hours. Indeed, it feels most odd to have control over my day without running the eternal gamble of having all of it hoovered up by temporary traffic lights, traffic calming improvements and contraflows. Her Indoors did actually suggest that we might fancy hiring a car out here to do a spot of exploring, but the thought of local temporary traffic lights, traffic calming improvements and contraflows had me out in hives at almost exactly the same time as I became a pitiful weeping pulp on the nice polished stone tiles of Room 317, and so we have spent the week exploring the highly spiced local exotic food and drink, or burgers and sangria.
It is the simultaneous act of coming out in hives and becoming a pitiful weeping pulp on the floor which has really framed the two big musical events of the last couple of weeks. One was arty, the other just horrid. To get arty first, Drummer Pite had hired the Cadogan Hall two Friday’s ago to re-enact the 1939 battle of the bands which went on in there between Benny Goodman, and the then young pretender, Glenn Miller. As part of this, Drummer Pite asked if your jaded scribe would like to run the full gamut of Benny Goodman’s concert activity in 1939 and play the Bartok contrasts. This was back in February, and as I had a big pan of spaghetti on the go and needed to get Drummer Pite off the blower, I agreed.
To understand the depth of this undertaking, which I must admit I didn’t at the time, some history; In 1939, Goodman had designs on becoming a classical recitalist as, I’d imagine, the novelty of being the King Of Swing and the most technically accomplished jazz clarinettist in the history of music was beginning to pall. Especially, so the stories go, as Benny had to slum it on around thirty seven thousand dollars a week. To relieve this unrelenting torpid grind, Goodman commissioned Bela Bartok to write a small suite of three pieces entitled “Contrasts”, which Goodman performed at Carnegie Hall with Bartok on the piano and Bartok’s chum Josef Szigeti on the violin. Where a lot of music relies on light and shade for its contrasts, Bartok’s contrasts rely mainly on darkness and really dark darkness, but because Bartok was a genius, it’s curiously a darkness you can sing along to. During the first movement, which really does take you on a journey through the exciting and lively contrasting moods of despair, upheaval, grief, fright, very serious fright and good old fashioned desolation, you can hear touches of great humour. Clearly Bartok, without realising, was laying down the code for an enormous amount of film music composition, not all of it dark serious and moody. There’s a figure played by the pizzicato violin in the opening bars which sounded really familiar to me. Watching cable TV late one night I found out why- it is played by the entire string section, again in pizzicato as they underscore Bernard Bresslaw dressed as a nurse tip-toeing down a corridor in Northwick Park hospital in Carry On Matron.
Interestingly, and especially so given that Goodman commissioned the thing, the music bears little resemblance to the kind of jolly swinging jazz BG was famous for. In fact, some of the phrases in upwardly rolling quintuplets would not be out of place in a dictionary of cutting edge contemporary jazz licks for the kind of bearded young chap who needs to feel that he is the most “Killing”. It then gets a bit stranger in that Benny, after having done the trillion hours practice I can assure you it takes to get on top of the little buggers, did not modify his jazz playing in any way at this time. I suppose that this piece was so completely conceptually different to anything he’d done beforehand, he may have thought, as I ended up doing, that he was playing a completely different hooter. Hearing Benny play it on the original recording with his lovely cosy sound has a kind of a shock value to it, like stumbling across a drawer full of photos of your grandparents holidaying at a nudist camp. There he was, right on top of some of the furthest out clarinet music 1939 had on offer, in an environment which, at the top of the 1939 jazz tree was continually experimenting with new ways to play over harmony, and we just hear Benny’s jazz playing carrying on much as before, gradually sweetening his tone until all imperfections and imbalances had been ironed right out.
For me, having to play something as demanding and as straight as this brought back how it used to feel preparing for a school concert. Normally, when I go to work, I have to quickly isolate the main tricky areas of the performance, maybe practice those a bit so that no-one will really know the difference once the drums are going, and try to convincingly flannel round the rest of it all as best I can so that no-one will really know the difference once the drums are going. In this manner, I can work devoid of fear and demanding technical requirements. This was utterly different. No drums, for a start, and in fact a completely different concept of time in which the three instruments pull each other along like leaves in the swirls and eddies in the current of the music. If you’re used to bonk-bonk-bonk off the pots, arty farty swirls and eddies can really put the wind up a chap. The only way to cope is to get absolutely on top of the music, and in this case, the top was an awful long way up. I had to practice it every other day from February until the gig the other week. And it was still scary and difficult. If you get really used to playing it, you can hear that even Benny knocks a few of the nastier bits over
On piano we had the great Bunny Thompson, who has straddled the dual worlds of jazz and classical all his life, and defines himself as being musically half rice and half chips. Early on in the practice for this, Bunny came to realise that Bela had given himself a bit of a Bobby’s job by just having the piano knead quietly along behind the clarinet and fiddle. Now that’s clever writing. As Drummer Pite had made a reasonable budget available, we could treat ourselves to a demon fiddle player, and so money changed hands to secure the bowing of Charles Mutter, who operates his violin in the Leader’s chair up at the BBC Concert Orchestra. When he came round to Gablesound Rehearsal Suite 5, or my kitchen, for the rehearsal, not only was he completely on top of his own part, which looked as if it had been arranged for a violinist with tree-climbing-frog DNA, so awkward were the hand stretches, but he seemed to be completely on top of ours too. Having a proper bona-fide straight chap in charge took a lot of the heat off me, I can tell you, and eased the strain on the half of Bunny that was chips. After an hour or so practising together, we could get through it without crying or swearing, so we pronounced ourselves ready for the gig.
