Archive for November, 2008

For You

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , on November 12, 2008 by telescoper

I had divided loyalties this evening. Tonight was a special showing of Blast-The Movie, a documentary film about an experiment involving several Cardiff astronomers. The movie has had pretty good reviews, so I originally intended to join my colleagues this evening watching it in Cardiff University’s Julian Hodge Building.

However, only last weekend I found out that tonight was also going to be the night for the Welsh premier of For You, a brand new opera composed by Michael Berkeley and with a libretto by Ian McEwan. As an added bonus, both composer and writer were going to be around to talk about the piece beforehand, so I decided to break ranks and go off to the Sherman Theatre to watch this new production by Music Theatre Wales.

The pre-performance talk was very interesting in describing how the work came about and how the collaboration between Berkeley and McEwan worked out in practice (basically words first, music after). I’d read something about this already and the opera has also been premiered in London so I’d read some of the reviews. The Guardian liked the music but was less keen on the words; the Times was uniformly positive.

So how was it? I actually thought the libretto was very fine indeed: the plot is simple but ingenious and there are some nice comedic touches to counterpoint the darkness of the overall feel. The music was what didn’t really work for me. I felt Berkeley’s score was far too dense and fussy. There’s so much going on in some passages that it subtracts from rather than adds to the text. The vocal lines often have to battle through the rest of the music like shoppers on a busy saturday afternoon on Oxford Street. Sometimes less is more.

In the opening scene the composer Charles Frieth is taking a rehearsal, with him on stage conducting the orchestra in the pit. The tuning-up sounds are carefully scored – quite a challenge for a composer, I think – and it’s a very clever opening. This idea comes back whenever there’s a particularly manic episode (usually involving the deranged Polish maid Maria), the apparent cacophony from the orchestra mirroring psychological disorder on stage. That works well too, at least the first time. But this device is used so often that it begins to irritate. If you’ve read my piece about Charles Ives you’ll realise that I’m quite partial to a bit of dissonance here and there but even I find repeated extended doses rather indigestible.

But it’s not all like that. Although it is variable, the music does have some lovely moments, including a cheeky quotation from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The cast was pretty good too, especially since none of the characters are particularly likeable. Baritone Alan Opie was really good as Frieth and Amanda Collins sang wonderfully well as Maria (although she did overact quite a lot). The rest of the cast was solid rather than remarkable.

Overall, I’d say it was interesting rather than wonderful, but I’m definitely glad I went.

At the interval I went to the loo for a quick pee and as I was standing there answering the call of nature I realised that the composer was using the urinal next to me. That’s something you never get with Puccini….

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Statistics

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , on November 11, 2008 by telescoper

Not many summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror. When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.

Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too. Some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial. On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into heavy fire from machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by an artillery barrage that had been tragically ineffective. Rather than calling off the attack in the face of this slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle in November that year the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The material loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue after 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.

And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. A year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.

The First World War ended a long time ago, and there is now only one living survivor of the British trenches, but the tragedy that it was shouldn’t be forgotten and neither should the sacrifices made by those caught up in the slaughter. Every year, we have Remembrance Sunday (which passed yesterday) for which it is traditional to wear a poppy after John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And tomorrow morning, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – when the guns fell silent 90 years ago – I will stand (as I always do) for the two minutes of silence observed across the country. Some people consider the wearing of a poppy and the observance of the two minutes’ silence to be celebrations of militarism. I don’t. I wear mine with respect for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice (on both sides, including non-combatants, and in all wars not just the “Great” one). As their deaths recede into the past, these rituals are needed to stop us seeing them as mere statistics. Each name on the war memorial at Buxton represents a human life extinguished and is evidence of the capacity for inhumanity which we all possess and from which we must not be allowed to hide.

For me the poppy also symbolises anger for those whose arrogance and mendacity has led us into wars that we should have avoided. I thank my lucky stars that I never had to live through conflict on the scale my grandparents’ generation had to face and curse those who have inflicted that fate on others. I quote another great First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon (writing here in prose) whose words are as apt today as they were ninety years ago:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. On behalf of all those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception that is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

That could just as easily have been written about Iraq (2003) as Flanders (1917).

Benjamin Britten was the reason I went to Buxton that day in 2004 so its only fitting I should mention the moving performance of his War Requiem I listened to yesterday on the radio. This is a powerful work that interleaves the latin mass for the dead with poetry from the greatest of all the war poets, Wilfred Owen. This is his Anthem for Doomed Youth , which is set right at the beginning of the War Requiem, the references in the poem to church services adding tragic irony to his already powerful verse.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen died in battle in 1918, aged 25, just a week before the armistice was signed. Another statistic.

