Saturday 31 January 2015

Nicola Conte returns to Ronnie Scott's

Nicola Conte returned to Ronnie Scott's last night for the first of four concerts spread over two evenings. As ever, it was a show to remember with extremely polished performances from all concerned but the show was absolutely stolen by sax player Magnus Lindgren and female vocalist Melanie Charles who not only shone in their own right but treated us to a musical conversation between voice, sax and flute.

The first set is always a little shorter at Ronnie Scott's to ensure the second house gets started on time and cognisant of that, Conte led his musicians through a series of songs taken mostly from his two most recent albums Love and Revolution and Free Souls as well as a few other older number. The music flowed with very little chat from the stage and the audience liked that just fine. Opening with the instrumental number All Praise To Allah from Love and Revolution before Ms Charles took the stage to Spirit of Nature from the more recent recording (which features her voice). We were then taken on a musical journey through jazz, soul and African influenced tracks including the joyous We Get Our Love From The Sun, Black Spirits, Shades of Joy, Soul Revelation  and a riotous psychedelic soul version of the spiritual song, Sometimes I Feel Like  A Motherless Child  first recorded by Paul Robeson in the 1930's. 

Exquisitely elegant, Haitian born New York resident Ms Charles is a very talented young woman. In patterned dress and green shoes she treated us to a little of her skills on the flute, harmonising with Lindgren. But most of all this girl can sing and she gave us a hint of her scat skills on Hoagey Carmichael's Baltimore Oriole and We Get Our Love From the Sun. It would have been good to see a little more of that - but she's going to be around for a long time. Baltimore Oriole was given a good long workout with some great piano and flute and of course a soaring vocal. I have always loved Lorez Alexandria's 1957 and 1963 versions of this song but Nicola and the crew gave her a run for her money last night.

Conte is an egalitarian leader allowing his musicians to showcase their talents, not dominating, but very definitely holding the whole thing together on guitar and being the musical genius behind the ultra sophisticated Nicola Conte sound. The current combo is completed by three excellent Italian musicians, long time member Pietro Lussu on piano, rising star Luca Alemanno on bass and Marco Valeri on drums. Italy has become a real force in modern jazz with not only Conte but also Gaetano Partipilo ( a former member of Conte's combo), Gerardo Frisina (Movement surely being one of the best jazz albums of 2014) and of course gravel voiced vocalist Mario Biondi. In fact there was a bit of an Italian thing going on last night at Ronnie Scott's as Georgia Mancio opened the show and included Bruno Martino's 1960 composition Estate in her set.

My first concert at Ronnie Scott's for 2015. A great start.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

The Joy of Vinyl

I bought my first vinyl record when I was 11. It was Cilla Black's Something Tells Me Something's Gonna Happen Tonight. I am not ashamed. If I tell the truth I probably bought it because my mam liked  it. I went on to buy many more records over the years, initially seven inch singles and a few albums which we referred to as LPs (long players) and eventually, in the 1980's, hundreds of 12 inch singles. My taste was influenced by my brother who had a huge collection of soul music records. I especially liked the Motown recordings of the 1960's and 1970's - feeing very sophisticated when I bought The Supremes' Automatically Sunshine when I was 12 - as well as almost anything that came out on Stax or Atlantic. In my later teens and throughout my twenties (and now), I loved the genre that came to be known as jazz funk.

I was brought up in a very small northern town but was fortunate enough to have access to a great record shop one hour's bus ride away in Middlesbrough - Alan Fearnley records. This was a treasure trove for me. I would visit every Saturday to browse through the racks of records including very sophisticated looking and sounding imported items form the States. Alan Fearnley stood behind the counter for many years stroking his beard and recommending some cracking tracks to me. Too many to list, but a few stick out in my memory. Phyllis Hyman's You Know How To Love Me, Bonnie Pointer's Free Me From My Freedom (on red vinyl - coloured vinyl became fashionable during the disco era), Bernard Wright's Bread Sandwiches, The Heath Brother's For The Public and Gary Bartz' Music. I was able to take these home to my bedroom and escape from the claustrophobia of growing up in a small town with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Inevitably I became a nerd, buying special cardboard covers for the seven inch singles, special arranging my records in alphabetical order by artist (I ended up working in a library) and drawing up imaginary playlists for the edgiest dance club that never existed. Some of this must also have been my brother's influence. He ran a mobile disco and would occasionally let me accompany him on gigs and even play some of the records from time to time.

