Looking around…..

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As I’ve mentioned before here I have kept a diary for years – it has changed into more of what used to be called a commonplace book – and I have written about that too! But I thought I would use this post to reflect on some of the looking around, reading and listening I have been doing over the last few weeks.

Walking here is a particular pleasure these days, it is so good to feel the sun on my face instead of the coastal winds, and the beaches and forests hereabouts are opening up their wonders; from wagtails dancing on the beach to the buds opening up on the trees. There is a particular resonance for me in the present Lenten season opening up into Holy Week, and then venturing into the mystery of new life and resurrection – it is possible to catch a glimpse of that all around us at the present.

Two great films; ‘Predestination’ directed in 2004 by the Spierig brothers and adapted quite closely from a Robert Heinlein short story called “….All You Zombies”. I won’t go into its twisty time travel/ paradox laden plot (it’s there somewhere for you to discover!). It is  welcome relief from the sturm und drang of many SF films – instead it is a (mostly) quiet examination of identity and the nature of time very well acted by Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook – seek it out!! Then Neil Burger’s 2006 film ‘The Illusionist’ with Edward Norton and Jessica Biel – another marvellous examination of reality and illusion and the power of love to endure and flourish. It is beautifully shot like a set of tinted postcards and beautifully acted by the two principals, ably supported by Paul Giamatti as the endlessly perplexed Chief Inspector Walter Uhl who finally does the right thing. The whole thing is set off by a gorgeous score by Philip Glass.

Books, books, books, I am in the middle of Melvyn Bragg’s novel ‘A Son of War’, it is a sequel to his earlier ‘The Soldier’s Return’. Set in the late 1940’s it details the life of the Richardson family in Cumbria and their struggles in post war England. It really is a great example of the life of one family becoming a microcosm  for the country. There is real warmth in the writing that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of a soldier recovering from traumatic service in Burma, the struggles to keep a family together and, in the son Joe all the doubts and ambiguities of late childhood and approaching adolescence. My Lenten reading is Brother Andrew’s ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’. It is a strange book, the teachings of ‘Andrew’ compiled by Father Joseph de Beaufort in the shape of letters and recorded conversations – you get a flavour of the book in this extract;

“That he had always been governed by love, without selfish views; and that having resolved to make the love of GOD the end of all his actions, he had found reasons to be well satisfied with his method. That he was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of GOD, seeking Him only, and nothing else, not even His gifts.” “That in order to form a habit of conversing with GOD continually, and referring all we do to Him; we must at first apply to Him with some diligence: but that after a little care we should find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty.”

I am also reading David Edwards’ excellent book ‘Poets and God’, a bracing examination of writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton and what their writings reveal about their faith and particularly the expression of that faith in their writings.

And music, music, music, I am rediscovering Bonnie Raitt at present, her voice and her slide guitar playing are a joy, and I catch an echo of the late, great Lowell George in the latter. Then there is ‘Nerija’ a collective of young jazz musicians, they have just released an EP of five compositions and they are ample evidence of the way that jazz is constantly reinventing itself. One of the standout tracks on the EP is ‘For You’ with its mix of free playing and gentle reflection (and a great trombone solo from Rosie Turton). That is one highlight in five tracks that are worth a second (and third) hearing!

And speaking of great trombone; I heard the historian Margaret MacMillan on the BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ a few weeks ago and one of the tracks she chose was Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’ because it reminded her of her parents dancing to it. I was surprised by what was played – instead of the usual orchestral version of the tune from the 1930’s they played a version from an album called ‘Unknown Session’ (great title!) recorded in Hollywood in the 1960’s and featuring a beautiful trombone solo from Lawrence Brown. And speaking of Ellingtonia, there are the unfolding delights of Duke’s ‘Private Collection’ albums which are worth hunting out on the ‘net. I am enjoying volumes one and two at present. One reviewer (on Amazon) called these recordings “mid – sized, mid – tempo calls for beauty”. Who am I to disagree?