A Lop-sided Universe?

Posted in Bad Statistics, Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on November 9, 2008 by telescoper

Over on cosmic variance, I found an old post concerning the issue of whether there might be large-scale anomalies in the cosmic microwave background sky. I blogged about this some time ago, under the title of Is there an Elephant in the Room?, so it’s interesting to see a different take on it. Interest in this issue has been highlighted by a recent paper by Groeneboom & Eriksen that claims to have detected asymmetry in the distribution of fluctuations in the data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) inconsistent with the predictions of the standard cosmological model. If this feature is truly of primordial origin then it is an extremely important discovery as it will (probably) require the introduction of new physics into our understanding of cosmology, and that will be exciting.

It is the job of theorists to invent new theories, and it is not at all a problem that these bits of evidence have generated a number of speculative ideas. Who knows? One of them may be right. I think it is the job of theoreticians to think as radically as possible about things like this. On the other hand, it is the observational evidence that counts in the end and we should be very conservative in how we treat that. This is what bothers me about this particular issue.

elongatedThe picture on the left shows a processed version of the WMAP fluctuation pattern designed to reveal the asymmetry, with the apparent preferred direction shown in red. This map shows the variation of the across the whole sky, and the claimed result is that the fluctuations are a bit larger around the red dots (which are 180 degrees apart) than in the regions at right angles to them.

It’s a slight effect, but everything in the picture is a slight effect as the CMB is extremely smooth to start with, the fluctuations in temperature being only about one part in a hundred thousand. The statistical analysis looks to me to be reasonably solid, so lets suppose that the claim is correct.scan

The picture on the right (courtesy of NASA/WMAP Science Team) shows the scan strategy followed by the WMAP satellite on the same projection of the sky. The experiment maps the whole sky by spinning its detectors in such a way that they point at all possible positions. The axis of this spin is chosen in a particular way so that it is aligned with the ecliptic poles (out of the plane of the solar system). It is in the nature of this procedure that it visits some places more than others (those at the ecliptic poles are scanned more often than those at the equator), hence the variation in signal-to-noise shown in the map. You can see that effect graphically in the picture: the regions near the North and South ecliptic poles have better signal to noise than the others.

The axis found by Groeneboom & Eriksen is not perfectly aligned with the ecliptic plane but it is pretty close. It seems a reasonable (if conservative) interpretation of this that the detected CMB anomaly could be due to an unknown systematic that has something to do either with the solar system (such as an unknown source of radiation, like cold dust) or the way the satellite scans. The WMAP team have worked immensely hard to isolate any such systematics so if this is such an effect then it must be very subtle to have escaped their powerful scrutiny. They’re all clever people and it’s a fabulous experiment, but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible that they have missed something.

Many of the comments that have been posted on cosmic variance relating to this question the statistical nature of the result. Of course we have only one sky available, so given the “randomness” of the fluctuations it is possible that freakish configurations occur by chance. This misses the essentially probabilistic nature of all science which I tried to describe in my book on probability From Cosmos to Chaos. We are always limited by noise and incompleteness but that doesn’t invalidate the scientific method. In cosmology these problems are writ large because of the nature of the subject, but there is no qualitative difference in the interplay between science and theory in cosmology compared with other sciences. It’s just less easy to get the evidence.

So the issue here, which is addressed only partially by Groeneboom % Eriksen, is whether a lop-sided universe is more probable than an isotropic one given the WMAP measurements. They use a properly consistent Bayesian argument to tackle this issue and form a reasonably strong conclusion that the answer is yes. As far as it goes, I think this is (probably) reasonable.

However, now imagine I don’t believe in anistropic cosmologies but instead have an idea that this is caused by an unknown systematic relating in some way to the ecliptic plane. Following the usual Bayesian logic I think it is clear that, although both can account for the data, my hypothesis must be even more probable than a lop-sided universe. There is no reason why a primordial effect should align so closely with the ecliptic plane, so there is one unexplained coincidence in the lop-sided-universe model, whereas my model neatly accounts for that fact without any freedom to adjust free parameters. Ockham’s razor is on my side.

So what can we do about this? The answer might be not very much. It is true that, soon, the Planck Surveyor will be launched and it will map the CMB sky againat higher resolution and sensitivity. On the other hand, it will not solve the problem that we only have one sky. The fact that it is a different experiment may yield clues to any residual systematics in the WMAP results, but if it has a similar scan strategy to WMAP, even Planck might not provide definitive answers.

