Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Adventures En Route to A Jazz Education – How Larry Stabbins Changed My World

My first experience of live jazz was at the Philharmonic Pub in Liverpool.

The Phil, as it was known, was and still is situated on the corner of Hope Street and Hardman Street, diagonally across the road from the Philharmonic Concert Hall and a stone's throw from what was then Liverpool College of Art. This was where John Lennon learnt to rock and roll, while next door to the Hall, the Everyman Theatre was making waves in regional theatre.

Among the red brick Georgian terraces of Hope Street in an era where the pubs shut at half past ten, there also lurked various basement clubs, like the Casablanca, where actors, poets and bands hung out once they'd come off stage or done a gig.

This was Liverpool bohemia writ large.

The Phil, or the Philharmonic Dining Rooms to give it its formal name, was built between 1898 and 1900, said by some local legends to have been at the behest of a local millionaire wanting somewhere to house his actress mistress. It consists of a large bar in a 'foyer' area, with two rooms, the Brahms and Liszt flanking a large central room called the Grande.

As classy as the Victoriana of the Phil was, both inside and out, it was a big part of the late 1970s, early 1980s Liverpool. This was despite, and perhaps because of, its award winning marble toilets.

On Monday and Tuesday nights, in the Grande Room of the Phil, there was jazz on, featuring the likes of Harold Salisbury's Free Parking and other groups I'd never heard of.

As the name suggests, the Grande was a big room with chairs laid out and a makeshift stage area at one end of the room in front of a fireplace, where the bands played.

A couple of my mates from youth club started going down some nights, and I started going with them.

I was intrigued, as much by the names as anything, and other than seeing Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong on old black and white films on the telly, I knew nothing about jazz.

As an artform, jazz seemed to keep its distance, with a cliched and easily satirised image of bearded men in suits blowing into saxophones and trumpets like their lives depended on it, using their instruments like weapons to keep the mainstream at bay.

But these were the early days of Channel 4, when on a Friday night you could watch two hour concerts in full by a cryptic but still cool looking Miles Davis. This was the period when he'd spend most of the show with his back on the audience, barely touching his trumpet while his band played a funky stew that was neither rock or jazz, but some weird hybrid which, flattened out on the small screen, didn't seem to make much sense.

This was the sort of electric fusion that you'd get at the Phil on Monday and Tuesday nights, played by what looked to my teenage self like middle aged men with moustaches wielding electric keyboards and fret-less basses which under-scored sunny saxophone riffs that matched the sun shining through the Phil's big windows perfectly.

In a Liverpool where a post-punk wave of pseudo-psychedelic bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes were all the rage with the hip kids, the jazz gigs at the Phil didn't seem to fit at all.

You couldn't read about the likes of Harold Salisbury's Free Parking and other acts that played the Phil in the then all pervasive, all powerful music papers at the time, and while I heard mention of people like Miles and Stanley Clarke and Weather Report, I had no frame of reference and no context for it at all.

The only place you could read about the jazz at the Phil was in a column in a local free-sheet called Merseymart.

As the name suggests, Merseymart was a local version of Exchange and Mart, and was largely made up of pages of classified ads from people selling fridge freezers and other domestic goods, which, in a pre internet, pre Gumtree age, was the only way of doing these things.

The only things other than the ads I remember were a series of short comic stories written in Scouse dialogue, and the jazz column. 

The column was written by a man called Alan Graham, who I recognised from his by-line photo as presumably being the promoter who stood up at the end of the second set of the jazz gigs at the Phil to introduce each member of the band in turn. After that, while the band did their encore, a large wooden tray would be passed around to collect money like you would do in church.

As he introduced each member of the band, Alan Graham would give a brief sound-bite of appreciation, using phrases to describe the likes of Harold Salisbury, who played soprano sax and flute, as 'a real musician's musician' and such-like. Then he'd announce the name of the band who'd be playing next week.

Phrases like 'a real musician's musician' cropped up in Alan Graham's Merseymart column as well, and he used it with such frequency at the Phil that, as a bunch of under-age scallies with no knowledge of jazz, we thought it was hilarious.

But something stuck, and even though Merseymart was desperately uncool, it was a lifeline, and I started looking forward to it plopping through our letterbox every Wednesday afternoon.

In his column, Alan Graham's wrote about jazz in a way I couldn't read anywhere else.

It wasn't necessarily great writing in the way I thought the stuff I was reading in NME and Sounds was,but it was informative, and he clearly knew his stuff.

He also gave you listings at the end, telling you what jazz was on at the Phil and elsewhere – like Chauffeur's, another basement club on Hope Street, which I went to once – over the next couple of weeks.

This was more than any other paper was doing.

Not just in the NME and Sounds, which were all about hyping up non-existent regional post-punk scenes, but locally as well.

I don't remember ever reading about jazz in the Liverpool Echo, which was the city's 'proper' newspaper, and maybe they were reviewed in the Daily Post, which was the Echo's morning equivalent, but we never got that, so I don't know.

And any local music fanzines, like the similarly named Mersey Sound – a serious sense of place and being at the centre of your own universe was always a matter of pride in Liverpool – might have had the occasional jazz column down the side of an interview with the latest next big thing, but that was your lot.

Anything that did appear seemed to be written, not from informed insider knowledge by fans steeped in the music the way all the post-punk indie-pop scenesters were. It was more written from the point of view of a curious onlooker, who quite liked the novelty of hearing something different to a bunch of boys with bad haircuts playing guitars, but who, like me and my mates at the Phil, had no frame of reference and didn't really get it.

It was the same in the clubs.

There were 'jazz nights', but these were usually retro-styled party bands doing covers of 1940s style dance-floor stompers for the cool kids who had maybe seen the same Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong movies as I had.

Things, however, were changing.

Punk and post-punk had briefly opened up a window where in terms of influences, anything went.

Dub reggae, funk and now even jazz was being thrown into a mix which would later sire Hip Hop, and which we now took for granted.

James Blood Ulmer released a record on Rough Trade, London's ultimate DIY label, and bands like the Pop Group were name-checking the likes of Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, and mixing up John Coltrane and Roland Kirk in a cBristol club called the Dug Out.

It was from here which would eventually spring Massive Attack, Don Cherry's step-daughter Neneh Cherry, and, eventually, Portishead.

When the Pop Group split into various offshoots, I went to see Rip, Rig and Panic, who named themselves after a Roland Kirk number, and who produced a manic stew of free jazz skronk and piano work-outs, some of which included vocals from Neneh Cherry.
 
I went to see them at a club called the Warehouse, and it was a revelation, although someone who knows about these things said that, compared to Don Cherry and the rest, they had no chops.

Another Pop Group offshoot, Pigbag, took a horn-led riff called Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag into the charts.

Within a year or so, what would soon be called the style press had picked up on another trend.

In London, a new jazz dance scene had started happening at a place called the Wag Club, and more and more bands were incorporating jazz and latin rhythms into their sound in a way that would eventually form a part of what would become known as World Music.

There was the likes of Dave Bitelli's Onward International, and Rough Trade released the first single by a band called Weekend.

This was a trio that featured vocalist Alison Statton from Young Marble Giants, who sang with guitarists Spike and Simon Booth, along with a low key horn section from people like trumpeter Harry Beckett and a saxophone player called Larry Stabbins.