Clearly the important thing about vinyl records is the music and the hissing sound as the stylus hits the plastic, but for me, records are a bit like books. There is a physicality about them. They are good to handle. Albums especially come in nice packaging with lots of information about the singers, musicians, sleeve artist and during the late 1980's and 1990's some even included details on who did the hair and make-up for the cover photo. Even better, some  of them even included a lyric sheet so you could very discretely sing along with your favourites in the privacy of your own bedroom. Imported records were even better. Many of the US label designs were different to the UK versions with much brighter colours and eye catching graphics. You also needed a special adapter to place in the centre of US imports to be able to play them.

Over time my tastes developed and I began to expand my interest to include more jazz influenced records. I acquired several of the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald song book series - double albums of her recordings of the works of Harold Arlen, Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. I also discovered Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Richie Cole and Herbie Hancock. During my student years in Newcastle I had very little spare money but invested quite a lot of it in the legendary Callers music shop on Northumberland Street. Callers was home to rack after rack of the most wonderful collection of soul, dance and jazz funk recordings and it was here that I discovered Mile Davis's Porgy and Bess album, Japanese musician Hiroshi Fukumura and some re-issued recordings of Della Reese. Callers was terrific but like Fearnley's is sadly also gone. 

Good things often come to an end and during the 1990's the popularity of vinyl began to wane. I knew the rot had really set in back in the early 1990's when I wanted to buy a jazz compilation - Jazz on a Summer's Day from the now departed and much missed HMV store at Oxford Circus. I was affronted when told it was only available on a CD or a cassette. No vinyl. It was the beginning of the end and over time I reluctantly moved to the CD format. 

In 2001 I moved to the far east and gave away or sold many of my belongings, including my turntable (but not my records!). A change of plan meant I came back to the UK sooner than expected but somehow I never got around to replacing the turntable and my records stayed in boxes and on shelves, undisturbed for more than a decade, although I never once considered disposing of them in any way.  I became a committed CD purchaser and re-purchased many of the vinyl albums I had in CD format. Over the last decade vinyl has seen a bit of a revival and at least here in London its not so rare to see mainly young people carrying vinyl purchases on the tube presumably on their way back to their bedrooms in the same way I did. At first I was a little sniffy about this. Having had a peep at what was on offer in the music shops, the vinyl selections seemed to be extremely random and often much of what was available was second hand with all the attendant risks of being scratched or otherwise damaged. 

That might have been the end of it, but last month, as a complete surprise I was given a turntable and since then I have been more or less glued to it, rediscovering many of my old favourites, annoying friends and relations by constantly asking them if they "remember this" including on at least one occasion calling a friend and holding my telephone to the speakers to ask him if he remembered a particular track. That track by the way was The Facts of Life by one Daniel Madden. He only made one album and this was the killer track. I had forgotten all about it but recognised the superb intro in the first three notes.

I might have settled for playing records from my existing collection for the rest of my life, goodness knows there are plenty of them. Most of my favourite music stores have now gone. The big HMV at Oxford Circus went a couple of years ago and Red Records in Brixton has gone. But Ray's Jazz in the wonderful new Foyles book shop has a small but interesting collection of jazz recordings on vinyl that I have been looking at for some time. Although much more expensive than  they used to be - between 17 and 25 quid, there are some very interesting recordings there…And I've given in. Last week I bought two re-issued jazz albums Blue Serge by Serge Cheloff and Dizzy Gillespie's Dizzy On The French Riviera. I also picked up a 12 inch single of Georgie Fame's Samba from the late 1980's via Amazon.  I never thought I'd be buying vinyl again. All three of my recent purchases have great sleeves, the albums have detailed sleeve notes and the music is well, just great. The hiss of stylus on plastic returns. The joy of vinyl.

