Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Week in London and a Confluence of Futures Past

I didn't go to London for the food, though these days there's plenty of food to go for, and when I got there I went for it, and I'll write about it, don't you worry. What I did go for was music and theatre and art and film. Actually, I went for the music and the rest fell into place.

I was in London for a week, from June 14-20. I had planned the trip in April, after the lineup for the Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre was announced. The festival, founded in 1993, has always included an eclectic mix of music programmed by a guest curator. This year's curator was the groundbreaking jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. A maverick and an somewhat of an outcast early in his career, Coleman is now an elder statesman (79 years' worth), an eminence grise and a national treasure, garnering laurels ranging from the merely honorary to the financially humongous (NEA Jazz Master, Pulitzer Prize, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, MacArthur "genius" Fellowship, etc.). This year is the 50th anniversary of Coleman's classic albums "The Shape of Jazz to Come" and "This is Our Music," both primary influnces on the "free jazz" movement.

When I saw the schedule for Meltdown what struck me immediately was that Ornette would be joined by the Master Musicians of Jajouka. These Sufi trance musicians from Morocco were first brought to western ears by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who produced an album for them in the sixties. Coleman met and recorded with them in the seventies. For thirty-plus years I've been telling people that one of my musical dreams was to see Ornette perform with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. What could stop me now, besides the expense of getting to London? The expense, it turns out, was a trifle, because I got such a deal: airfare and 7 nights in a Holiday Inn Express for $925 all-inclusive. How could I resist?

Once I made my travel plans I started learning of all sorts of events happening around town while I'd be there. The Tate Modern had a major Futurism exhibit opening on June 12, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Marinetti's first Futurist manifesto.

But wait, there's more. I also learned that a West End production of Waiting for Godot was going on (concurrently with a Broadway production). Though the Parisian premiere of the play took place in 1953, Beckett completed the play in 1949, so that makes this the play's 60th anniversary. The London production features Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Vladimir and Estragon. The two of them first appeared together more than 30 years ago in a Tom Stoppard play, but much more recently they shared the screen in the X-Men trilogy.

A revolutionary jazz musician, a major avant garde art movement and a play that changed world theater forever. And one more thing. I also learned that there would be a retrospective of short films, for one night only, by and about B.S. Johnson at the British Film Institute. B.S. who? Johnson was a quirky, eccentric novelist and poet (somewhat a literary child of Beckett, actually) who committed suicide in 1973 (so perhaps more depressed than Beckett). I was unaware that he had made films, but I was thrilled for the fortuitous opportunity to see them.

Working backward, which is actually working forward, because I listed these events in the reverse order of having seen them, there's the Johnson films, which I caught last Tuesday. Like his written works, they represented an extremely eclectic mix of styles, from a minimalist, Beckettian monologue in an imaginary tongue to Johnson's own extremely engaging, Montaignesque musings and ramblings on his own writing, on a place in Wales where he came of age, and on his namesake Dr. Johnson, perhaps the most charming of the films.

The Godot production was a delight, and one could really feel the camaraderie between the two actors, which was perfect for the portrayal of the relationship between the two desperately hopeful, hopefully desperate characters. At least one review complained that the production was played too much for laughs. But to say that is to miss the point of Beckett. Beckett is perhaps the funniest writer of the twentieth century. All the greatest comedy is grounded in misery, and Beckett just took it to a higher plane. When Herbert Berghof directed the Broadway debut in 1956 he knew enough to cast the great comedian Bert Lahr as Estragon.

The Futurist exhibition focused on the years 1909-15 and also put the movement in the context of contemporaneous avant garde movements. While there are some iconic works of Italian Futurism, and undoubtedly the artists influenced many of their contemporaries, I can't help feeling that they were a bunch of blowhards, historically important collectively but ultimately of limited significance as individual artists for the most part.

The Ornette Coleman concert was pure joy. In addition to his current working group (two bassists and his son Denardo on drums), he was joined for most of the show by guitarist Bill Frisell, who blended in with the group as if this were more than a one-off. The evening included several tunes from "The Shape of Jazz to Come," as had been advertised. A fun surprise came when Patti Smith (the previous night's Meltdown feature) came onstage to intone a praise poem to Ornette as the band played behind her. And then, toward the end of the show, the master musicians of Jajouka (who had opened the evening) joined the band for the moment (about ten minutes' worth) that I'd been waiting over thirty years for. Ten sublime, beautiful, intense minutes.


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