I think this one may run and run!

Amen

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags on November 8, 2008 by telescoper

A few days ago I put up a short clip of The Train and the River taken from the opening moments of the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. This post contains the two last numbers to feature in the film, and the last one in particular is very very special.

At the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Mahalia Jackson (“The world’s greatest gospel singer”) played a lengthy set on the Sunday evening, and the whole concert is available on CD.  She wasn’t really a jazz singer, but she was born in New Orleans (in 1911) and her style developed in the shadow of both the jazz and blues traditions that had their origins in her home town.

Three tracks from her 1958 concert made it into the film. Two of them are the sort of exuberant up-tempo stompers typical of Southern gospel music; there’s something about that beat that sets your pulse racing and makes it almost impossible to resist clapping your hands on the off beat. A fine example is this highly locomotive rendition of Didn’t it Rain, a tune written by the world’s greatest composer  (“Trad”) which has the crowd of jazz fans leaping about in the aisles.

As you can hear, Mahalia Jackson’s voice is simply phenomenal.  She has so much power and emotional expressiveness that she is in a class on her own when it comes to this kind of music. In fact she gave singing lessons to the young Aretha Franklin, the one “soul “singer who came anywhere close to that quality of voice. But if you really want to hear music with from the soul, listen to Mahalia Jackson.

Although she had a number of hit records, Mahalia Jackson refused to sign for any major record label and performed throughout her life almost exclusively on gospel radio stations. I think she could easily have become a pop star if she had wanted to, but she saw her mission in life to communicate her faith to others through music. She also used a great deal of her earnings to help others by founding school bursaries and through other charitable works.

As in this concert, she usually performed with a backing band of piano, bass and organ but despite the lack of a drummer they build up a tremendous forward momentum.

Terrific though that track undoubtedly is, what comes next is truly sublime. The Lord’s Prayer is such a familiar piece of text to anyone brought up in the Christian tradition that it is difficult to imagine in advance of hearing this performance that it could be sung in such a way. The contrast between this and the previous track is immense, which makes it even more effective. This is no rumbustious rabble-rouser, just a simple and pure expression of her own deep religious faith. 

Almost as moving as her singing are the cuts to the audience reaction – the same people who were leaping about a few minutes earlier sit in deep and respectful contemplation. And who wouldn’t.. I’m not a religious man but there is certainly religious music that moves me very deeply, and this is a prime example.

Positive Vetting

Posted in Columbo with tags , on November 7, 2008 by telescoper
Columbo, reflecting on the meaning of existence

Columbo, reflecting on the meaning of existence

Today I took Columbo to his new vets. I was meaning to do this ages ago but I couldn’t find a convenient time during working hours to do take him there. Usually he hates going to the vets and adding in the fact that this was an entirely new place for him I was quite nervous about him getting a bit stressed.

As it turned out he was very perky this morning and I got him into his box quite easily (which makes a change). I turned up right on time at the vets for his 9am appointment and introduced him to the staff in reception. As always they remarked on what a big cat he is and how cute he looks. He has a particularly large head for a cat and he sometimes looks more like a teddy bear than a pussycat.

He’s had a bit of a tough week, especially on Wednesday with Bonfire Night fireworks going off all around my house until after 10pm. From my bedroom window I saw for free a magnificent display going on in Victoria Park which was very much better than the one I paid to see on Saturday. I kept Columbo indoors all evening, and he coped OK with the noise from the fireworks especially when I distracted him with his favourite brush. On the other hand, next door’s small yappy-type dog barked every time there was a significant explosion within earshot producing irritating sounds which neither I nor Columbo appreciated.

Surprisingly he didn’t look at all miserable in the vet’s reception and when I took him through to the consulting room he sat upright on the examining table with his ears pricked.  At other vets he usually moped around and tried to hide, which is a difficult task given his size.  This time he was quite comfortable during the quick examination at which he was pronounced fit and healthy.

One thing cats do when they’re nervous is to sweat from their paws (practically the only place they sweat from). Often when I’ve lifted Columbo from the vet’s table, wet pawprints have been left behind. Not this time, though.

The vet then wanted to take a blood sample in order to check his glucose levels. This has previously been the traumatic bit. The vet I saw today, however, had a different approach to all the others. Instead of taking a vial of blood from the throat area, which requires shaving the neck and introducing a needle into the big vein to draw the sample, this vet used a tiny needle to extract the merest dab from one of his ears. He certainly felt it, but it was all over in a flash. His blood glucose came out around 7 which is very good, considering that in stressful situations (like visits to the vets) the level usually rises.