Friday 23 January 2015

An art deco jewel - Palais de la Porte Doree, Paris

I first visited the Palais de la Porte Doree several years ago to see an architectural exhibition. I did not have much time and I remember it was a very wet day so there was no real opportunity to look at the building itself. I put that right last weekend when I revisited Paris and had a good look at this very beautiful building originally built for the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931.

The Exhibition was intended to showcase the resources of the French colonies and the diversity of their people. It lasted six months and is said to have sold 33 million tickets for its programme of activities. The French government brought people from each of the colonies to demonstrate their crafts, culture and architectural styles. This also involved something referred to as a "human zoo" with Senegalese people being brought to Paris to create a "village" which shows how the times have changed. 

The Palais is the only remaining building constructed specifically for the Exhibition. It is an imposing structure overlooking the Bois de Vincennes. Designed by architects Albert Laprade,  Leon Jaussely and Leon Bazin it is now home to the Cite national de l'histoire de l'immigration, a museum that tells the stories of the many migrants that eventually came to live in France from both the former colonies and elsewhere. The front of the building on Avenue Daumesnil features a long colonnade with squared columns backing onto an intricate and visually stunning series of bas-reliefs which were the work of Alfred Auguste Janniot. The stylised images include the peoples, flora and fauna of the former colonies. The workmanship is exquisite with sharp, clear lines, depth and movement. Janniot was also responsible for the freezes on the Maison Francaise in the Rockefeller Centre in New York.

Architect Laprade had direct experience of the French colonies, having worked in Morocco as assistant to Henri Prost. Working in Casablanca's town planning service, Laprade re-designed the city's Great Central Park before going on to design colonial administration buildings, parks and sports grounds in Rabat. He was to incorporate local Moroccan motifs into other projects in future years. Laprade's colleague, Bazin also worked on a number of significant buildings including the famous but sadly demolished  garage on the Rue Marbeuf in Paris and the Echo du Nord building in Lille.

The exterior of the palais is indeed stunning, but for me the visual highlight is the grand salon with its brightly coloured murals painted by French artist Pierre-Henri de la Ducos Haille. The murals continue the colonial theme of the external freezes with representations of justice, commerce, industry and science. Again, it is unlikely that these images would be deemed acceptable in today's world but the colours and the symbolist representations of different themes are striking. The murals continue up into the galleries ranged above the salon and there is a small exhibition of promotional materials from the 1931 exhibition on one of the upper levels. The galleries are accessed by an elegant staircase with a decorative metal rail which follows the attractively curved rise. The steps also have delightful decorative details. Whilst in the grand salon visitors should look up. The riot of colour on the walls commands immediate attention but the ceiling is yet another highlight with its recessed levels and contrasting colours. 

The grand salon is the centre of the building but there are elegant smaller salons at each end of the buildings. It is not possible to enter the smaller salons, but visitors can see inside from the entrances.  The list of interior designers who worked on the salons and other parts of the building reads like a Who's Who of French design and includes Emil-Jacques Ruhlmann , Paul Reynaud, Eugene Printz and Jean Dunand.

The Palais also has a cafe which during the summer months opens up onto the terrace ( a bit cold in January for that), and a book shop which carries at leads a couple of titles on the building, albeit only in French. For many years the building was home to the Musee national des arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie, the collections of which are now housed at the Musee de quai Branly. The Palais appears to have fund its niche with its current focus on the story of immigration, which together with the wonderful building means there are two good reasons to visit.

Thursday 8 January 2015

End of an era on New York's Lower East Side - Streit's to close its doors

One of the highlights of my 2012 trip to New York was a walking tour of the Jewish Lower East Side in the company of Jared Goldstein, alias Jared the tour guide. The Lower East Side is a rapidly changing area and has lost much of its former Jewish flavour but Jared was able to show me the still significant remains of what was once one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. 

