Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Best of 2014 - Music

Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
This is Jackson Browne’s best album in many years. Few singer-songwriters do the personal and the political so well. What’s more he’s brought together some great musicians, including the remarkable guitarists Val McCallum and Greg Leisz.

Lucinda Williams - Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
Lucinda William’s lazy drawl of a voice set to another great collection of bluesy, literate, country rock. It’s a double album but there are no fillers. And yes, the guitarists Val McCallum and Greg Leisz feature again.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - CSNY 1974
Much has been written about the tour that this 3 CD set is taken from – drugs, drink, infighting, money – but people seem to have forgetten that great music was also being played. Graham Nash has done a great job in cleaning up the original tapes. A wonderful musical chronicle of the time.

Leonard Cohen - Popular Problems
His musical style may not have changed much over the past ten years or more, but in his 80th year Leonard Cohen still writes beautiful lyrics and music. He rarely disappoints.

Ben Watt – Hendra
One of the surprise musical discoveries for me this year was Ben Watt, a musician I knew nothing about. A gorgeous collection of songs driven by Bernard Butler’s lyrical guitar.

Case Hardin – PM
Yet another discovery. Case Hardin is effectively the work of Pete Gow and the album a set of meticulously recorded, dark and emotional songs.

Bap Kennedy - Let's Start Again

Bap Kennedy, an Irish singer-songwriter, has been around for many years and has released a number of albums over the past ten years and more. For me Let’s Start Again is his strongest, an incredibly laidback but captivating mixture of musical styles. 

Blue Rose Code - The Ballads of Peckham Rye
I only discovered this album after reading about it on Ian Rankin’s best of the year list. Since that time I haven’t stopped listening to it. Blue Rose Code is in fact the Scottish singer-songwriter Ross Wilson. He describes himself as  crossover artist and his music is certainly difficult to classify. Whatever, with each play the album grows on you like no other.

Joshua Redman – Trios Live
This is a live recording of the jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman backed by drums and bass. The album is essentially a series of extended improvisations which immediately make you think of John Coltrane but with Redman’s distinctive style. Brilliant.

Harold López-Nussa - New Day
Coming from a well-known  Cuban musical family, the jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa has received international acclaim. New Day is a fine example of his virtuosity.

James Farm – City Folk
This strangely named jazz band is another outlet for the saxophonist Joshua Redman, together with the pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland. They make highly creative modern jazz.

The Gloaming – The Gloaming
Most would see The Gloaming as an Irish traditional music group and album, yet it is so much more. While a major component of the band is the Irish fiddler Martin Hayes and the sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, there are clear influences from contemporary classical music and even jazz. It makes for a magnificent and, at times, intense musical experience. 

Best of 2014 - Books

Rachel Cusk – Outline: A Novel
A highly original novel in both style and structure, which offers an intriguing masterclass in how to write a novel on many levels. My book of the year. As ever, Rachel Cusk’s books are a delight to read.

Fernando Pessoa – The Book of Disquiet
On the basis of newspaper articles this year, it would seem that the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa is finally receiving acclaim in the English-speaking world. The Book of Disquiet is arguably his classic work. It’s a remarkable, dense, penetrating book, each page replete with philosophical reflections on everything, especially life, death, existence, love and so much more. I can see why some could read it as a cynical and depressing book but I found it uplifting and insightful. 

Louise Doughty – Apple Tree Yard
A psychological thriller which explores female lust and much more. A magnificent piece of suspenseful storytelling.

Thomas Mogford – Shadow of the Rock; Sign of the Cross; Hollow Mountain
These three books, which should be read in order, are crime novels and page-turners of the highest quality. They show how contemporary thrillers can provide fascinating insights into cultural life, in this case in Morocco, Malta and Gibraltar.

Jennie Erdal – The Missing Shade of Blue
The sub-title of this novel by the Scottish writer Jennie Erdal is a philosophical mystery. It’s also a compelling piece of writing set against the backdrop of intellectual and artistic life in Edinburgh.

Non- fiction
Geoff Dyer – But Beautiful
Each chapter in this deeply informed and elegantly written book centres on a jazz musician – Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker and Art Pepper. Geoff Dyer meditates on their lives and styles of playing in a dreamy, almost hallucinatory way. 

Karl Ove Knausgaard  - A Man In Love: My Struggle (Book 2)
This is the second in a series of six autobiographical books written by the hugely successful Norwegian writer (three are still to be published in English). It remains a mystery how such mundane subject matter can be written about in such a captivating manner.

Andre Agassi - Open: An Autobiography
Rarely have I been so surprised by a book. This is no run-of-the-mill sports autobiography, but an absorbing and brutally honest insight into the psychological and physical pain involved in becoming a tennis legend.

