Tuesday, 15 November 2016

External Topography Of A Bird (Ventral Aspect)

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


Millie Dolan said...

Used to live in Tring, so for me, the museum I've probably visited the most. I should imagine that it's still much as when it opened at the end of the nineteenth century as a 21st birthday present for one of the Rothschilds. You don't need to be that hard on the NHM London. Admittedly, it was nearly ten years ago, but I was shocked when I visited the New York version. There really were a lot of old fashioned displays which looked like they hadn't changed much since the place opened, again in the nineteenth century.
As for the jazz: something I've never understood and don't really want to. Am in a Purcell phase at present - something with good melodies like when I was a kid, albeit not in the 17th century. Lyrics not bad either by some bloke called Dry something or other.

Zouk Delors said...

Perhaps the NHM thought kids would still be amused to see an exhibit labelled Turdus Musicus? I know I was.

Mike C. said...

Millie Dolan,

It's the old-fashioned displays I'm after! I have high hopes for Tring.

As to the music, I'm never sure why people like to dismiss whole categories as "not my thing" -- "jazz" as a label on a box is as misleading as, say, "country" or "folk". If you like Purcell you may find Garbarek's recording ""Officium" to your liking, in which he improvises over plainsong sung by the Hilliard Ensemble. Why not give it a try? Keith Jarrett also crosses categories effortlessly -- his recordings of Bach are superb, and his solo improvisations like the famous "Köln Concert" are uncategorisable.


Mike C. said...


I had a feeling you'd pick up on that...


Zouk Delors said...

Haha! Some people never grow up, do they? Still, shows I'm paying attention ..

Anonymous said...

Aah, Garbarek! His earlier recordings (e.g. "Wayfarer" or "All those born with wings"), weren't quite my cup of tea, too. I found his playing a bit sterile and the folksy themes weren't my thing either. It all changed for me with "Universal syncopations (I)"; I agree that his playing is much more expressive now. I've heard him with the Hilliard Ensemble live here at Zollverein - magnificent.

I'm also a big fan of Rainer Brüninghaus, his playing in Eberhard Weber's famous "Colours" band as well as his work as a leader - "Continuum" and "Freigeweht" come to mind ...

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


I must check out Brüninghaus -- I was very impressed by his playing, restrained when needed, then opening up all the stops. It's funny, how one chases personnel... I have "Universal Syncopations" because of Miroslav Vitous, because of his playing on an album that included Bill Frisell, who I discovered via his playing on Kenny Wheeler's "Angel Song" (great album, that)!


Zouk Delors said...


Martyn Cornell said...

Heard Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard ensemble in St Paul's Cathedral. It was as good as you would expect it to be.

Mike C. said...


Wow, that must have been something. I believe sales of "Officium" keep ECM's bank manager smiling...