As the vet typed up the notes and made out a prescription for more insulin, Columbo felt comfortable enough to take a little stroll around the room and explore a few of the interesting cupboards. I’ve never seen him so relaxed in such a situation before. I always imagined that the smells of other animals (some of which are in distress) is what affects him when he goes to the vet but although there were other cats waiting in reception, he wasn’t fazed at all.

Last thing was to weigh him. I’ve been trying to control his food to reduce his weight and it seems to be working slowly. This time he was down to about 6.35 kg. Still quite hefty, but heading in the right direction.

So then it was back into the box and out to reception. They had his insulin and needles in stock, present and correct, all ready for collection and, after I’d pocketed the gear, off we went. I was back home by 9.30. I let Columbo out of the box and, his excitement for the day over, he settled down to sleep on the sofa.

Parallel Lives

Posted in Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on November 6, 2008 by telescoper

I’ve just finished reading The Life of Charles Ives by Stuart Feder, which I bought some time ago with my Cambridge University Press author discount and I’ve had on my shelves without getting around to read it until this week. It’s a very interesting and informative biography of one of the strangest but most fascinating composers in the history of classical music.

Charles Ives was by any standards a daring musical innovator. Some of his compositions involve atonal structures and some involve different parts of the orchestra playing in different time signatures. He also wrote strange and wonderful piano pieces, including some which involved re-tuning the piano to obtain scales involving quarter-tones. Among this maelstrom of modern ideas he also liked to add quotations from folk songs and old hymns which gives his work a paradoxically nostalgic tinge.

His pieces are often extremely diffficult to play (so I’m told) and sometimes not that easy to listen to, but while he’s often perplexing he can also be exhilarating and very moving. Other composers might play off two musical ideas against each other, but Ives would smash them together and to hell with the dissonance. I think the wholeheartedness of his eccentricity is wonderful, but I know that some people think he was just a nut.. You’ll have to make your own mind up on that.

My favourite quote of his can be found scrawled on a hand-written score which he sent to his copyist:

Please don’t try to make things nice! All the wrong notes are right. Just copy as I have – I want it that way.”

But the point of adding this post to my blog was that in the course of reading the biography, it struck me that there is a strange parallel between the life of this controversial and not-too-well known composer and that of Albert Einstein who is certainly better known, especially to people reading what purports to be a physics blog.

For one thing their lifespans coincide pretty closely. Charles Ives was born in 1874 and died in 1954; Albert Einstein lived from 1879 to 1955. Of course the one was born in America and the latter in Germany. One inhabited the world of music and the other science; Ives, in fact, made his living in the insurance business and only composed in his spare time while Einstein spent most of his career in academia, after a brief period working in a patent office. Not everything Ives wrote was published professionally and he also rewrote things extensively, so it is difficult to establish exact dates for things especially for a non-expert like me. In any case I don’t want to push things too far and try to argue that some spooky zeitgeist acted at a distance to summon the ideas from each of them in his own sphere. I just think it is curious to observe how similar their world lines were, at least in some respects.

We all know that Einstein’s “year of miracles” was 1905, during which he published classic papers on special relativity, brownian motion and the photoelectric effect. What was arguably Ives’ greatest composition, The Unanswered Question, was completed in 1906 (although it was revised later). This piece is subtitled “A Cosmic Landscape” and it’s a sort of meditation on the philosophical problem of existence: the muted strings (which are often positioned offstage in concert performances) symbolize silence while the solo trumpet evokes the individual struggling to find meaning within the void. Here’s a fine performance of this work recorded at La Scala in Milan, in which the strings are onstage while the trumpet is in the audience. I love the way that at the end nobody seems to know if they have finished!

The Unanswered Question is probably Ives’ greatest masterpiece, but it wasn’t the only work he composed in 1906. A companion piece called Central Park in the Dark also dates from that year and they are sometimes performed together as a kind of diptych which offers interesting contrasts. While the former is static and rather abstract, the latter is dynamic and programmatic (in that it includes realistic evocations of night-time sounds).

Einstein’s next great triumph was his General Theory of Relativity in 1915, an extension of the special theory to include gravity and accelerated motion, which which came only after years of hard work learning the required difficult mathematics. Ives too was hard at work for the next decade which resulted in other high points, although they didn’t make him a household name like Einstein. The Fourth Symphony is an extraordinary work which even the best orchestras find extremely difficult to perform. Even better in my view is Three Places in New England (completed in 1914) , which contains my own favourite bit of Ives. The last movement, The Housatonic at Stockbridge is very typical of his unique approach, with a beautifully paraphrased hymn tune floating over the top of complex meandering string figures until the piece ends in a tumultuous crescendo.