Paul Theroux - The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola
At times this made for uncomfortable reading as Paul Theroux delves with anger into the depressing and hopeless lives of some of the people he meets in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. However, the book tells you so much about what ‘development’ means today.

Martí Perarnau - Pep Confidential: Inside Pep Guardiola's First Season at Bayern Munich
This is the best book about football I've ever read. However, don't touch it if you're not into detailed discussions about tactics, training techniques and pre- and post-match analysis. On a more general level, it's an engrossing insight into the day-to-day life of a football manager who has refreshingly brought intellectualism into the game.

Rosa Montero – La ridícula idea de no volver a verte
An extraordinary and highly novel book which uses the life of Mari Curie as a way of exploring personal love, death and loss. It may sound depressing but her fluent prose is beguiling. When will Rosa Montero’s wonderful books be made available in English? 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Best of 2013 – Music

Josh Ritter – The Beast in its Tracks (2013)

Looking back over the past twelve months I couldn't think of many new albums that made a huge impression on me. The one exception is Josh Ritter’s The Beast in its Tracks, an album I’ve played endlessly. I never tire of the beautifully produced and crafted songs, largely written, like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, around how the singer-songwriter rediscovered love and optimism after the dissolution of his marriage. This is Josh Ritter’s seventh studio album, contributing to a deeply impressive body of work. He’s a truly gifted, literary and sensitive songwriter.

Son Volt - Honky Tonk (2013)

With Honk Tonk, Jay Farrar with his band Son Volt, continued to release fine music always set against wonderfully obscure lyrics. Alt-country, Americana, call it what you will.

Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture of You (2013)

The Texan singer-songwriter Guy Clark, now in his seventies, released a poignant collection of songs last year with My Favorite Picture of You. Age is no barrier to the creation of good music.

Townes Van Zandt – Sunshine Boy - The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972 (2013)

The legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt tragically died far too early in his life (http://douglascuba.blogspot.com.es/2009/09/waitin-round-to-die.html). This 2 CD collection of previously unreleased material Sunshine Boy is a fine reminder of just how good he was. Almost all the songs are played with only acoustic accompaniment, a pleasant change from some of his overproduced studio albums.

Quique González – Delantera mítica (2013)

This album Delantera mítica was the product of the Spanish musician Quique González's second recording visit to Nashville. It’s not as strong as his previous album Daiquiri Blues (http://douglascuba.blogspot.com.es/2011/06/poetic-sensibility-of-quique-gonzalez.html) but as with all his albums it still includes some beautiful, poetic lyrics. He also does a good cover in Spanish (¿Es tu amor en vano?) of Dylan’s Is Your Love in Vain?

Karine Polwart – Scribbled in Chalk (2006); Traces (2012)

Over the past year I reconnected with Scotland in a personal, literary and musical way. My main musical discovery was Karine Polwart, and in particular her albums Scribbled in Chalk and Traces. Her singing is pure and unaffected, and her songwriting successfully manages to straddle the traditional and the more modern. She’s a major musical talent.

Tete Montoliu

As in recent years I listened to many, many hours of jazz music in 2013, both old and new. The musician who impressed me the most, if only because I’d never heard of him before, was the Catalan pianist Tete Montoliu. He died in 1997 but has left behind many great recordings such as: Blues For Myself; Face to Face; Let’s Call This; and Tête à Tête. Tete Monoliu had an astonishing technique and, while he was influenced by Art Tatum and Bud Powell among others, he had a highly distinctive style of playing.

Best of 2013 – Books

Javier Marías

I’ve been aware of the highly acclaimed Spanish writer Javier Marías for a number of years but it wasn’t until this year that I got round to reading his novels. Once I started I could hardly stop, devouring five in the course of the last twelve months: The Man of Feeling (El hombre sentimental, 1986); All Souls (Todas las almas, 1989); A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco, 1992); Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí, 1994); and The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos, 2011). Marías’s rather dense style of writing can be difficult for some, as he meanders in long paragraphs, describing in detail the actions of his characters, touching on the banalities of everyday life, and then reflecting on love and philosophical issues, and so much more. However, he always maintains the reader’s interest with the simple development and surprises of classic storytelling. I read his novels in English and was taken by the superb translations by Margaret Jull Costa, which, of course, one would expect given that Marías himself used to work as a translator of English novels. If he wins the Nobel Prize for Literature in the coming years, as many have predicted, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. A writer to relish. 

Ernesto Sabato – The Tunnel

The Tunnel (El túnel) by the Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato is a classic of Latin American literature and was first published in 1948, but only came out in English two years ago. It’s a dark, intense, existentialist novel that focuses on obsession, personal alienation, anxiety and  mystery. How long do we have to wait for other classic literary works from Latin America to be translated into English?