Amongst many other things, he explained that since many Jews have now left this part of the city, a number of the remaining long established Jewish businesses and trades are staffed and sustained by people from the Hispanic community. A particular example of this was Streit's, the matzo factory in Rivington Street that still produces 40% of matzos originating in the USA and is the only remaining family owned matzo bakery in the country.

In 1897 Aron and Nettie Streit came to New York from Austria and in partnership with one Rabbi Weinberger, began making matzos by hand in 1910 in a small bakery in Pitt Street, under strict kosher supervision. In the 1920's the Streit's two sons, Jack and Irvine came into the business, purchasing machinery with which to produce matzos and opening the bakery in its current Rivington Street location. Aron died in 1937 and his sons Jack and Irvine died in 1982 and 1998 respectively. The business remains in the hands of the Streit family and the matzos are made using a process that has changed little in the 90 years since the bakery opened.

Sadly, it seems that Streit's is to join the long list of Jewish family owned businesses to leave the Lower East Side. It was announced this week that following this year's Passover baking, the factory and adjacent store will close forever, the family having finally given in to the constant stream of developers wanting to acquire this valuable piece of Rivington Street real estate. There are plans to find a new location for the business but this will almost certainly be outside of the city. One more Lower East Side landmark will disappear and another New York story will come to an end. Not quite the same thing, but it reminds me that all big cities go through periods of major change and my own city, London is no exception as we prepare to lose the Curzon Cinema in Soho to the needs of the new Crossrail railway. Crossrail has claimed a number of much loved buildings already including the former Astoria, site of many a good night out for Londoners over several decades. Let's hope that its worth it.

Matzo being made at Streit's…but not for much longer.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Saltburn - a Victorian town rejuvenated

Saltburn is a small North Yorkshire town perched on a cliff overlooking the North Sea. Developed during Victorian times as a seaside resort, it still attracted visitors when I was a child in the 1960's and I have memories of being taken there to walk on the beach, eat ice cream and go for a ride on the miniature railway in the Valley Gardens at the bottom of the cliff. I also seem to remember biting cold winds coming off the sea, but perhaps this was in the winter.  

That was all a long time ago but I have more detailed memories of spending time in Saltburn during my late teens in the 1970's. Saltburn had a strong Methodist tradition which at least anecdotally was responsible for the dearth of pubs in the town. Locals either descended the cliff to the Ship Inn right beside the sea, or coped by drinking in the bars of the several hotels that still operated then. The two most popular were the Zetland which overlooked the sea on the cliff top and the Queens, just a few streets away in the main square. The Zetland was my favourite and the place I joined several other underage drinkers on a regular basis from the age of 16. The smooth running of the bars and the hotel was overseen by a large beaded character in a black frock coat who bore more than a passing resemblance to an ageing Orson Welles. So, of course he was referred to as Orson, not Welles, but cart. Work it out for yourself. 

An hour in the Zetland was a Friday and Saturday night pre-cursor to walking part way down the cliffside to Philmore, a nightclub also popular with underage drinkers. From 9 until 2 it was possible to dance to slightly out of date disco music, a smattering of surprisingly left-field tracks and from time to time see live acts that included the Real Thing, Billie Ocean and Jesse Green. Not bad for a tiny provincial town. There was also a coach service at closing time to take revellers home for a small fee. 

Philmore was not always a nightclub. Built in 1884 and designed by one Alfred Waterhouse of London it started life as the Assembly Rooms and I remember being taken there to see a pantomime - Aladdin - at the age of seven or eight. During the interval, three ladies sang operetta songs. The adults seemed to like it but the kids smirked  at the soprano style singing. In the 1990's the building was extensively damaged in a fire, rebuilt and is now a hotel.