And finally, a big shout out to the magazine ‘Jazz Journal’ now finding a new home on the internet – live long and prosper!!

I think it’s time for my morning walk…….

The Tracks of my Years.

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Perhaps you need to forgive the slightly cliched title to this post, but I couldn’t think of a better one so sue me!

I have an old friend with whom I have a fairly regular email correspondence (he lives in England and I now live in Ireland). We talk a lot about ‘the old days’ and a lot about the music we used to listen to then. In a recent email he was remembering some records and the events that were going on whilst the music was playing. It seems to me that music was more important then, or at least it seemed more important. It was tied to life changing events (and let’s face it when you’re about 17 or so everything that happens feels like a life changing event!!), romantic encounters, growing up and everything else that came our way. In my experience, although it was about individual songs it was also about albums. These things were wonderfully tactile, large cardboard sleeves and accompanying artwork, dense black vinyl, and the music. For me, owning an album of songs could be a useful discipline, I had to take the songs I knew (the hits!!) with the other songs that were not that good on first hearing (but, ironically, which would become really good with the passage of time!). I had to sit with it and listen to it which needed time and attention – something I think is missing in the 21st century jukebox – and don’t get me started on the dreaded ‘difficult third album’ thing…….

I wonder about the place of the album in the age of streaming when it is possible to pick random tracks out of the ether and listen. It seems to me that the art of making an album (i.e., a sequence of songs that hangs together, or forms a progression) is a dying art, replaced by the streamers and their reduction of music to just another commodity. Sometimes songs are ripped out of their context (the album) and turn up in the oddest of places – I remember being in a supermarket once and hearing the title track of Steely Dan’s album ‘The Royal Scam’ being played over the loudspeakers as an accompaniment for the shoppers (or should that be for the staff – I read somewhere that in store ‘muzak’ was for the staff not the customers!) There was a curious mismatch in that song in that place – an irony that Walter and Donald would no doubt relish but it felt just plain wrong – surely music is  more than just a commodity!

Perhaps it is the way of things that people of my age look back and maintain that ‘things were better in the past’, but it some senses they were. Music has remained very important to me and I long ago became a nerd obsessed with who played what and where, and regretting the lack of proper sleeve notes to give that information. In the jazz world (where I spend a lot of my time these days) this sort of detail is important as a way of comparing performances, but maybe other types of music could learn from this. At the end of the day (another cliche!) it comes down to the songs or the lyrics, the playing and the passion. I still relish that slight shiver as I listen back to the songs and albums that meant a lot to me when I was hurtling through adolescence. Whilst I do not own any new vinyl (but my son does) I can see its appeal and having all my music in one place has meant that I can listen to the vinyl albums I still own without distressing the neighbours! In the end it is all music, but let me make a plea for careful listening against commodification – music may sell everything these days – but, aside from worship and prayer (and books and paintings and…..) it is still (mostly) a high art form that links me to my shared past and gives me hope for the future.

Whitman’s multitudes.

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I have to begin this post with a confession (it’s good for the soul, don’t you know?), I don’t know a great deal about Walt Whitman so you might think that to write a response to some of his words might seem like a crazy thing to do, but his words have been used to give titles to on the one hand a collection of science fiction stories by Ray Bradbury (‘I Sing The Body Electric’ – also the title of an early album by Weather Report!) and on the other the phrase at hand to give the title to a book about the millions of microbes that live on and in our bodies!) And as these posts are about discovery as much as the joy of writing so I am writing here about his phrase “I contain multitudes”, three words from a very long poem called ‘Song of Myself’ from his collection ‘Leaves of Grass’ published in 1855. The book is basically a poetic love song to America written out of Whitman’s experience as a war correspondent, what we would call a civil servant, and a man who gave much of his time to caring for the wounded from the Civil War in hospitals around Washington.