I knew Harry Beckett's name because he'd played on Robert Wyatt's version of Caimanara, a single that was released on Rough Trade, and which was compiled along with Wyatt's other Rough Trade singles on his Nothing Can stop us album.

Weekend's sound on their first single, The View From Her Room, was a wispy sort of cool that leant towards a nouvelle vague image of coffee bars and French cigarettes. After the abrasive clatter of early records on Rough Trade, Weekend's chic pastoral approximations of bossa nova beats and Astrid Gilberto style understatement was tastefully infectious.

Weekend only made one studio album, La Variete, which featured Larry Stabbins quite a lot.

In keeping with the 'idea' of jazz as a style, Weekend also released a live album, which was recorded at Ronnie Scott's and, as well as Stabbins, featured a pianist called Keith Tippett.

The Face magazine ran features on this alleged new scene, and, fired up by my adventures at the Phil, I decided I wanted more than what the Merseymart could offer.

One of my mates who I went to the Phil with seemed to know about jazz.

He played saxophone in the school band, and his family had a piano in the front room.

He also had loads of cassettes, on which he'd taped snatches of records he'd got from the library – Woody Herman, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker – all these exotic sounding names of people who might never be pop stars, but who sure as hell were musicians musicians.

But who they were, where had they come from, and in what order they had appeared on whatever scene they were part of, I had no idea.

I was clamouring for context, and my mate also had various books published by the Observer, which were wonderful little pocket guides of various worldly artefacts, whether it was birds, cathedrals or manned spaceflight.

For the anally retentive, the Oberver's books were a pre-Wikipedia fact-checkers delight.

And I remember flicking through the Observer's Book of Jazz, which on each page had little biographies of everyone from Duke Ellington through to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and beyond.

And I remember going through it while my mate was playing one of his low attention span cassette tapes and not really getting anything, and being so frustrated because I wanted to know, but didn't know where to find out these things.

Only Merseymart, the Observers Book of Jazz and now the Face seemed to have a clue.

I WANT A JAZZ EDUCATION!” I screamed. “HOW DO I GET A JAZZ EDUCATION?”

And my mate looked at me like I'd flipped, lent me a couple of tapes – one of which turned out to be Return to Forever by Chick Corea - and packed me off on what was the beginning of a quest for a jazz education that I've probably been on ever since.



At my nights at the Phil, inbetween Harold Salisbury's Free Parking and all the rest, I'd started noticing some of the posters on the wall.

In those days posters was the way you found out about things, whether they were fly-posted onto makeshift red-brick would-be billboards in the cooler parts of town, or else on the walls of record shops like Probe.

Probe was the meeting place for all the local scenesters, and was a stone's throw from Matthew Street, where the Beatles had made an old jazz club called the Cavern world famous in the sixties, and where another club called Eric's had done something similar with the new wave of cartoon post-punk styled bands.

Eric's also had a jazz night, and before he started putting stuff on at the Phil, Alan Graham – who worked in an insurance office by day - had promoted jazz at the Cavern in the pre Merseybeat era.

But in those days posters were everywhere, and the Phil being a jazz pub, at least on Mondays and Tuesdays, there were posters for other like-minded stuff that was happening around town.

George Melly seemed to be a regular on the posters, as did a band called Supercharge.

But there were others, mainly for gigs at a place called the Bradford Hotel, which was a dark looking old-school hotel on the business end of the city centre, and which I knew from getting the bus from outside, because it was quite near the careers office.

And these posters for gigs at the Bradford Hotel, were for exotic sounding artists like Dudu Pukwana, John Stevens, and other names that weren't in the Observer's Book of Jazz.

Unless you were a regular at these nights at the Bradford Hotel, this was probably the only way of finding out about them, because there was nowhere to read about them, even though jazz, or an approximation of it in all its black polo necked glory, was now the style mags favourite.

I never took a chance on Dudu Pukwana or John Stevens, but after all those Monday and Tuesday nights at the Phil, and still hungry for a jazz education, it was inevitable I would move on to the hard stuff.

That came when I saw a poster for a show at the Bradford Hotel by the Larry Stabbins Quintet.

This was brilliant.

After Weekend had come to an end, Simon Booth and Larry Stabbins had formed a new outfit called Working Week.

This had come not only on the back of the jazz dance wave, but on a wave of protest that had grown up in the wake of Thatcherism, and which was given voice by music that was both oppositional and multi-cultural in its range of influences.

Working Week's first single was dedicated to the people of Chile, and was called Venceremos.

As well as Simon Booth and Larry Stabbins, Venceremos also featured Harry Beckett on trumpet and flugel horn, trombonist Annie Whitehead, Onward International clarinettist Dave Bitelli and pianist Kim Burton.

Vocals were split between Chilean singer Claudia Figueroa. Robert Wyatt and Tracey Thorn of Everything But the Girl.

Everything But the Girl were one of the bands who'd picked up on the whole nouveau jazz thing, and had released a version of Cole Porter's Night and Day played so it sounded like they were on the Parisian Left Bank circa '68 by way of a bed-sit in Hull.

Venceremos was swas released on Paladin Records, a Virgin backed jazz imprint run by jazz DJ Paul Murphy, and was so cool that it was released as a 'jazz dance special 12” edition' as well as the more regular '7” bossa version.'

The second Working Week single, Storm of Light, featured vocalist Julie Tippetts, the creative and personal partner of pianist Keith Tippett.

The Face loved both records, and Working Week were everywhere.

Which is why, when I saw a poster for the Larry Stabbins Quintet, I thought I'd go along and hear some light latin based jazz dance bossa nova with a campaigning political edge.

I couldn't be more wrong.

Because, in the dark and tiny basement of the Bradford Hotel, the Larry Stabbins Quintet blared out one of the most intense displays of free jazz I have ever heard.

As I remember it, of the other four people tucked into the corner of the room on the same level as the small audience sat on the fixed benches around the bar, there was a drummer, a percussionist, a bassist and one other, either a trumpeter or a second sax player.

At least two of these were dressed in extravagant African robes, and with hats that could have been poached from Sun Ra's Arkestra.

Again, as I remember it, the sound the Larry Stabbins Quintet made at such close proximity was a relentless barrage of horns and drums that seemed to stomp all over my expected notions of right-on latin work-outs.

It was like nothing I had ever heard before, and after a few minutes I remember my jaw dropping in shock at exactly how wrong I'd got it.

By the end of all this I was both exhausted and elated.

My jazz education had just moved up a grade.


Except, the next day, none of the papers were raving about what I'd just witnessed.

There were no reviews, not even in Merseymart, and nor were there any howls of outage at such a glorious cacophony.

I had no idea who the rest of the Larry Stabbins Quintet were, and I still don't.

I suspect one of them may have been Louis Moholo, but only because I've got an album by Stabbins and Moholo with Keith Tippett that was recorded around the same time as I saw the Larry Stabbins Quintet, and I couldn't swear to it.

Neither, as it turned out much much later, could Larry Stabbins.

I'd started thinking about this when I saw Stabbins play with Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra, and after I'd started listening in earnest to that generation of British based jazz players who I'd first discovered through listening to Weekend.

Keith Tippett had become particular favourite, and I'd seen him play a few times – in Edinburgh with Andy Sheppard, in Glasgow with Raymond MacDonald and George Burt, and, later, in London with Julie Tippetts, first at the Vortex, then at Cafe Oto with a much younger biggish band.

I could pick up records too by Harry Beckett and Annie Whitehead, even though Paladin had long gone.