After a gap of many years, I have recently been spending more time in the north-east of England and a Saturday morning visit to Saltburn has become part of my routine when in that part of the world. I have been very pleasantly surprised at what I have found. Whilst my own home town, Redcar, has lost many of its independent shops (in fact many of its shops) and cafes, Saltburn seems to be thriving with several cafes, restaurants and an interesting selection of independent traders - avoiding to a large extent the takeover of the charity shop/ pound shop that has swept across many neighbouring towns. The main attractions are clustered around the railway station which is fitting since the town's growth was stimulated by the arrival of the train in August 1861. 

The station itself is host to a couple of galleries, one of which The Saltburn Framing Company sells contemporary art work with a vintage twist - divers, classic cars, etc and of course frames pictures. The image at the top of this post is a reproduction of a piece purchased there. Until recently there was also an excellent independent health food shop which gave off spiced and medicated smells each time the door opened. There is also a farmer's market here on the second Saturday of every month where you can buy great breads, cheeses, meat, cakes, jams, pickles and a range of other home made food items. I enjoyed the piece of flour-less orange cake I bought from the Spanish food stall!

Around the corner on Milton Street, there are several good quality food stores, cafes and one of my favourites - Lloyd-Scott and Beatty Confectionary. Housed in a small shop with a restored Victorian facade, this den of delights is filled with the sweets of yesteryear - sherbet dabs, flying saucers, gobstoppers, old fashioned sweets sold from glass jars, chocolates in vintage packaging and much more. Its one of my regular stops when in Saltburn. Real Meals is my other Milton Street favourite. A family run business, Real Meals is not only a great cafe but also an excellent delicatessen with a surprising range of products. I often eat here on Saturday lunchtime. There are some great soups and  I also like the Greek pasta with sun dried tomatoes and cheese.  You can get Fentiman's drinks here - I can't resist the dandelion and burdock - something I haven't tasted since being a child. And on the subject of drinks, if you get the chance to visit try the Grumpy Mule coffee too - thanks to my nephew for introducing me to it! The cafe's website incudes some recipes if you want to try things out for yourself.

Back in the square, there is a great little independent book shop - the Book Corner. It may be small, but the stock is well chosen with an interesting balance of well-known authors, more edgy material, local interest publications and a good selection of children's titles. The shop offers an ordering service and also has occasional author appearances and book signings. Opening an independent book shop is always a brave move and the obvious success of the Book Store is one of the most encouraging things about a rejuvenating Saltburn.  

After browsing the bookstore, I usually cross the square to Windsor Road and make a pilgrimage to Chocolini's to sample the locally produced ice cream and to buy "continental" style chocolates made in the shop's small factory unit. This is a real treat and even if you don't eat chocolate, its fascinating to look at the different items which include chocolate shoes, dolphins and even dinosaurs!

For a small town Saltburn has some great shops and cafes, but the main attraction has always been the beach. To get there from the town, you can either walk down the very steep and very twisty Saltburn Bank or in the "season" you can take the famous lift. The first lift was built in 1870 and could carry 20 people down to the pier but this was condemned as unsafe in 1883 and replaced by a funicular or "inclined tramway" which seats 10-12 people and operates between March and October. There is a small fee to use the lift which is powered by a combination of water and gravity. The two cars have beautiful stained glass windows which were restored in 1979 having been removed in the 1950's.

Once at the bottom of the cliff, there is a clean open beach where its not unusual to see surfers on their way to the waves, people on horseback and dogs of all sizes being exercised. The pier is much loved and won the national Piers Society best pier award in 2009. It is well maintained but one of my favourite features is the beautiful mould growing on some of the wooden structure with its different patterns and shades.

Saltburn is a very different place from the town I have memories of and although the grand old hotels have gone, converted into luxury flats or care homes for the most part, it is a more lively, vibrant place than it has been for decades. Of course, it has the advantage of some of the most beautiful coastline in the north-east with those stunning views across the bay, but the combination of niche retail and quality eating places give it that bit of edge. You can read more about old Saltburn on this very detailed website.

A former Saltburn hotel, now flats.
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