The poem begins with Whitman celebrating himself but it isn’t long before he is also celebrating humanity in all its diversity; “I celebrate myself……For every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you”. Those opening lines seem to set the tone for the poem, the ‘multitudes’ in Whitman, and the ‘multitudes’ of others he celebrates equally – the whole world (or the whole of America) is held within the poet’s grasp; he writes in several sections about people going about their every day occupations, people “tending inward to me, and I tend outward to them……And of these one and all I weave a song of myself” (in the very significant section 15). In a later section (24) he begins with the words “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan a son”, again beginning with himself (and ‘the world’ in himself) he ranges far and wide through his lived and observed experience.

And it isn’t long before God makes an appearance; in section 48; “I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least” and he goes on to describes seeing God in the faces of men and women and in his own and finding “letters from God dropt in the street”. There is so much in this poem that I will have to return to it again but in my initial readings I am struck by the way that Whitman’s celebration of himself and others reminds me of the poetry of both Gerard Manley Hopkins (“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”);

“I say móre: the just man justices; 

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 

To the Father through the features of men’s faces”. 

And John Donne in his ‘Devotions on Emergent Occasions’;

(“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine…..any mans death diminishes me, for I am involved in Mankinde”.

I find that Whitman and these other poets are reflecting on the interconnected nature of creation. God is intimately involved in what Godself has fashioned, and we are interconnected to everything else. This has powerful theological value for those (like me) who have struggled with a strain of Christianity that sees humanity and creation as fallen (nay, damned!) and therefore useless in some way. Nobody would deny that creation is ‘out of joint’, but it is also blessed and I believe carries the mark of the loving creator. In all our diversity we are co -workers with God in making and remaking (and ‘stewarding’) the created order.

Apart from theology we are learning more and more about the way that our destiny and the destiny of this planet are interconnected in many significant ways. These are the multitudes both within us and all around us, Walt Whitman’s poem celebrates this in a way that is both thoughtful, reflective and playful and exuberant. His courage and love shine from every word of this long and powerful vision. More reading needed!!

(My edition of Leaves of Grass’ is a Signet/ New American Library paperback that I bought years ago somewhere I do not remember. I have also consulted a fine anthology of John Donne’s writing compiled and edited by John Moses and published by The Canterbury Press in 2003 – hence Donne’s original spelling and style!).






Apropos; on travelling hopefully.

Following on my post about ‘Five things I know for sure’ I was thinking a bit about the cliche ‘life is a journey’. Of course cliches are only cliches because they often contain wisdom that can be trusted. I feel that it does not take much to assert that life is a journey, many biographies trace the lives of their subjects through this metaphor; from birth to death for example. Yet this metaphor has come to mean a great deal to me in part, because it can speak powerfully to the spiritual life – in terms of faith I am clearly not to same person I was yesterday never mind when I was a teenager. In fact, religious faith does not exist in a vacuum, it is part of my experience of being human. It is less of a solid state than an evolving process and one writer suggests that faith has to be ‘reacquired’ every day; “I can only retain the truth of the gospel by constantly reacquiring it. My faith exists not as serene assurance but as constant inner warfare. Every day when I wake up I wonder whether by nightfall I shall still be a believer”. This thought always reminds me of a question put to a Muslim as to whether he was a ‘good’ Muslim, his reply is instructive; “ask me at the end of the day” suggesting that his conduct during the day (or his ‘journey’ through it) would show whether he was a ‘good’ Muslim.

Whatever I may do I ‘travel hopefully’. This thought comes from something that Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, the full sentence is instructive;

“Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is labour”.

