Archive for February, 2014

The Quintet at Massey Hall

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2014 by telescoper

Time for a quick Jazz review, I think. This time I thought I’d pick a classic live performance from May 15th 1953 at Massey Hall in Toronto. Originally released as a vinyl LP with only 6 tracks on it, and called The Quintet of the Year, but subsequently re-released in various versions on CD, with various titles including Jazz at Massey Hall. The whole concert  is now available on Youtube here:

This concert was planned to unite the greatest stars of the bebop era who had performed together earlier in their careers but had gradually evolved different styles over the intervening years. The line-up is Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and the great Max Roach on drums which is stellar by any criterion!

Gatherings of star jazz players have often turned out to be disappointing, largely because very great musicians can sometimes interfere negatively rather than positively with each other, not necessarily consciously but because they can have ideas incompatible with one another. This evening, however,  was a glorious exception to this rule, doubtless because all the musicians had worked together in the past, and their subsequent individual development had not taken them too far beyond their shared musical background. It is true that the ensemble passages are slight, but that doesn’t matter much because the solos are of such a remarkable and consistently high standard. Charlie Parker turns in some of the very best of his later recorded work, giving the lie to those who argue that his musical abilities were in decline at this time. He might not play as elegantly as he did on the classic Dial and Savoy sessions, but he is significantly more adventurous, with startling melodic contrasts in much of his work. At times this is a bit of a problem in that he seems to full of ideas that what comes out is a sequence of breathtaking fragments rather than a cohesive solo. This happens on A Night in Tunisia, for example, which never quite fulfills the promise of its magnificent opening break. On other tracks, though, especially Hot House his improvisations are just brilliant. It’s hard to imagine listening to this that in less than two years he would be dead.

Dizzy Gillespie matches Parker in superb fashion, betraying none of the offhandedness that often afflicted his later recorded performances, and the pyrotechnical quality of his playing is as exhilarating as it is instantly recognizable. Gillespie was an extrovert on stage and his frequent dancing around on the stage results in him going on and off mike from time to time, but it doesn’t detract from the performance once you realize why he’s fading in and out. It is, after all, a live performance and if you shut your eyes you can imagine Dizzy Gillespie the showman without any difficulty at all!

Most Jazz reviewers confine their comments on the rhythm section to a few kind words, but in this case that would be a travesty. The limitations of live recording technology in 1953 result in a rather unbalanced mix, but the flip side of that is that you can hear  particularly well the pivotal importance of the bass playing of Charles Mingus. Between them Mingus and Max Roach lay down a relentlessly propulsive beat as well as taking gripping solos; the drum workouts in Wee and Salt Peanuts are astonishing in their interplay of rhythm and texture. Trumping even them, however, is the genius of Bud Powell who plays at a level consistently high even by his own standards.

Bud Powell is a fascinating musician for many reasons. Much less of a formalist than many Jazz pianists he nevertheless seems to generate a real sense of unity, more through the  emotional drive underpinning his phrases than by imposing any set structure on his improvisations. His solo on Wee offers a fine example of this: moving inexorably towards a shattering climax as the right hand figures vary ceaselessly in their length and the chords punched out by the left hand grow more frequent and more percussive.

This album is another must-have for any serious collector of post-War jazz. The individual parts are all superb, but the whole is even greater than their sum.

PS. I had the pleasure of attending a concert at Massey Hall myself, when I was on sabbatical in Toronto in 2005/6.

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Graduation and Pronunciation

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, Education with tags , , on February 22, 2014 by telescoper

Here’s a chance to relive (if you were there) or experience for the first time (if you weren’t)  the hilarity of my attempts to pronounce the names of all the graduands from the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the Winter Graduation Ceremony for the University of Sussex at the Dome, in Brighton, last month.  I blogged about this here and there are also some pictures here. My stint commences at about 1:35:30 and finishes about 1:48:00 so there’s not too much of me to put up with, and if you get bored with my voice there’s always the irrepressible Chancellor, Sanjeev Baskar, to keep you entertained…

The National Student Survey: Feedback and Response

Posted in Education with tags , , , on February 21, 2014 by telescoper

So the 2014 National Student Survey is under way. The NSS is much maligned, largely because it seems to be regarded by the powers that be solely for the purpose of constructing meaningless league tables. In reality I think the NSS survey is actually rather valuable because it allows us to gather systematic feedback on things that we do well and things we do not so well so we can look to improve our teaching for future generations of students. This isn’t just a PR exercise, at least not here in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. We really do listen. Here are our responses to last year’s survey in the Department of Physics & Astronomy:

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and for the Department of Mathematics:

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I hope the fact that we have responded to the feedback we’ve got will encourage more students to participate in this year’s National Student Survey, regardless of what they have to say; that way we can try to improve still further.

