I've been in London for a couple of days, primarily to see Jan Garbarek in concert at the Royal Festival Hall, but I also took the opportunity to make that much-postponed visit to the Natural History Museum. It seemed like a good chance to catch up with my son, so we met up at the museum, which we had last visited together in 2001.
Not much has changed there in the intervening 15 years, and not in a good way. The NHM, like all the major museums, has made no entry charge for more than a decade (government policy), and while this is to be applauded, the inadequacy of any compensatory income from the Treasury is showing. Pretty much the same dinosaur displays, animations and interpretations are on show as were grabbing attention back in 2001, and are beginning to look their age. Not just dog-eared and faded, but technologically dated. Even the magnificent full-size animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex – surely the source of many a toddler's nightmares – is looking a bit static by modern-day standards. Nothing looks quite as shoddy as yesterday's novelty when the shine has gone off it.
Of course, the real NHM – the one I experienced on school trips in the 1960s – is long gone. Just one cabinet of the earlier type of display is preserved as an example of how things used to be done. I think we're meant to think, "How pedantically academic, how uncompromising, how gruesome!", but I thought, "How fascinatingly informative, how challenging, how spellbinding!" The two photographs here are both from that single cabinet. If you can be bothered to read the labels, to look and learn, they convey real information, in the real language of biology. I couldn't even bring myself to enter the hall boldly labelled Creepy Crawlies, though I'm sure there's some good stuff in there. Creepy Crawlies! How those Victorian naturalists, with their mission to educate and inform the public in an uncondescending way, would have loathed that. Somewhere I still have the booklet I bought in the NHM shop around 1963, containing clear, unsqueamish instructions on how to remove, clean, prepare and preserve birds' skins and skulls. I'm hoping something of that true, uncompromising spirit lives on at the NHM's Tring Museum, which is next on my museological list.
Rook-pattern baldness explained
Jan Garbarek, by contrast, has simply got better with the passing years; his slightly chilly, plangent, signature sound has matured into something with much more force and coloration, and he was in superb form. There can't be many 69-year-olds capable of sustaining that much puff over a ninety minute set with no interval. As a unit, the lineup he is touring with is very tight. They can really build a fusion-style groove, and then suddenly change the dynamic of a piece into something delicately fractured and dreamlike in an instant.
Mind you, I always have a problem at live concerts; I can find myself being distracted from the music by the appearance of the band members, and by the interactions and chemistry between them. Why does the bass player continually seek eye-contact? Why does the keyboard player look like he's expecting an important visitor offstage? Why is there a metal bucket behind the percussionist? I also become restless if I can't think who it is each band member is reminding me of. It took me a while to realise that Garbarek has a disconcerting resemblance to Dr. David Owen, with his widow's peak and dubious frown, and that charismatic Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu's mobile, full-featured face is a mash-up of Tom Stoppard and Klaus Kinski.
I prefer my jazz with as little ego on display as possible. A big ask, I know, but if a solo adds nothing to the flow or direction of the piece it interrupts, then it is a worthless display of technical facility (even if does give the others a rest and a chance for a drink). In this respect, Garbarek is admirable, but – while accepting that Trilok Gurtu is something of a superstar – I do think that three drum solos is two too many (besides, hasn't there been a by-law forbidding drum solos on the South Bank since 1976?). Oh, and it turned out that the mysterious bucket was full of water, and a key part of Gurtu's third, toy-strewn percussion party-piece. Ho hum.
I suppose it's inevitable that virtuoso musicians will want to show off a bit, but – having seen Jaco Pastorius in his prime with Weather Report – I think Brazilian bassist Yuri Daniel (who looks like a bullet-headed mafia enforcer trying to be inconspicuous in a nightclub) still has a way to go with the fretless electric bass to warrant quite such a lengthy, repetitive, and (I thought) uninventive solo. Keyboardist Rainer Brüninghaus, on the other hand, is so oddly uncharismatic and professorial as to seem sheepishly unconnected to the awe-inspiring power being channeled down his arms in some solo work that easily rivalled that of that monster of ego, Keith Jarrett.
But then, as I have written before, playing the piano is impossible, and the intervention of some higher power is a prerequisite. Who knows whom it will choose to favour?
Charles "Professor Piano" Darwin