Stevenson suggests that we start from a state of blessedness, I also take it to suggest that although arrival is part of the dynamic, journeying is where the energy is, and where the faith is exercised. This is because faith is faith, a risky encounter with the divine and with the vicissitudes of life itself. Christian talk about walking by faith “and not by sight”, but some rarely think about what this actually means and are seduced by the notion of ‘proof’ in the life of faith. If ‘proof’ of faith is a thing, it is always understood with hindsight (probably to remind us of the value of humility!). For me, the metaphor of the journey has helped me to understand my faith and the way it has developed – taking in the times of progress and the times of stasis (the mountain tops and the dark valleys if you like). Hence my reference in the last post to the God who, according to the psalmist. not only marks out the paths I take but is familiar with those paths. Think of the stranger on the road to Emmaus, or the angels who visit Abram by the oaks at Mamre – the journey is a constant, as is the companion who goes with me. This is a open ended journey and I have often wondered whether we ever really arrive, or simply carry on journeying into the divine when this physical existence comes an end. But that is, as they say, a work in progress!

I have just discovered the poetry of the late Mary Oliver. In her poem ‘When Death Comes’ she takes a difficult subject and turns it into a moving meditation on travelling hopefully. The poem ends with these words;

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”

The journey continues……..

(The quotation about reacquiring faith comes from a piece the late Colin Morris wrote for the Methodist Recorder in 2010. The quotation from Mary Oliver’s poem ‘When Death Comes’ comes from her ‘New and Selected Poems Volume One’ published by Beacon Press in 1992).

Listening to the voice…..

There has been a great deal of talk recently about the connection between an artist and his or her work – to frame a question with reference to the most quoted subject here, is it still OK to listen to Richard Wagner even though some maintain he provided the soundtrack for Hitler’s Germany (on a personal note I always wondered about the propriety of a song like ‘I Want A Little Girl’ – not to mention any number of old blues song that exhibit some really dodgy attitudes to women!). This train of thought was sparked while watching documentary maker Alex Gibney’s four part film about Frank Sinatra called ‘All Or Nothing At All’. There was a time in my teenage years when I heard this voice coming through the floor as I enjoyed one of my many teenage lie ins. My father was great fan of Sinatra and full of my rock band arrogance, my teenage self was dismissive of him, although as I have got older I have come to see just what a craftsman he was (and is!).

Gibney’s film explores the singer’s long and varied career. His early life in Hoboken, and the beginning of his career, his marriages and associations with organised crime, his political, civil rights and charity work (the latter often being unjustly ignored), his career in Hollywood and the anguished later years – there is an excruciating clip of him singing with ‘The Fifth Dimension’ – not as bad as his duet with a tuxedo clad Elvis Presley, but evidence that the Voice was slipping behind the curve for the first time in years! But through all this tumult the one constant is this voice – an apprentice of one nighters and roadhouses, Sinatra learned how to sing (or to refine his singing) by working with big bands and jazz musicians, he was the singer with Tommy Dorsey’s and Harry James’ orchestras and I am sure I read somewhere that he mimicked Dorsey’s circular breathing as a trombonist in the way he held those notes. Watching the documentary I was struck by the way that Sinatra’s art and voice seems to float above all the other stuff that he lived through.

If I limited my listening or reading to people I agreed with, or whose lifestyles I approved of, my cultural life would be sorely diminished. Perhaps the best way to listen and read in these days when everything is deeply scrutinised is to listen and read fully aware of the fallibility of human beings and their craft, and yet to make every attempt to hold onto the appreciation of what is produced. Any consideration of art and artists treads a difficult line – the more you know about the artist (the light and the dark) can alter the way the art is thought about and enjoyed. There is no easy way to navigate these difficult waters, but for me, in the case of Frank Sinatra it is the voice, the voice, the Voice.

(Alex Gibney’s documentary ‘All Or Nothing At All’ is available on Netflix. Sinatra’s music is available everywhere – I would recommend the multi disc box sets over the greatest hits packages. And I am still not sure about ‘I Want A Little Girl’………)

Five things I know for sure….

