Friday, 30 August 2013

The passing of a Duke

It was with great sadness that I read about the death of legendary funk musician George Duke the other day, he was a truly powerhouse performer who combined eccentricity and fun with truly great musical talent. Some of his standout albums from the late 70s grace my record collection and have provided hours of enraptured listening over the years. 

I first came across George Duke when I made an ultimately doomed attempt to play the bass guitar when I was about 16. Although the guitar was to remain zipped in its case for the duration of my lessons, my teacher (who was a session musician of the old school) introduced me to a pantheon of great jazz, funk and soul artists whom I still listen to now. 

Amongst such luminaries as Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham and David Sanborn, George Duke was the one who stuck out most prominently. His style, his performance and his incredible session/live band which included old-pros like Sheila E (later to have success with Prince), Napoleon Murphy Brock (a longtime collaborator from Duke's days with Frank Zappa) and Byron Miller to name a few. He was an artist of consummate professionalism but with a sense of the ridiculous that many musicians attest made him a great pleasure to work with. One only has to watch his studio style during the recording of 1978's 'Dukey Stick' to see the energy that he brought will him to the session. 

His work could be sporadic with some tracks and albums noticeably weaker than others, but when he scored he scored a direct hit. 'Master of the game' which was the first album of his that I owned had many such moments including the sublime 'I want you for myself', the lush 'Every little step I take' and the funky 'Love you more' (famously sampled by Daft Punk many years later). 

There are other great albums from his golden age of the late 70s including: 'Reach for It' (1977), 'Don't Let Go' (1978) and 'Follow the rainbow' (1979) but his landmark moment came with 'Brazilian Love Affair' a 1979 labour of love in which Duke reallocated to Rio to infuse his music with the iconic sounds of Brazil and harness some of the incredible musical talent that the country possesses. From the opening guitar licks of the title track you can almost picture the sunkist beaches of Ipenema and Copacabana. This style is carried right thought the album, even through some of the more improvisational passages. It is Duke's crowning glory, a real treasure of a record! 

Once again I must reiterate my sadness at his passing, a wonderful talent who I never got the chance to see perform but who will live on through his legion of fans and, more importantly, through his excellent body of work! 

Friday, 23 August 2013

High Noon for Ed Miliband

Something of John Major circa 1995 is called to mind when I read of the Labour grandees and yesterday's men opening fire on the beleaguered leader. They were all at it from Prescott to Glasman taking potshots from their Blairite book depository. So much does the leader differ from his Cheshire cat grinning predecessor that those who remember and hark for the 'good old days' of 'Cool Britannia' are now poised with their knives drawn to unleash on young Miliband come conference season.

There is something so similar to the background of John Major's forced leadership election in 1995 that history could be repeating itself and it might be time for Ed to challenge his party to 'put up or shut up', ironically the calibre of the current 'pretenders to the throne' is vaguely similar to that of those that Major faced.

In some respects I do feel sorry for Miliband minor, he's a man who would have done very well in the 60s and 70s. a political player of the old school, there is something about him that's reminiscent of Jim Callaghan, the vaulting ambition, the union man the 'crisis, what crisis?' attitude. He is not the Labour of the mind but the wreckless, outdated labour of the heart, full of emotion but little substance. This does not carry in some lobbies!

But Miliband should not be too worried by this sniping. He has one thing on his side that Major didn't: the bizarre leadership electoral system that indefinitely condemns the party to a flagging leader through its sheer complexity of threshold requirements. Mili Vanilla (for that is the flavour of ice cream he best personifies, miming the tune of the unions) can sleep safe for now knowing that his rebellious colleagues and party critics won't be able to muster the credible support needed to mount a challenge - it looks like the party will be stuck with him for the meantime. 

It makes me laugh that the characters who have piped up with their tuppence worth are hardly the shining lights of the Labour Party policy process. Brian Wilson and Prezza are so craven in their attacks, they should look to their own records when speaking about competence and credible policies - if I was Ed the advice of these two coves would be the last thing I'd follow. 

Furthermore it comes down to a matter of courage. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are too scared to really stick the knife in, the young courtiers who skulk in the corridors of power have none of the flair, pantomime or style of a Michael Heseltine nor the brazen guts and single-mindlessness of a Tony Benn - coupled with that ruthless will that characterises both gentlemen. That is not to say that such a fellow won't arise one day...

For now, Ed Miliband should ignore his detractors until they come up with some credible policy - he know's the barrel is empty. It very much suits to stay quiet and buy your time, for, as I am sure Ed knows full well, better to be thought the fool than to open your mouth and confirm it. 

My advice? A bold, daring conference speech, a clear vision (if not policy) and a thorough purge of the party are needed in order to guarantee the strong opposition which this parliament so desperately needs. 

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Sketches from a cigar smoker's album: Hotter than July

It was a hot day at Henley this year and I was struggling to pull myself together. After a rather boozy previous night at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and only two hours sleep I was running on empty. 

The cab of Pimms on the train at 10:30 in the morning certainly wasn't helping as we made that slow, crowded drudge by train towards the regatta. As the tower blocks and warehouse of North West London gave way to the lush Berkshire suburbia and green belt I started to feel like my old self. The second can, a vile concoction of gin, tonic and ersatz cucumber slipped down easily and at last I was in the mood for a day at the race. Patting my blazer pocket I realised, shock horror, that I had forgotten my cigars... This would not do!

After sinking a few pints of Brakespeare at the Steward's Enclosure 'Real Ale Tent' I was ready for something to smoke. The sun was beating down upon us and it was one of those rare occasions that you are allowed to take off your jacket without fear of castigation from the the bowler-hatted menaces who patrol the enclosure maintaining standards and keeping order. 

Arranging to meet my friends at a designated spot I traipsed into town to find a stoggie, something suitable for such a scorcher. Rattling down a genteel high street in the one time constituency of Hezza (Michael Heseltine), Bozza (Boris Johnson) and now Timpers (Edward Timpson MP) I was spoilt for choice of off licences with counter-top humidors with an array of choices for the seasoned connoisseur or the budding amateur. 

Turning into one of these emporiums I decided to purchase a very pleasant, medium bodied Partagas and made my way through the throngs of chinless wonders and boozed up louts back to the enclosure.

There was no wind on that dry day and a thick plume of smoke went up, much to the dismay of all who were standing close to me in the crowded bar. Young rowers bustled past jugs of Pimms in their hands and a look of crinkled up disapproval on their faces. The girls were far more generous, with a few random ladies informing me about how much they loved the smell of cigar smoke and would I mind blowing some there way. 

But not everyone was so enthusiastic. So as not to smoke everyone out in the crowded bar area I accompanied one of my chums in a walk up the enclosure where I could enjoy my cigar in a bit of space. We left off at the perfect time for the cigar had got over the initial stage and gave way to a rich, dark flavour full of coffee and spice - a very heady mixture on a hot day. I was well and truly over my hangover and back on form! 

Sadly, like my time at the Regatta, good things don't last forever. The final deep draws were heavenly but gone too soon and following an excellent afternoon tea, more deep draughts from the Real Ale tent and a hellish train journey home, Henley was over for another year...