Eight months of practice, seven minutes of music. I can remember drawing the first breath, and then I can remember the stunned looks on the faces of the first two rows of punters, who thought they’d come to hear Sing Sing Sing and In The Mood, and instead got a tidal ride down the aforementioned swirling river of upheaval, grief, fright, very serious fright and good old fashioned desolation. It got the kind of applause that would happen if a stripper stopped her act and showed you how to put a new front on your mobile phone because the old one was smashed up. Looking at it another way, it would be like receiving a complimentary Onion Bhajee before a Beef Wellington. I didn’t care- we’d nailed it and I felt great, and the last time I felt that kind of great was in 1981 when I got a distinction for my grade 5.
Hives and weeping experience number two was a very different kind of thing. I’d been booked to put some chaps together to go and play the walk-ons for an awards ceremony and then a little spot of functioneering at a nobby corporate do in London’s Glittering West End. I always find that the hive-o-meter gets going early on one of these gigs, just because of the sheer weight of emails that clog up the Gabletron 3000 communications centre, or laptop, in the weeks leading up to the show. In order to cover their backs, the people putting these things on copy everybody into everything, so I often find that I have to trawl through huge threads of communication about getting the napkin rings to convey the right message, to see if I’ve missed anything about the band. In this case, there were 167 messages for me to read, and so by the time the big day arrived, I was very much on my guard.
As it turned out, it all went swimmingly. All the chaps arrived on time to run the awards ceremony, which involves us playing things like the intro to Crazy In Love over and over again whilst the Kettering Admin Staff come up to collect their bit of Perspex upon which is engraved some fabulously pithy career-boosting accolade such as “Best Stationery Management” and shake hands with the CEO and the duty celeb who arrives one minute before the start and departs one minute after. The running order was- 9.30-10, Band on for dancing, 10-10.45, address by duty celeb, 10,45-11.15 awards. It sounded really simple. After all, what could go wrong after thirteen trillion countersigned emails?
What went wrong was that the duty celeb died on his arse at around 10.18. Therefore, the man in charge decided to start the awards ceremony, but as we weren’t due on for another twenty minutes, all the chaps were dotted around the nine-story subterranean no phone reception concrete bunker which made up the conference centre. The five lads who were having the standard gig lasagne in the bandroom rushed down to the stage, and I went off on foot to locate, amongst others, Drummer Pite. Bandleader and drums, I thought were crucial to this next phase, and I really didn’t want to keep the client waiting.
I needn’t have worried- I hadn’t kept anyone waiting. They just steamed on with the ceremony anyway, accompanied by trombone, two saxes and electric bass. The rest of us scrambled on as the Doncaster Dockets Inward team were getting their thingy from the duty celeb, in a manner devoid of any shard of dignity. Adopting the good old maxim of press on and don’t apologise, I conducted the rest of the awards off and then we did a further little set of popular beat classics, but I just felt terrible. I’ve been in these situations before, where uppity organisers will go bananas if they think that your ESP isn’t up to snuff. Given that the great house of cards of the 167 emails had not just toppled down but had imploded completely and was now in a different dimension, confusing the Thgrodies on the planet Zefflikon. All the while during our renditions of Dancing Queen and Let Me Entertain you, I was composing emails in my head about how we were’nt meant to be on for another twenty minutes, and no, I don’t think that its fair that I should knock fifteen hundred quid off the dough. I was then thinking about the business overdraft and wondering whether I could afford to pay the lads if the client didn’t cough up. I had bad red-hot cheeks and I wanted my mum. Just as we were winding up, I was beckoned over by the CEO. I was girding myself up for an hideous slab of corporate buck-passing, but I got an apology, for starting early and making those of us who had to scramble up on the stage look like a bunch of arseholes. Hello Flowers, Hello Trees, Hello Butterflies, the world became right again.
As a footnote, it is with great regret that I have to remove Lanzarote, or at least the Indian Tandoori House in Playa Blanca from the European Curry Roll Of Honour. We came here a few years ago and visited the curry house in Playa Blanca, and were treated to a magnificent flavoursome English style ruby, oozing with garlic and spice. On the strength of this, Lanzarote has been #2 in the batting, behind Malta and just ahead of Monaco. This time it was all microwaved and rubbery. And they tried to overcharge us. I was gutted. Overseas curry is one of the highlights of a foreign trip for me, but if you’re out here, I’d go anywhere else if I were you.