Sunday 28 November 2021

Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz - Original Cover Art 1965-83: Compiled by Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker (2009)

Rating: Excellent

When you really fall for jazz, as I did some twenty five years ago, you soon realise that it contains endless multitudes of musicians who made a massive amount of incredible music. The only way to attempt to take it all in is to become a dedicated Jazzbo for whom loving jazz is a way of life. Recently a fellow Jazzbo leant me this superb coffee-table book. It does exactly what it says on the cover, and more. The book includes quality text detailing some of the prime movers during this incredible period in culture, from musicians to those who started up now obscure record labels. The American civil rights era inspired a great deal of wild and important jazz music. Reading through this fascinating book it occurred to me that jazz got there first in terms of the creation of indie do it yourself record labels well before the indie label explosion that began in the late nineteen seventies during the punk and post-punk era. A little while after I happened to read the back blurb and it said exactly that! If you love jazz then this book is essential in that it alerts you to an even deeper layer of jazz, most of which I've never seen nor heard of. There's some of the acts you'd expect, like Sun Ra and Don Cherry, but then there's the likes of Idris Ackamoor, Roy Meriwether and The La Mont Zeno Theatre, among many obscure jazz acts.

The book's main thrust is the album art and the reproductions of album cover art is just superb. Here's some examples below:

Many of these I've never seen second hand or as new re-releases. As yet I haven't searched for any of them online, god knows how much original pressings would cost. I'm thinking I'm going to stick to the book for now and hope that during this re-release era many will emerge over the years.

Monday 15 November 2021

The State of the Art - Iain M. Banks (1991)


Rating: Excellent

I knew I had to reach for an Iain M. Banks book after reading about M. John Harrison's friendship with the great writer, it had been a while after all. The State of the Art is a rarity in Banks' cannon, a collection of short stories. It's a curious bunch of stories. The first two seem like fragments, or experiments in preparation for bigger works. Road of Skulls (1988) is a gothic curio, which I'm still thinking about even though it seems inconsequential; two misfits travel along a road of skulls, literally, and only one person seems to know what it's all about, and it's not them. The second, A Gift from the Culture (1987) really does seem like a fragment, with a former citizen of the Culture being blackmailed to do the bidding of terrorists and is the most inconsequential story in the collection. Odd Attachment (1989) is darkly hilarious, which is exactly the kind of humour you find in his work, and is very entertaining. Descendant (1987) is very clever, making you go back to check how it all plays out. Cleaning Up (1987) is perhaps the best non-Culture story in this collection, and is, once again, very clever and darkly humorous, with a touch of misanthropy thrown in for good measure. Piece (1989) could be described in exactly the same way. So far so good.

The real highlight of this collection is the near novella set in the Culture universe, you guessed it, The State of the Art (1989). The story is brilliant and fully formed. The Culture visits Earth in 1977 and acts very much the anthropologist, with Culture humanoids visiting the surface to sample different countries and all the Earth has to offer. Some are cynics, some are entranced and want to save humans from themselves with contact (by, erm, Contact) and one individual wants a whole lot more. As with all Culture stories, there's a massive space-craft with an AI 'Mind' who is very much in control, pondering over the moral implications of interference. Banks' cynical approach to humanity is perhaps a bit overdone, however this was the Cold War era, so fair enough. It's fantastic writing and as usual Banks explores all kinds of existential issues throughout the narrative, coupled with the Culture's amazing technology. It's stirring stuff and made me immediately want to read the remaining Culture novels I haven't read yet. I'd forgotten just how much I love his writing. The collection ends with Scratch (1987) which is both slight and one of the most obtuse existential jokes ever. It made me think that Banks had been reading J G Ballard's more experimental short stories from the late seventies, which he probably had been I'd say. Despite a couple of minor curios, this collection is well worth the effort.

Monday 1 November 2021

Light Perpetual - Francis Spufford (2020)


Rating: Excellent

Another book club read, this time an excellent one. Knowing nothing about the author my hopes were not high, thinking it may be a bland recreation of post-war history via the lives of those that survived. Instead Light Perpetual takes its premise, that the children and adults that had died in a V2 strike in London (based on actual events as noted on a plaque outside a building the author walked past nearly every day) in fact survive, and runs with it splendidly. Spufford is a sophisticated writer with a nimble, yet beautifully descriptive style. The novel was a total pleasure to read, his prose is beautifully balanced, with nothing overdone or out of place. Apparently Spufford was a specialist non-fiction author until the age of fifty two when his first novel was published, Golden Hill (2016). Perhaps that is why Perpetual Light is the reverse of what seems to pass for middle-brow literary fiction these days, with average at best novels that come across as popular fiction aspiring to be literary fiction.

Spufford follows the lives of five of the children that live via specific time periods - 1949, 1964, 1979, 1994 and 2009. Spufford explores the culture and history of each period and how that effects the characters lives. Perhaps the most effecting is Ben, who suffers from mental illness (schizophrenia it seems). Ben's section in 1979 is perhaps the novel's highlight, although for many it would be an excruciating read. Ben battles his paranoid delusions whist working as a bus conductor on a day that eventually leads him to a confrontation with a group of skinheads. It's almost too much to bear, however you can't help but admire Spufford's incredible insight and skill in revealing what it might be like to suffer from a debilitating mental illness. This is what literature is all about, allowing insight into others lives that hopefully results in understanding and compassion. The other characters stories are full of everything from bathos, pathos, redemption and servings of some just desserts for one particular character, but once again, nothing is overdone and everything is perfectly in its place. I'm impressed, and it takes a lot for current novels to impress me these days.