But other than the Working Week records, Larry Stabbins didn't seem to have the same profile.

As part of my jazz education, I contacted Larry Stabbins on social media, and asked him if he remembered playing the Bradford Hotel in Liverpool in 1984 with the Larry Stabbins Quintet, and if so, who were the rest of the band, and was it ever recorded or released?

To his credit, after 18 months, after I'd completely forgotten about sending my random request, Larry got back to me.

He said that the woman who'd been the secretary of the jazz club who'd put the gig on had ended up becoming his wife, and that they'd both been racking their brains to try and remember who was in the band.

Larry suggested a few names it might have been, and I suggested a few others, but neither myself, Larry or the promoter who became his wife could come up with anything definitive.

Now, I still have every message from my brief correspondence with Larry Stabbins, and I can access it in an instant.

But what a shame that there's no record of that gig by the Larry Stabbins Quintet at the Bradford Hotel in Liverpool.

Not only is there no recording, but because there is no archive, and no review of it written down anywhere, not in the Face or NME, and possibly not even a listing in Merseymart, that gig has been wiped from the annals.

And it's the same for all those names on the posters for the Bradford Hotel on the wall of the Phil, and even for all those gigs by Harold Salisbury's Free Parking at the Phil itself.

It's like they never happened.
 

I only went along to one other Bradford Hotel gig.

That was to see Harry Beckett perform his Pictures of You album, which was either about to be or just had been released on Paladin Records.

The gig was in a different room, which was upstairs, and was much brighter.

The room was also big enough to accommodate a local youth jazz orchestra, who accompanied Harry Beckett on the performance, fleshing out his compositions' already lovely musical reflections.

By this time I'd picked up a copy of a magazine in WH Smiths called The Wire.

I'd seen the Wire before, but had never bought a copy, because I'd never heard of anyone who was in it.

But this particular copy had a picture of Annie Whitehead on the cover, and inside there were pieces on Whitehead, on Harry Beckett, and on Paladin Records as well.

And I thought, at last, here's something that isn't the Observer's Book of Jazz, but is about things that are happening now.

It seemed to be doing it differently than the Face were doing it, this magazine called the Wire.

It wasn't written by curious onlookers, but by people who seemed to know what they were talking about in the way that Alan Graham did.

And even though the NME released a jazz compilation called Night People as part of its series of mail order only cassettes, they still didn't really write about it the way the Wire did, which took both itself and its subjects seriously.

Much later on, I discovered that there'd been another magazine in the 1970s called Impetus, which was doing something similar with that generation of British based players.

There were interviews in Impetus with Keith Tippett and articles on Henry Cow and even This Heat, and through finding all that, and through that copy of the Wire with Annie Whitehead on the cover, and through going to see Larry Stabbins and Harry Beckett, my jazz education was getting better, and I began to be able to start joining the dots between all these things.

And somewhere in the midst of all this, I heard John Coltrane's A Love Supreme for the first time in the bedroom of a tatty student flat with the lights off while my senses were heightened by a Class C narcotic in a deeply self-conscious fashion, as if I'd stumbled on the musical holy grail.

Not long after that I read what P.J. O'Rourke said about smoking marijuana, which was something along the lines of how he briefly understood modern jazz and then fell asleep, but at least he was writing about it.
 

Fast forward now a couple of years, and I'm living in Edinburgh, just across the road from the Queen's Hall.

And that's great, because every Friday night there's a jazz gig in there, and with your dole card its only four quid to get in.

I'm a bit cautious at first, because my jazz education's reached something of an impasse since I moved away.

The first Queens Hall show I went to was by a sax player called Charlie Rouse, who I knew nothing about, and if I'm honest I still don't, although I remember reading somewhere that he played with Thelonius Monk.

And it was nice, because there were tables in the middle of the hall, and if you went with the atmosphere while you were sitting there, you could imagine it's the sort of jazz club you always imagined jazz clubs should be like.

The next jazz gig at the Queens Hall I went to was by Courtney Pine.

It was very different to the Charlie Rouse show, because Courtney Pine is 22, and the papers and the Sunday magazines are talking him up as the next big thing, and suddenly there's a new new wave of jazz musicians coming up on the back of him.

At that time, Courtney Pine was dressing like he seemed to think a jazz saxophonist should dress, in a big retro styled suit, like he was looking to Charlie Parker or John Coltrane from pictures in the magazines the same way his music was trying to do for his records.

And there was a lot of hype about Courtney Pine's first album, Journey to the Urge Within, some of which sounded great live when he played it, even though it was quite smooth.

There was a track on the album I liked called Children of the Ghetto, which I realised much later had been written and released by the Liverpool soul band, The Real Thing.

Courtney Pine started off well at the Queens Hall, and everyone wanted him to do well, because they'd probably read about this new wave jazz revival type thing, and they liked all the media hype, because that's what the media are good at when it suits them.

But for me at least, about half way through the night, Courtney Pine seemed to run out of ideas, and I got a bit bored, even though I didn't understand why.

A few weeks later, I went back to the Queens Hall, this time to see Wayne Shorter.

As soon as Wayne Shorter started playing, I understood why I got bored watching Courtney Pine.

It was because, like me, Courtney Pine was still getting his jazz education, and, maybe like Rip, Rig and Panic, he had no chops yet.

Sure, he could play, and he had the confidence and the attitude and the hype, all of that, but he wasn't quite ready yet to take on the world, or at least the Queens Hall bit of it, in the way that Wayne Shorter did.

But again, there didn't seem to be anywhere I could read about any of this that I was aware of, certainly not in Scotland.

There would be the occasional piece in the paper on Loose Tubes, or whatever new kids on the block were riding the wave of this media hyped up new jazz revival, but that was all.

There were plenty of Queens Hall shows I missed, by Dollar Brand or Carla Bley, and they'd be interviewed for the Herald or the Scotsman by great writers like Rob Adams, who's still doing it today, or Kenny Mathieson, both of whom helped with my jazz education.

I went to see Art Blakey late incarnation of the Jazz Messengers, and stupidly went to the toilet during his drum solo.

There were others I saw, like Marilyn Crispell with – I think – Lol Coxhill playing solo as support, and then later there was Keith Tippett and Andy Sheppard, and Stan Tracey's Hexad, and James Blood Ulmer playing with a trio.

In 1988 there was a mini season that opened with Don Cherry's Nu, which featured Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelas in the band, and which seemed to be a step on from all that World Music which had opened out a few years before.

The next month Cecil Taylor played solo, and the month after that, an Indian group called Peshkar played, who were pretty much Shakti with Larry Coryell playing guitar instead of John McGlaughlin.

My jazz education was coming on fine, but apart from Rob Adams and Kenny Mathieson, but it stil felt like there was still nowhere I could read about it all.

There was no dedicated jazz or new music publication that I was aware of in Scotland, just as there still isn't one now.

The major record label big bucks backing for things like Paladin Records was long gone by now, and I suppose it was the same for any kind of Scotland wide publication for what was already a niche market, and which simply couldn't survive without the advertising.

That's what's happened to most dedicated music magazines in Scotland, and that's a shame.

Because I don't know if any of those Queens Hall gigs were recorded or reviewed, but if they weren't, and if there's no record of them in the way there isn't of the Larry Stabbins Quintet or any of the other Bradford Hotel gigs, or if there's no kind of academic archive somewhere, then that's those gigs lost forever.