Jacques Loussier and the Pekinel Twins play Bach

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , , on February 21, 2014 by telescoper

I heard a track by this combination on the Breakfast Programme on BBC Radio 3 yesterday morning and thought I’d include something on here; it’s basically the Jacques Loussier Trio, which is famous for its Jazz re-workings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach with the addition of the identical twins Güher  and Süher Pekinel on pianos.

Apparently some members of the Radio 3 audience didn’t take kindly to Ian Skelly’s decision to play something by this combination, but I have to say I loved it; it really put a spring in my step. I’ve remarked before on this blog that many Jazz musicians are great admirers of Bach (who was himself a talented improviser).  It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case, particularly in the case of the keyboard works, because the music always has such a rich and compelling  harmonic progression built into it – just what a Jazz musician needs. Bach’s compositions are so well constructed that they can cope with being pulled around more than those of any other composer I can think of. Above all, despite the change of musical vocabulary and the addition of a rhythm section, the best Jazz versions still somehow manage to sound  like Bach….

From the following clips you can see that the twins play from sheet music – I think the arrangement was written  by Jacques Loussier – while Loussier’s contribution is largely improvised. In the clip they play versions of Bach’s Triple Concerto in D minor BWV 1063 (with Jacques Loussier) followed the Concerto for Two Keyboards in C minor, BWV 1060  (without Loussier)…

Double Indemnity – Statistics Noir

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on February 20, 2014 by telescoper

The other day I decided to treat myself by watching a DVD of the  film  Double Indemnity. It’s a great movie for many reasons, not least because when it was released in 1944 it immediately established much of the language and iconography of the genre that has come to be known as film noir, which I’ve written about on a number of occasions on this blog; see here for example. Like many noir movies the plot revolves around the destructive relationship between a femme fatale and male anti-hero and, as usual for the genre, the narrative strategy involves use of flashbacks and a first-person voice-over. The photography is done in such a way as to surround the protagonists with dark, threatening shadows. In fact almost every interior in the film (including the one shown in the clip below) has Venetian blinds for this purpose. These chiaroscuro lighting effects charge even the most mundane encounters with psychological tension or erotic suspense.

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To the left is an example still from Double Indemnity which shows a number of trademark features. The shadows cast by venetian blinds on the wall, the cigarette being smoked by Barbara Stanwyck and the curious construction of the mise en scene are all very characteristic of the style. What is even more wonderful about this particular shot however is the way the shadow of Fred McMurray’s character enters the scene before he does. The Barbara Stanwyck character is just about to shoot him with a pearl-handled revolver; this image suggests that he is already on his way to the underworld as he enters the room.

I won’t repeat any more of the things I’ve already said about this great movie, but I will say a couple of things that struck me watching it again at the weekend. The first is that even after having seen it dozens of times of the year I still found it intense and gripping. The other is that I think one of the contributing factors to its greatness which is not often discussed is a wonderful cameo by Edward G Robinson , who steals every scene he appears in as the insurance investigator Barton Keyes. Here’s an example, which I’ve chosen because it provides an interesting illustration of the the scientific use of statistical information, another theme I’ve visited frequently on this blog:

It’s Official, it’s PLATO!

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 19, 2014 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the European Space Agency has officially selected the third M-Class mission to form part of its Cosmic Vision Programme (which covers the period 2015-2025). The lucky winner is PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and  Oscillations of stars) and it will detect extra-solar planets by monitoring relatively nearby stars, searching for tiny, regular dips in brightness as planets transit in front of them. It will also study astroseismological activity, enabling a precise characterisation of the host star of each planet discovered, including its mass, radius and age.

plato_satelliteIt is expected that PLATO will find and analyse thousands of  such exoplanetary systems in this way, with an emphasis on discovering and characterizing Earth-sized planets and super-Earths in the habitable zone of their parent star. PLATO will be launched on a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou by 2024 for an initial six-year mission. It will operate from the Second Lagrange Point, or L2 for short. It’s an intriguing design consisting of 34 small telescopes (left).

PLATO joins Solar Orbiter and Euclid, which were chosen in 2011 as ESA’s first two M-class missions. Solar Orbiter will be launched in 2017 to study the Sun and solar wind from a distance of less than 50 million km, while Euclid, to be launched in 2020, will focus on dark energy, dark matter and the structure of the Universe.

The decision to select PLATO wasn’t exactly a surprise as it was singled out as the leading candidate by an expert panel last month, but there was nevertheless some nervousness among certain senior astronomers at the Royal Astronomical Society on Friday in advance of the formal decision. I suspect they’ll all be out celebrating tonight!

Spring is like a perhaps hand

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on February 19, 2014 by telescoper

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and from moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.

by e e cummings (1894-1962).