Antonio Tabucchi – Pereira Maintains

I only discovered the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi this year having come across his work in connection with the Portuguese writer, poet and philosopher Fernando Pessoa. Pereira Maintains (Sostiene Pereira, 1994) is probably his best known novel. Set in Lisbon at the time of the dictator Salazar, the novel is a wonderful exploration of political conscience during a time of censorship and repression.

SJ Watson – Before I Go to Sleep

SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep has been a huge bestseller since it was published last year. It’s a hugely innovative and discomfiting novel about the role of memory in our lives and what could happen if it disappears every night when we fall asleep. It’s a fine example of a novel that manages to be both literary and a page-turning thriller at the same time.

Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

Over the past year I continued to read  autobiographies published recently by rock musicians – Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace; Pete Townshend’s Who I Am; and Eric Clapton’s The Autobiography. While they were all enjoyable enough, the quality of writing was generally pedestrian and in the case of Neil Young frustratingly superficial and bizarre. In contrast, Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (2012) is a fascinating and meticulously researched biography of one of the truly important rock artists. His huge contribution to popular music and poetry is explored with intelligence, sensitivity and deep empathy.

Walter Isaacson – Steve Jobs

The book that surprised me the most over the past year was Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs (2011). I approached it cautiously but left utterly captivated. This is another scrupulously researched biography and written in an accessible style, taking you through the engrossing and rollercoaster life of Steve Jobs. Of course, this is a book about the enigma that was Steve Jobs, but it’s much more as the reader is taken through the rapid development of personal computing, how we ‘communicate’ and how we now listen to music. It’s also a fine treatise on business strategy as Jobs successfully challenged the stodgy conventional wisdom of business schools. The biography is replete with amusing and frankly unimaginable anecdotes, and despite its almost 600 pages it never feels excessive.

Scottish Literature

With a trip back to Scotland this year after too long away, a number of Scottish writers were recommended to me. In general, I didn’t think much of the so-called Tartan Noir crime novels, although TF Muir, with his St Andrews based series of novels (Eye for an Eye, Hand for Hand, and Tooth for  Tooth), deserves special mention. TF Muir is not as good as Ian Rankin, whose this year’s Saints of the Shadow Bible was as good as anything he’s written, but he’s a serious challenger. Surprisingly for me he doesn’t seem to receive the attention I think he deserves.

Another Scottish novel I would recommend is Jackie Kay’s Trumpet about the jazz trumpeter Joss Moody who spent all his life living as a man despite being a woman. The story is fascinating and the book is extremely well written.

And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson is a page-turner, as the author takes the reader through the interconnected lives of a number of characters, all set against the backdrop of political change in Scotland during the second part of the 20th century and seen from a left nationalist point of view. The book took me flying back to my youth. My only criticism was that I thought that it could have done with some editing in places.

My final Scottish recommendation is Peter May’s The Blackhouse, a murder story set in the Isle of Lewis. It’s the first of a trilogy and is an excellent piece of storytelling set in the wilds of the Outer Hebrides.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Cuenca – The Centre of Spanish Abstract Art

The small provincial town of Cuenca in Castilla-La Mancha is the surprising centre of modern Spanish abstract art. In the mid-1960s the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español was founded and opened in the town by the artist Fernando Zóbel. Located in the unique Casas Colgadas or Hanging Houses, the museum is home to a permanent collection of paintings and sculptures from the ‘Abstract Generation’ of Spanish artists in the 1950s and 1960s. Continuing the ideas and artistic tendencies of Picasso, Miró and Gris, and many influenced by the abstract expressionist movement in New York which started in the 1940s, this group of artists, which includes Antoni Tàpies, Rafael Canogar, Luis Feito, José Guerrero, Eduardo Chillida, Manuel Millares and Antonio Saura, further developed Spanish abstract art in expressionist, materialist, and geometric forms in the 20th century.

I visited the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, now run by the Fundación Juan March, in July and was overwhelmed, not just by the wonderful collection of art on display but also by its sensitive organisation and layout in the historic Casas Colgadas. I wasn’t surprised to discover that the museum was made European Museum of the Year in 1981.

Many works by this same generation of Spanish abstract artists are also exhibited in Cuenca in the Fundación Antonio Pérez, which is located in the historic Convento de las Carmelitas Descalzas and which opened in 1987. In addition, Cuenca is also the home of the Fundación Antonio Suara, dedicated to the magnificent Spanish abstract artist.

Below are photographs of the Museo de Arte Abstracto and some of my favourite paintings and sculptures curently on display in Cuenca.

José Guerrero

Luis Feito

Rafael Canogar

Antonio Saura

Eduardo Chillida