At least I still have the posters for the shows by Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor and Peshkar, and they're works of art in their own right, but if no-one can hear them or read about them, that's a tragedy.

Conversely, it's also a brilliant piece of myth-making, in which, through the lack of any kind of record, may be making the gigs I saw at the Phil, the Bradford Hotel and the Queen's Hall sound better or worse than they actually were.

That's what happens when you write things down.

It's never quite how it was.

But that's okay.

Print the myth.
 

Fast forward again a few years to the 1990s, and in Edinburgh, in Tollcross, Henry's Cellar Bar has become Kulu's Jazz Cellar, where every weekend the place is packed with a young crowd filling up the tiny dance-floor while a whole array of hip hop acts and jazz funk bands play.

These jazz funk combos aren't like the old guys with moustaches who used to play the Phil.

These are a new breed who've come up from the grassroots of Edinburgh's club scenes, and are playing without any kind of hype.
Kulu, who runs the place, is a long haired guy from Hong Kong, who DJs and loves his jazz with a passion.

Kulu liked the mythology of jazz as well.

That's probably why he started the club in a tiny basement like Henry's.

On the wall of Henry's Kulu put up some of the few reviews the acts who play Henry's have had.

They weren't big profiles or anything, just little reviews in the Evening News of all places, but Kulu likes them a lot.

There were a couple of reviews up on the wall that I'd written, and I was down at Henry's a lot now, because Kulu gave me a gold coloured pass in the shape of a credit card, which meant I could get in any night for free.

Kulu turned to me one night when he was looking at the reviews on the wall. “All the funky writers come to Henrys,” he says. “It's like Greenwich Village.”

No, Kulu,” I said back. “It's like Lothian Road.”

But I got his point.

The reviews mattered to him.

They were an acknowledgement that Kulu and everyone who played at Henry's had made something happen, and that there was a record of it, and by going down there as one of Kulu's 'funky writers', I was bearing witness to it somehow.

Things changed, and I don't know what happened, but I think Kulu maybe fell out with Henry, who the club was named after, and who ran the restaurant upstairs that used the same toilets as the club, and Kulu opened up in a place in the West End that used to be some kind of strip club or something.

I never went there, but it didn't seem to last, and I heard that Kulu moved back to Hong Kong.

The last tine I saw Kulu was when for some reason I found myself in Waterstone's flicking through the Time Out guide to Hong Kong, and there was a picture of Kulu in full flow behind the decks at some nightclub or other, one of Hong Kong's top DJs.

Such, it seems, is the power of the press.
 

Back in Henry's, without Kulu, a more formal set of promotions were set up, and Harry Beckett played there with Raymond MacDonald and George Burt's Quartet.

A few years earlier, there'd been a mad weekend at Theatre Workshop in Stockbridge, with the likes of Derek Bailey and Evan Parker playing.

And for me, that had set the tone for a lot of things to come, especially since the Friday nights at the Queens Hall had dried up.

Much later I started going to GIOFest, which brought the likes of Julie Tippetts – who I hadn't heard since Working Week – to Glasgow, and by this time things had really started opening out in experimental music, not just in Scotland, but all over.

In Scotland at least, these festivals started getting decent press coverage, or as much as there could be in an increasingly cash strapped print media.

A few weeks ago I passed over a 35 year old poetry magazine called New Departures to Niall Greig Fulton, one of the programmers at Edinburgh International Film Festival.

There was a season of Tom's work as a poet and playwright at the Festival, which also took stock of Tom's role as a jazz pianist and fan by curating a concert by Tommy Smith, which featured actor Tam Dean Burn reading Tom's poetry over it.

If anyone knew Tom, you'll know he was as Jazz as it gets, and there are all these stories about Tom in the 60s hanging out with Alex Trocchi and RD Laing and doing the poetry reading with Allen Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall, all of that.
In the magazine, as well as reproducing part of Stan Tracey's score for Under Milk Wood, underneath a poem by Tom McGrath was a darkly exposed black and white photograph of McGrath playing the piano.

Next to him, also lost in music, was Lol Coxhill, the bald soprano, as poet and jazz fan Jeff Nuttall described him in his impressionistic biography of the same name, playing his sax.

Where the picture was taken, what the occasion was and what they were playing we'll never know, because to the best of my knowledge, the moment was never captured in words.

Someone said to me once that a jazz record was a contradiction in terms – that once it's played live that should be it.

But I disagree.

I think they need to be preserved.

My favourite radio show is Jazz Record Requests on Radio 3.

At the moment it's presented by Alyn Shipton, with an avuncular warmth reading out requests which occasionally includes ones sent to hi by Robert Wyatt, no less.

Every request Alyn Shipton plays has a story attached to it.

It could be something about a marriage, or an anniversary or just a a memory.

And through the music, those memories become real somehow in a way that matters, the same way for Kulu when he was running Henry's those reviews on his wall mattered.
Today, there are national magazines like Jazz Wise, and the Wire has grown out of being solely a jazz magazine to become one of the most expansive publications on music that there is.

While it maintains an international focus, writers from Scotland include David Keenan and, more recently, Stewart Smith.

Above all, the pages of the Wire are enlivened by the ever wise, ever forensic and ever considered Brian Morton, who is now sole editor of the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings.

Elsewhere, as well as writing for the Wire, Stewart Smith writes about jazz in both the List magazine and online magazine the Quietus.

Both of these are columns which somehow sit incongruously alongside everything around it, much as Alan Graham's jazz column did in Merseymart thirty-five years ago.

As jazz changes shape, these writers and others are out there with it, documenting, archiving, and, most importantly, bringing the music they write about to vivid life by way of words.

Over the next couple of weeks at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, I know that Rob Adams will be reviewing for the Herald with a sense of calm and wisdom which similarly brings all this to life.

All of these and others keep the faith in a world where newspaper budgets are being cut just as pages are, while dedicated magazines are on a constant financial knife-edge trying to survive.

But what my extended trip down memory lane is trying to get over, is how important it is for these things to be covered by the press at both a general or a specialist level.

Because if they're not, then they get lost.

But imagine if some of the things I've been talking about didn't get lost.

Imagine a magazine that knew who else was in the the Larry Stabbins Quintet, or that Harold Salisbury's Free Parking were still playing out in Preston and other parts of north west England.

If there was some kind of publication like that, then perhaps Larry Stabbins might not have retired so he could see the world.

And maybe, after Alan Graham passed away in the early 1990s, the Phil might not have stopped its Monday and Tuesday jazz nights and put a quiz night on in its place instead.

Closer to home, imagine what a dedicated and fully resourced jazz and new music publication, whether in print or online, could do in Scotland.

Imagine being able to read about the plethora of activity that's going on, not just at the various jazz festivals, but everywhere else besides.

There are the three gigs a night over at the Jazz Bar, the regular Playtime sessions at the Outhouse, the female fronted Bitches Brew, or the long-standing Click Clack Club, which still keeps the Henry's flame burning.

Imagine a publication that can have a six page in-depth overview of GIOFest, Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra's annual gathering of the musical clans, followed by an overview of Tony Bevan's series of Saturday afternoon gigs at the Old Hairdresser's in Glasgow.

Imagine all the gigs that have now been lost or forgotten that could have been captured somehow, and a record of an event preserved.

Imagine all of that sitting alongside the Observer's Book of Jazz and Merseymart, and Impetus and the Wire, and imagine that happening here and now.