After this period, both Einstein and Ives carried on working in their respective domains, and even with similar preoccupations. Einstein was in search of a unified field theory that could unite gravity with the other forces of nature, although the approach led him away from the mainstream of conventional physics research and his later years he became an increasingly marginal figure.

By about 1920 Ives had written five full symphonies (four numbered ones and one called the Holidays Symphony) but his ambition beyond these was perhaps just as grandiose as Einstein’s: to create a so-called “Universe Symphony” which he described (in typically bewildering fashion) as

A striving to present – to contemplate in tones rather than in music as such, that is – not exactly within the general term or meaning as it is so understood – to paint the creation, the mysterious beginnings of all things, known through God to man, to trace with tonal imprints the vastness, the spiritual eternities, from the great unknown to the great unknown.”

I guess such an ambitious project – to create an entirely new language of “tones” that could give expression to timeless eternity, a kind of musical theory of everything – was doomed to failure. Although Ives was an experienced symphonic composer he couldn’t find a way to realise his vision. Only fragments of the Universe Symphony remain (although various attempts have been made by others to complete it).

In fact, the end of Ives’ creative career was much more sudden and final than Einstein who, although he never again reached the heights he had scaled in 1915 – who could? – remained a productive and respected scientist until his death. Ives had a somewhat melancholic disposition and from time to time suffered from depression. By 1918 he already felt that his creative flame was faltering, but by 1926 the spark was extinguished completely. His wife, appropriately named Harmony, remembered the precise day when this happened at their townhouse in New York:

He came downstairs one day with tears in his eyes, and said he couldn’t seem to compose anymore – nothing went well, nothing sounded right.”

Although Charles Ives lived almost another thirty years he never composed another piece of music after that day in 1926. I find that unbearably sad, but at least a lot of his work is available and now fairly widely played. Alongside the pieces I have mentioned, there are literally hundreds of songs, some of which are exceptionally beautiful, and dozens of smaller works including piano and violin sonatas.

Although they both lived in the same part of America for many years, I don’t think Charles Ives and Albert Einstein ever met. I wonder what they would have made of each other if they had?

If you believe in the multiverse, of course, then there is a part of it in which they do meet. Einstein was an enthusiastic violinist so there will even be a parallel world in which Einstein is playing the Ives’ Violin Sonata on Youtube.

The Train and the River

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags on November 5, 2008 by telescoper

It’s not particularly relevant or topical, but I thought I’d put this up as it’s a great favourite of mine. This was the opening set from the classic film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which is about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Beautifully directed by the fashion photographer Bert Stern, this was originally intended to be a drama set against the backdrop supplied by the various concerts, but Stern lost interest in the plot storyline and it was dropped. The final cut of the film released in 1960 is basically a straight documentary about the music festival, and it’s none the worse for that.

Stern’s photography didn’t just capture the diverse personalities of the artists, who range all over the spectrum of Jazz from Louis Armstrong to Thelonious Monk. He keenly observed the audience as the performances unfolded and sprinkled some wonderfully humorous glimpses into the film. In between the music there are also some wonderful impressionistic sequences of yachts racing off the coast of Rhode Island and reflections on the water. I think the film is pure joy from start to finish and I treasure my copy of it on DVD.

The opening track of the film is The Train and the River, by the Jimmy Giuffre three. Jimmy Giuffre was an immensely gifted saxophonist and clarinet player who was also an accomplished arranger and composer who worked for many big bands. His most famous piece as an arranger was Four Brothers which he wrote for Woody Herman’s fantastic saxophone section of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff and Herb Steward. Giuffre was at one stage a very avant-garde musician playing quite challenging material, but in 1958 he had a more accessible style that blended jazz with folk elements, as you can hear from the video.

The other members of the band are the wonderful guitarist Jim Hall and the multi-instrumentalist Bob Brookmeyer who, on this number, plays valve trombone. Notice how they cleverly interchange the lead and rythmic support so you don’t really notice that it’s such a small band. There are studio recordings of the Train and the River, but none of them are anything like as good as this live version. Unfortunately the start of the tune is missing on the video because it was played over the opening titles, but if you want the whole thing just go and buy it!

Jimmy Giuffre died in April this year, before I started blogging, so let this be a belated tribute to him. I also think it’s a fitting way to celebrate the dawn of a new era in American politics with a reminder of the tremendous vitality, creativity and diversity of the nation that brought us jazz and a fervent hope that it will rediscover its true identity in the post-Bush era. Enjoy.