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Last Christmas I received an unusual present – it was a jam jar full of ideas about what to write in this blog (apart, that is , from all the other things I want to write about but am too lazy!!). One of the suggestions was ‘write about the five things you know for sure’ – as I thought about this I found that there were more than five BUT in keeping with the suggestion here goes;

First, I know that love is stronger than hate. There are those who say that we live in particularly difficult times, and there are those who say that these times are no better of worse than others, we just know more about things. But I think that these days are marked by a lack of love – governments and individuals seem to have forgotten that the most important thing is, as the great poet Dante wrote in the ‘Paradiso’; “the Love that moves the sun and other stars”. These days we seem to be more defined by what we hate, or what we are against, than what we love or what we are for. That includes the road – ragers, the wall builders and the austerity creators who have forgotten that for all our faults human beings are better together than divided. And let me not forget the most important verse in the Judaeo Christian scriptures; “God is Love”, which is followed by the outrageous claim that “if we love one another his love is brought to perfection with us” (1 Peter 4; 7 – 12 in the Revised English Bible). And as Dorothea Brooke says in George Eliot’s novel ‘Middlemarch’; “What do we live for, if it not to make life less difficult to each other?”.

Following on from that I know that there is always hope. I have written about the story of Pandora’s Box before and there are many ways to interpret this ancient story. But after everything else has left the box hope remains. One poet wrote about this in these words; “Of all good things that mortals lack/ Hope in the soul stays back”. There is a lot of darkness in the world at present but there is also a lot of light too – and I suggest that there is a lot of hope too, despite what governments say. We have a lot of work to do to remind those in power over us of their responsibilities to the planet and to the people they serve.

Then, I know that I should never underestimate the importance of surprise. The name of this blog is to do with surprise and its importance in jazz. But walk out on any day and I guarantee you will be surprised; by the colours in the sky, or the little birds chattering together in a small tree, or that turn of phrase in a book or poem that you had never seen before, or indeed that piece of music you thought you knew which suddenly jumps out at you with renewed freshness. God grant that I should never lose the capacity to be surprised!

Then I know that God is not a man. Perhaps the patriarchy is dead and it does not know it, but I know that I have been guilty of reading the bible in a way that privileges male attitudes and almost makes the women in the stories invisible. God has always been above and beyond gender. In his gospel John has Jesus say “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” – yet another enigma in that most enigmatic of gospel accounts (perhaps that is why I like it so much!). But the bible was formed in a patriarchal culture and I remain grateful for the insights of scholars who suggest that we should read it with awareness of this and recognise that the importance of women should never be underestimated. Think of those midwives Shiprah and Puah who saved Hebrew babies and thus prevented a genocide, think of Ruth’s story and what it can tell us about borders and belonging in this broken age (one theologian I heard recently described Ruth as possibly the most important book in the bible for these days!). Think too of Esther’s bravery and the women who bankrolled the ministry of Jesus. Maybe the insight that God is not a man is something I should be so sure of, but I must remember all those who have been disadvantaged by patriarchal readings and remember too that the divine intention is human flourishing, and that means all humans.

Finally I know that life is a journey. We may be caught, in Joni Mitchell’s words “between the forceps and the stone” but there is no denying the truth of this particular cliche. In my experience it helps me to see myself as a pilgrim on the road, learning as I go, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. This is probably worth a post all of its own but a verse from the Psalms has often held a precious truth for me; “You (Lord) trace my journeying and my resting places, and are familiar with all the paths I take”. In Josiah Bartlett’s words in ‘The West Wing’; “what’s next”.

Saying that you know for sure these days is perhaps a foolish pastime, yet these five are like a useful beginning, maybe its time for another list…….

(Dante’s words come from the end of the ‘Paradiso’ (Canto 33), Dorothea Brooke’s adventures are told in George Eliot’s magnificent novel ‘Middlemarch”, and her comment can be found on page 691 of the ‘Oxford World’s Classics’ edition. The story of Pandora and her jar (or box) is well worth thinking on. John’s discussion of Jesus’ view of God comes from John 4. You can read about Shiprah and Puah in Exodus chapter 1 and the women who bankrolled Jesus in Luke chapter 8. Joni Mitchell’s words come from her song ‘Hejira’ on the album of the same name. The quotation from the Psalms comes from number 139 in the Revised English Bible).