Now that's what I call a jazz education. 

Originally presented as part of a panel session on press and media as part of the Continental Drift conference as part of Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Saturday July 15th 2017

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Meow Meow - The Little Mermaid

“The sky is opening up!” says Meow Meow down the line from Australia, where she's just waking up to the sunniest of mornings. The avant cabaret chanteuse, dancer, performance artiste and Edinburgh regular has just been talking about how she feels after coming offstage from her multi media cabaret version of The Little Mermaid, which plays Edinburgh International Festival's late night slot at the Hub this year. She's been talking about feeling part of a higher universe, and the magic of that, all the while looking out of the window as she talks. Her sudden exclamation isn't her being melodramatic, however. Rather, real life has interrupted her reveries in a very fantastical form.

“It's a hot air balloon,” she says as she watches it float through the clear blue sky and past her window. While even she couldn't have planned such an appearance, the drama of it is perfect. “It's as if it's been summonsed from the wings,” she beams.

Meow Meow's Little Mermaid sees the artist formerly known as Melissa Madden Gray performing her own unique take on Hans Christian Anderson's tragic little fairytale. In the story, the mermaid of its title falls in love with a prince, and makes a deal with a witch to be able to walk on land as a human. To do so, she must not only face pain with every step she takes, but must also lose the power to speak.

“The Little Mermaid has always been in my consciousness,” Meow Meow says. “The stories of Hans Christian Anderson were always around when I was growing up. I wouldn't say I was obsessed by it, but I was distressed by the end that there was no guarantee of lasting love. I always felt drastically sad about that, but the story of the Little Mermaid has so many complexities about sexuality and spirituality. There are important things going on there about duty of care, but it's a story that's all about the complexity of self.

“There are loads of ridiculous things going on in there as well about looking for love, and at times it feels like a showgirl's lament. It's about a young girl transforming into adulthood, and there are things there as well about perceived beauty, and whether the mermaid has to give up her voice to find romantic love, and that fuels all kinds of comedy and tragedy. Hans Christian Anderson did this really bizarre thing at the end of the tale, and he tacked on this paragraph to bring in the reader and turn it into this morality tale, so the mermaid is unable to go forward or back, but I think when I first read it I was more taken with how weird it was.”

Disney, then, Meow Meow's The Little Mermaid is not. The production is presented in Edinburgh by the Melbourne based Malthouse Theatre, and is directed by Michael Kantor. At its heart are new compositions by Meow Meow's kindred spirits, Amanda Palmer and Australian singers Kate Miller-Heidke and Megan Washington.

“Mermaids are singers,” she says. “They're sirens, and I have three wonderful sirens who are also three of my best friends writing songs for me. They're all very different writers and composers, so it's a big emotional work-out for me. I can relate it to my own life as a showgirl, and there's something there about the way sirens are portrayed sometimes as femme fatales. It has deep resonances with the idea of being a performer. Is it self-expression? Or is it purgatory? Onstage, I certainly feel wrapped in the arms of the other sirens, so it's certainly not lonely up there. But as a singer and dancer, you're always worrying in case you lose your voice. That's the thing that defines us, and losing that, we'd also lose the thing that makes us loveable.”

There are other things going on in the show beyond Meow Meow's own direct experience.

“When I first spoke with Amanda Palmer about this idea of the mermaid being unable to go forward or back, we were surrounded by these potent images on the TV of refugees at sea, trying to get away from somewhere, and trying to get to somewhere else. I don't want to shove these images in, but it got me thinking about whether this is liberation, or is it a loss of self? There are multiple interpretations you could have, about innocence and guilt, but there's also lots of room for ridiculousness, and if you just want to take it at the level of it being a rollicking entertainment, then that's fine as well, but you do it at your peril.”

Meow Meow has form with such material, having performed a similarly styled take on The Little Matchgirl, which she brought to London in 2012. She first came to prominence in the UK performing as part of alternative cabaret night, La Clique, and since winning the short-lived Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Award in 2010, her star has been very much in the ascendant. Within a year she was appearing with Kneehigh Theatre as the Maitresse in Emma Rice's staging of Jacques Demy's 1964 film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and has performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal.

At last year's EIF, Meow Meow performed a programme of Weimar cabaret songs with Barry Humphries. This year, she sang with the Berlin Philharmonic, and was reunited with Rice to play the fairy queen Titania in her production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Shakespeare's Globe. At the Brighton Fringe, she presented Souvenir, a new song cycle penned with composers Jherek Bischoff and August Von Trapp. In Liverpool, she took part in the fiftieth anniversary celebrations for the Beatles seminal album, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Cub Band. She was Lovely Rita, leading a procession of traffic wardens through the Liverpool streets and graveyards.

Following her Edinburgh stint with her Little Mermaid, Meow Meow will be returning to Malthouse to appear in Black Rider, the junkyard operatic fantasia brought to life by the macabre alliance of Tom Waits and iconic novelist, the late William Burroughs. In December, she is at the Royal Festival Hall with Meow's Pandemonium before she returns to Shakespeare's Globe with Apocalypse Meow: Crisis is Born.

“Sleep is not in my repertoire,” she says.

Given the above, it's about the only thing that isn't.

“I live my life offstage as heightened as I do on,” she says. “But what I love onstage is going between grand passion and getting my fishnets caught on a button and colliding with the real world.”

Meow Meow's Little Mermaid is equally transcendent.

“It sounds naff,” she says, “but it feels like you're flying, and that there's a line between you, the audience and the stars. It's a strange feeling. I remember being sent one of the songs for The Little Mermaid, and I remember it making me feel part of this beautiful shining universe. It feels like I'm being transported back to childhood joy, and it feels like the sky is lifting off. That's what theatre's all about, bringing all that together like that. There's the need for music as well, and that's not an affectation. It's a connection to the heartbeat that makes you feel like a tiny part of the universe, and that's really magical.”

Which is where, right on cue, the balloon outside Meow Meow's window floats into view.

Meow Meow's Little Mermaid, Edinburgh International Festival, The Hub, August 3-27, 10.30pm; August 12, 19, 26, 7.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, July 25th 2017

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Monday, 24 July 2017

WHIST

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Freudian slips are showing all over the place in this new melding of physical theatre and virtual reality, played out in the top floor foyer of the Festival Theatre by Ashford based dance company, AOE. With the room adorned with a series of geometric sculptures, the audience are kitted out with a VR headset. This advises the wearer to stand over an approximation of a wormhole before signalling them to move to one or another of the sculptures in turn. Once here, the viewer is thrust into the centre of a 360 degree filmed dream sequence which, dependent on your reactions, takes you on one of 76 possible journeys drawn from Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams.

Over the next fifty minutes, this dreamer had his internal urges exposed by way of a series of films involving assorted mini psycho-dramas. Backdrops included a dinner party, a library and a very Ibsenesque birdcage. Others will have had a completely different experience.

Co-produced with Gulbenkian Canterbury and tanzhaus nrw Dusseldorf, AOE's production by the company's artistic directors, Esteban Fourmi and Aoi Nakamura, fuses the hi-tech with the primal to create a series of bite-size narratives open to interpretation. Onscreen performers Robert Hayden, Tomislav English, Yen-Ching Lin, Nina Brown and Steve Rimmer deliver their wordless imaginings with studied gusto. And if such extrapolations of the unconscious aren't easily dissected, fret not. At the end of the show, the audience are given a download code to receive an instant online analysis that provides a potentially illuminating personality study. Those in search of enlightenment have all this week and next to face up to their darkest thoughts.

 
The Herald, July 25th 2017

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Saturday, 22 July 2017

Peter Principle obituary

Peter Principle

Born 1954; died July 17, 2017

Peter Principle, who has died suddenly in Brussels aged 63, was the rhythmic pulse of Tuxedomoon, the San Francisco sired electronic avant classical ensemble he joined in 1979, forming the core of the group with saxophonist Steven Brown and violinist Blaine L Reininger. This was the case throughout a wilfully singular anti-career involving various exiles and hiatuses. Alongside fellow collaborators in video and performance, the trio constructed a back catalogue of nouveau primitive punk modernist cabaret that sound-tracked the ruins of an imagined Europe's past, present and futures. When Tuxedomoon played their first ever concert in Scotland in 2016 as part of a tour that saw them recreate their 1980 Half-Mute album in full, the choice of Edinburgh's multi-arts space Summerhall sat perfectly with the group's underground experimental aesthetic.

Such sensibilities were evident too on Principle's four solo albums, which fused electronic beats and off-kilter exotica to beguiling and sometimes troubling effect. Principle's bass playing was muscular, minimalist and insistent, and formed the bedrock of a form of art-rock that demanded its audience's attention.

Originally named Peter Dachert, the name Principle was inspired by the so-called 'Peter principle' management theory formulated by Laurence J Peter in his 1969 book, The Peter principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. Here, Peter observed how many corporate managers “rise to the level of their incompetence.”

Dachert was born in Queens, New York City, and started his musical career by taking drum lessons while still in the sixth grade of Andrew Jackson High School. Aged fourteen, he joined psychedelic garage band Zod, and played a winter residency with them at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village. After being gifted an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, he made experimental sound collages using guitars and found objects in a way that set down a template for his future recordings. Following a performance by Zod, his high school dean advised him that his future was probably in music rather than academia, and he dropped out. Moving to San Francisco, he took up bass, and, as Peter Carcinogenic, performed with a group called the Doctors.

After joining Tuxedomoon, following the release of Half-Mute on Ralph Records, Principle relocated with the band to New York, before they decamped to Brussels the following year in response to the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. President. As Americans abroad in classic literary fashion, Tuxedomoon signed to Crammed Discs, who also released Principle's first two solo records, Sedimental Journey, in 1986, and Tone Poems in 1988/9. In 1990, LTM released Principle's third album, Conjunction, which saw in a decade in which he and the other members of Tuxedomoon would go their separate ways, before reconvening eight years later. Principle's fourth album, Idyllatry, appeared in 2005, and, with stints living in New York and Virginia, he continued to work with Tuxedomoon on all projects since then .

Principle's passing was announced by Reininger on Facebook after he was found in his room at Les Ateliers in Brussels, where Tuxedomoon had convened to prepare new music for a tour which was due to take in London's Jazz Cafe in August. All dates have now been cancelled. The cause of death appears to have been a heart attack or stroke. Following the passing of Tuxedomoon's film-maker and visual co-ordinator Bruce Geduldig in 2016, Principle's loss leaves a huge void, and has left the band devastated. YouTube footage of what has turned out to be Principle's last live appearance with Tuxedomoon in Lublin, Poland, reveals a form of driving avant-disco way ahead of its time, and which put Principle's contributions at the music's heart,.

The Herald, July 22nd 2017

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Martin Creed - Words and Music

Life is up and down for Martin Creed. The most tangible manifestations of the Turner Prize winner's seemingly structured world-view can be seen in his public restoration of the Scotsman Steps in Edinburgh in 104 different types of marble. It's there too just across the road from the Steps in the lift of the Fruitmarket Gallery, who commissioned the restoration. In 2010, the gallery showed Down Over Up, an exhibition in which the gallery stairs were transformed into a synthesiser, with each step playing a different musical note. The lift did something similar, as a whooshing chorale moved up and down the scale depending on which way you were going.

Creed released albums of spindly minimalist ditties whose words went back and forth as they reduced an idea to its bare bones. He did something similar with ballet when he appeared alongside dancers from Sadlers Wells, who performed the most basic of steps. The programme also featured Creed singing songs and screening films featuring people vomiting, as well as one charting the rise and fall of his own penis.

This year, on the back of digitally released single, What the Fuck Am I Doing?, Creed has joined Edinburgh International Festival's theatre programme, with a three week late night run of a show called Martin Creed's Words and Music. The show forms part of EIF and the British Council's Spirit of '47 season to commemorate the Festival's 70th anniversary. For what sounds part art cabaret and part show and tell, Creed's approach remains singularly contrary.

Part of the point of it is to try and think out loud,” he says, sitting in a neat little office space in the Fruitmarket, and dressed like a technicolour Victorian hipster. “Whenever I've done things like talks, where I've prepared stuff beforehand, as soon as I get up there, it all suddenly doesn't feel relevant. It's the same as well for exhibiting works in galleries. So I'm bringing songs that are pre-written, and I suppose I'm bringing ideas that I've been working on to talk about as well, but it's not a show in the sense of, erm...”

Creed checks himself like this a lot, his speech patterns going back and forth as he considers every word. A sing-song Glasgow accent acquired when his Quaker parents moved to the city from Wakefield when he was three sounds consistently surprised by what comes out of his mouth. It's the perfect illustration too of his resistance to apply any clear structure to his Words and Music show.

In a way, the point of it isn't clear either,” he says. “If there is any point to it, it's a matter of trying to get through the day. Trying to live your life. The other idea behind is is that onstage is the same as offstage. So when I'm onstage, I might be just as disorganised as I am when I'm offstage.

This willingness to fly blind in both life and what he's been consistently reluctant to call art is telling of everything he does.

“I've been trying to work on words,” he says, “to work on talking as much as working on other things. I try to work on the noises I make in my life just as much as I try and work on the movements I make. I'm just trying to live my life, and that includes making noises, because I find myself here in this world, with other people, and I feel lonely and want to talk to them.”

Creed did a similar show in New York last year, where a “terrible” thing happened.

“The first night, I felt on quite a high afterwards,” he says, and then the next night, I started talking about the same thing that I started talking about the night before, and immediately I felt that it wasn't alive, because I was just trying to repeat myself.”

There is an obsessiveness to Creed's work that suggests a serious level of control freakery.

“I think that's what's wrong with my work,” he says, laughing, as he does throughout the conversation, “but I look at it and it's too controlled. That's what I'm always fighting against, the tendency to try and control everything. I'll end up with everything just all being neat and clean and nice, nice colours in a little box, or the song equivalent of that. You pare it down and pare it down till you're in danger of it being too controlled, and you take the life out of it.

“But I think I try and control things because I'm scared of losing control, and if I think about that, I think what I need to do is get the fact that I'm scared into the work, so people going to see the bit where I'm controlling things also get to see the bit where I'm scared.

Is Creed trying to make chaos out of order, then?

“Well, I dunno,” he says. “I just think I'm trying to fight against my inclination to try and control things, and kill things. I want to feel better, so I feel safer if things are under control, but then that'll lead to killing things. Doing a show like I'm doing here, it's one hour, so it's a little microcosm of life. Getting through the show is like getting through the day.”

Why push himself in this way? Wouldn't it be easier to hone a few routines and bluff his way through the gig?

“Aye,” he says, “except I just think I can't do that, and I feel shit if I'm repeating myself. It doesn't feel alive, and it's not exciting. Or maybe I just think I'm not a good enough actor, for want of a better way of putting it. On the other hand, I don't know how actors do it, but I don't think that they maybe do it in the way that I think that they do it. Maybe what I'm talking about is not that different from the way actors try to be fresh every time.”

Being in the moment?

“Aye. Exactly, aye.”

Where did the desire to do that come from?

“I think it's come from frustration,” he says, “and not being happy with my work, thinking that, although I might like some of the things I've done, maybe I'm just not really happy with them.”

Creed talks about his work as “a sort of soup. Everything's joined together, and there are some things in the soup, floating around, but it's mostly a purée. But if you're having an exhibition or making an album, then what you're doing is picking things out of that soup and then displaying them, so these are selected from the soup. But there's always something missing, and that's the soup. It's always artificial that you've taken bits out, and that's why the individual works are never good enough.

“But in a live show like this, it's possibly more possible to show different bits and pieces, so there's the possibility as well to display the soup. The point of that to me is that it's more like life, so then I don't feel that it's fake, or some weird, artificial, tidied up version of life. To me, that's more exciting. I think one of the worst feelings in life I find is trying to keep up a false pretence about something.

Creed talks about theatres and galleries as “a safe place to be chaotic. Because there's a framework, it's like a safe place where you can hopefully enjoy either the difficulty of life, or the kind of crazy mixed-upness of a life. It's like having a fence with a rigid structure in front of a garden that's got wild animals in it. The fence basically allows you to enjoy it, and you're not in danger from it.

Creed may not know what his new show is yet, but he knows what it's not.

“It's definitely not a display of what I've achieved,” says Creed.

What does he think he has achieved?

“That's the point,” he says. “I don't think I've achieved anything. The idea of achievement just seems really pompous, anyway. Basically, if you think you've achieved something, you're a dick. Because it means you haven't.”

Is that a fear of success?

“Aye, definitely,” he says, before he checks himself again. “I think so. Well, it could be something like that. It depends what you call success.”

Martin Creed's Words and Music, The Studio, Edinburgh International Festival, August 4-27, 10.30pm
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, July 21st 2017

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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Richard Findlay obituary

Born November 5 1943; died July 8 2017.

Richard Findlay, who has died after a short illness aged 73, was a rare breed in the boardrooms of the numerous arts organisations he chaired. Unlike some of the familiar merry go round of Scottish establishment patricians looking to up their status by taking on such a role, Findlay cared deeply about the arts. This was the case whether as the inaugural chair of the newly set up National Theatre of Scotland in 2003, or stepping in to steer Creative Scotland out of a mess of the organisation's own making in 2015. The latter followed a period when Scotland's arts funding body had become mired in a culture of managerialism that lost the faith of the artistic community the organisation was there to serve. Such a culture was counter to everything that Findlay stood for.

As an actor, Findlay played small parts in several TV dramas. It was behind the scenes in broadcast media where Findlay would excel, however, particularly in local radio, where he proved to be a pioneering and steady hand. It was an interest Findlay retained throughout his life, latterly through New Wave Media, run by his son, Paul.

Richard Findlay was born Dietrich Rudolf Barth in Berlin. His father was presumed to be killed in action while fighting on the Russian front. His mother Inge was working as a translator with the British Occupation force in Germany when she met Captain Ian Findlay, and the pair married. The Captain returned to Edinburgh with Inge, Rudolf and his older sister Linde, where, in his new Scottish home, Rudolf became Richard.

The children had to learn English quickly, which they did through the pages of comics the Dandy and the Beano. Perhaps it was here that Findlay developed his sense of humour that he retained throughout his life along with a twinkle in his eye that co-existed alongside his ability as a shrewd boardroom operator. With his mother speaking English in an American accent, and with post-war anti German sentiments rife, Findlay was smart enough to cover his tracks by pretending she actually was American.

This acumen for play-acting led to Findlay enrolling in what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow, where he later sat on the Board of Governors between 2000 and 2004, after which he became chair of the RSAMD Trusts until April 2008. As a student, Findlay studied the Diploma in Dramatic Art from 1960 to 1963. Before his first year was out, he had taken the title role, albeit with seven others, in a production of Peer Gynt, Ibsen's rollicking fantasia about a wide-eyed young man's travails throughout the world.

Findlay also appeared in the likes of Twelfth Night, Three Sisters and Hobson's Choice. He was a one man Chorus in Antigone, and played Camillo in The Winter's Tale. In his final year, Findlay won second prize in a BBC competition, which came with a six month contract. Findlay made his small screen debut as a monk in a version of The Brothers Karamazov, before playing three separate roles in This Man Craig, the secondary school set drama that starred John Cairney as an upbeat science teacher, and which gave early roles to a host of now well known actors, including Alex Norton and David Hayman. Findlay also appeared in another drama series, The Revenue Men.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, Findlay flirted with pirate radio, working on marketing for Radio Scotland (not BBC Radio Scotland, which wouldn't begin broadcasting until over a decade later) and Radio London. With the demise of the pirates, Findlay worked as a continuity announcer on the BBC, before spending a year in Saudi Arabia setting up an English language radio station. On his return to Edinburgh he met Elspeth Menzies. The pair married in 1971, and he spent the rest of his life with her. In 1972, Findlay joined the Central Office of Information's radio division in London, and he and Elspeth moved to East Sussex, where they converted a fourteenth century tithebarn.

In 1973, Findlay joined the newsroom of the newly established Capital Radio, and also formed Waverley Radio to compete for the east of Scotland license won by Radio Forth. Findlay joined Forth as programme controller, and his voice was the first to be heard on the fledgling station. After a false start, a shake up saw Findlay appointed chief executive of the station, and he was instrumental in helping regulations to be relaxed in a way that allowed Radio Forth and Radio Clyde to merge in 1991 as Scottish Radio Holdings.

In the early 1990s Findlay became chair of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, where Kenny Ireland was appointed as artistic director. Over the next decade, Ireland's tenure gave the theatre an extra swagger. Findlay operated with similar boldness in 2003 when he was appointed founding Chair of the National Theatre of Scotland, and Vicky Featherstone became inaugural artistic director. The new company's radical Theatre Without Walls model allowed the company to make its mark in a different way than might have been expected by long-term campaigners for a national theatre. The early runaway success with John Tiffany's production of the Gregory Burke scripted Black Watch put the company on a global stage.

In 2007, Findlay became chair of a then floundering STV, and in 2009 was made a Fellow of his old alma mater, now the RCS. Other appointments included chair of Lothian Health Board and Rector of Heriot Watt University. In 2013, Findlay was made a CBE for services to the arts and creative industries.

When he was drafted in to sort out Creative Scotland in 2015, his wisdom and calm expertise was welcomed by an artistic community who had been driven to despair by the quango's disastrous and alienating propensity for behaving as if it were a private enterprise. One suspects his work to change the toxic managerialist culture within the organisation had barely begun before he took ill, and he will be a seriously tough act to follow.

For all his boardroom skills, friends of Findlay talked of his brilliance at spotting talent, and of his over-riding sense of joy with the world. They talked too of Findlay as an innocent who never expected to find himself occupying the positions within the worlds of arts, media and business that he did with such quiet diligence and care.

For any arts organisation to thrive, it takes a boardroom visionary to have faith and confidence enough in the artists creating the work to allow them to take risks. This was something Findlay understood with a sense of empathy and understanding of how art works in relation to other factors, and which gave them confidence to thrive. All of this was done with a selflessness that many arts bureaucrats could learn from. Findlay never wanted anything from his achievements, one friend said. He just gave.

Findlay is survived by his wife, Elspeth, their sons Adam and Paul, daughter Hannah and six grand-children.

The Herald, July 19th 2017

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Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Zinnie Harris - Oresteia, Rhinoceros and Meet Me at Dawn

Zinnie Harris may have three plays on at this year's Edinburgh International Festival, but as she wishes to make clear from the off, it's not a retrospective. The fact that one of them is a speedy revival of a work originally presented as a trilogy, one a new adaptation of a twentieth century classic, and one a brand new work, seems to validate the increasingly prolific Edinburgh based writer and director's claim. The three productions also see Harris and EIF teaming up with three of Scotland's major producing houses as well as enabling an international collaboration with a company from Turkey.

First out the traps for the Harris season, if we can call it that, is Rhinoceros, a new version of the 1959 play by Romanian absurdist and contemporary of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, in which the population of a small French town turn into rhinoceroses. Often read as a warning about the rise of Nazi-ism before World War Two, director Murat Daltaban's co-production between the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh and the Istanbul-based DOT Theatre should be given new relevance by recent events in Turkey and elsewhere.

The day after Rhinoceros opens, the Traverse presents the first preview of Meet Me At Dawn, a brand new play by Harris, which uses the Orpheus and Eurydice myth as a starting point for an exploration of loss and grief. Traverse artistic head Orla O'Loughlin will direct.

The Citizens Theatre's revival of Oresteia: This Restless House, Harris' epic reimagining of Aeschylus' ancient trilogy of tragedies continues Harris' drawing from Greek roots. Dominic Hill's mighty production duly won him the 2016 Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland Best Director award, while it was also named as Best Play. Harris followed this up by scooping this year's Best Director award for her own Lyceum production of Caryl Churchill's play, A Number.

The latter point is telling, because, while all three of Harris' EIF plays come from classical roots, as with Churchill's work, they all deal with both the personal and the political in ways that play with narrative form. Despite Harris' experience writing for television on shows such as Spooks, all three are steeped in various forms of theatricality which wouldn't translate easily to the small screen.

“They are all very different pieces of work,” says Harris. “People are going to see a range of my writing, but hopefully they'll also see where my writing overlaps, and what it is I've been trying to do with each of them. This Restless House feels like something that's been tried and tested, whereas Meet Me At Dawn and Rhinoceros are going to be evolving in the rehearsal room.

“What's nice about revisiting a piece of work is that you get a second chance to fine-tune. That's a completely different level of interaction and process to Rhinoceros, which I'm working on in a much more muscular way. Then, because Meet Me At Dawn is brand new, it feels like a completely different proposition, and one feels a certain level of nervousness as one puts it out there. It's quite close to me in some ways. It's much more an exploration of a set of emotions, and a quieter tale that feels closer to my experience and the experience of others, maybe, than that big Greek epic story.”

A little Greek can still be found in Meet Me At Dawn, however, which Harris describes as “a story of a woman's journey through grief. My inspiration was Orpheus and Eurydice, but in fact it parts from that almost straight away. What I think is interesting about Orpheus and Eurydice is the obsession to see their loved one one more time, and I just took that as a jumping off point, really. Orpheus was allowed to walk out of the Underworld in the belief that Eurydice was following him, providing he never actually saw her, and what I suppose is my sort of thought experiment, is what if you did actually get to see the departed person, but it was in a very time limited way, so you literally got a day. What would that day feel like, what would it be like?

“I think the thing about Greek is that it can comes from a place of magical thinking, because you can get lost in the what if of things. What if this had played out differently? What if that accident hadn't have happened? What if these events had turned out another way? I think we can collectively do that sometimes when a political event goes the wrong way. You spend weeks going, what if that hadn't happened, and those processes of denial and self delusion almost happen in those moments too.”

Harris was writing Meet Me At Dawn in the wake of the result of the Brexit referendum, “when there was probably a lot of collective denial and disbelief and lack of acceptance in lots of different ways. Not just personally, but also politically, and I suppose I felt that exploring the what ifs and the land of Never-Never seemed like a fruitful place for a play.”

In a post-Brexit world, Rhinoceros heightens such notions even more, particularly given the current state of political affairs in Turkey.

“There was always a sense that we had to get this on quickly,” Harris says of the play, “because the world is changing so fast. People often say that Rhinoceros is a play about the rise of the right. To some degree it is, but I actually think it's a play about a crowd mentality suddenly coming up with a way of looking at the world that feels completely at odds with something that they would've thought a few months before. It's about that moment where there's a sort of collective turning on their head of upheld principles, and how there's something scary and unstoppable about that. Once that starts, there's a momentum and an energy to it that you can't really stand up against, and that I think is utterly timeless, because we don't know what's going to happen.”

The umbilical threads that bind each of Harris' EIF plays may not be obvious, but, again, as with Caryl Churchill's work, the meeting of the personal and the political are at their heart.

“I think they are all stories that combine a kind of personal moment of crisis against a backdrop that's either political,” says Harris, “or else they have to work their way out of something that's constraining them. In Meet Me At Dawn, there is the moment of crisis, which is the understanding that these two people have lost each other, and somehow work out a way to contain that and cope with it. In a sense, the whole play is about coming to terms with those things, and dealing with the hand that'd been dealt. In all three plays I think there is something about the personal experience, and looking at that in a contemporary context against a backdrop of constraint.”

Rhinoceros, The Lyceum, Edinburgh, August 3-12, 7.30-9.40pm; Meet Me At Dawn, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 4-27, various times; Oresteia: This Restless House, The Lyceum, Edinburgh, August 22-27, 6-10.25pm.

 
The Herald, July 18th 2017

Ends








Monday, 17 July 2017

Queen Lear

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Four stars

“When the mind is free,” says the terrified old lady at the centre of Jennifer Dick's female reworking of Shakespeare's mightiest tragedy, “the body is delicate.” With Janette Foggo's matriarchal Lear having alienated her entire brood both from herself and each other, there's a double edged sword to such a proclamation, that is a cry for help as much as attention. In Dick's Bard in the Botanics production, however, Lear sees as much or as little as she wants to.

There are hints that the ageing Queen is losing her senses from the off, as she attempts emotional blackmail on her three kids, only to set off the ultimate family feud. It is telling too that, while her two daughters Regan and Goneril are at each other's throats, Lear dotes on her youngest, who here has been transformed from Cordelia into a geeky boy called Cornelius. He would rather play the fool than be molly-coddled, and when he disguises himself in clown make up as Poor Tom, his mother latches on to his new persona as a surrogate to stave off her son's seeming rejection.

All of this is played out on designer Gillian Argo's rustic shack, decorated with stags skulls that suggest any lingering male influence has been dealt with good and proper. Wearing jumpers and jodhpurs, the six actors onstage look like they've stepped out of a James Cowie painting. Composer Sally Simpson's underscore mixes cracked folk mournfulness with a storm that seems to have erupted from a BBC Radiophonic Workshop out-take. It is a mother's fear of being deserted by her offspring, however, that leads to her saddest of downfalls.

The Herald, July 17, 2017

ends