Summertime and the living is…

Back again.  Very sorry for missing last week; from here on in I hope to be back to the usual weekly rhythm.

It’s darned hot over here.  Down on the Boulevard there is model of a drilling derrick that does an endearing impression of the Eiffel Tower with the glittering lights and suchlike after nightfall.  Unlike the Eiffel Tower it also has a constantly refreshed digital display in lights showing time, air temperature and sea temperature.  As I walked past at half past eight last night is was showing 31 celsius for air and 26 for sea.  I’m told most of July will be in the 40-45 region this year; it’s a shame swimming in the sea is likely to kill you.

Keep cool wherever you are.

Baku, Sunday 25th June 2006

It has been far too long since I last sat down to write and I must apologise both for the delay and for the quality of the writing to follow which is most likely to be even more rambling and indistinct than usual.

When we landed in Baku Rachel and I were greeted by a hot, sunny Monday morning and a pleasant driver with a comfortable Mercedes to take us to the apartment.  Rather than rushing straight to work I permitted myself a morning siesta to make up for the largely sleepless flight before strolling up to the Hyatt office in the afternoon.  At the same time I introduced Rachel to some of the Hyatt hotels’ amenities (number one being the swimming pool) so that she could have a useful base for operations aside from the apartment.  The pattern for the following days, unsurprisingly, was that I’d go to work while Rachel would explore/relax and so on during the day and we’d compare notes in the evening.

It soon proved quite refreshing to see the city the through a new pair of eyes.  I doubt I’ll ever find the traffic here boring but I think I have become a little desensitised to some of its characteristics through prolonged exposure.  Coming from a state where improper use of a car horn now has the potential to land you in jail for a year, Rachel found the chaos and the cacophony absolutely hilarious.  Where do all those people drive to all day?  Other features of daily life that raised comment included the army of ill-equipped street sweepers around the city (mostly elderly women) and the wildly clashing senses of fashion one sees walking around the city every day.

We were both intrigued by the Conference of Islamic Foreign Ministers that took place at the Hyatt for several days.  Judging by the large number of different flags draped outside the hotel (many of which I confess I did not recognise) and the equally large number of brand new black BMW sevens cruising around with matching flags on the bonnets there must genuinely have been a representative from every Muslim state in town.  If you inspected BMW’s sales records I would not be surprised if you found that half of this year’s seven series production has been bought by Azerbaijan especially for this event!  Metal detectors and bag scanners at every doorway to the Hyatt buildings were an obvious nuisance but stars of the show were undoubtedly the police.  Evening rush hour was enlivened by policemen with whistles and batons causing confusion and chaos at the nearby junctions as they held seething traffic in abeyance to give all those black BMW’s clear runs in and out of the area.  As a pedestrian trying to cross the road it was difficult to know which way to look half the time.

Meanwhile a different crowd of policemen were on duty to… …well… …we weren’t too sure what they were there for actually.  Best guess is that they were strategically deployed along the road outside the Hyatt to provide security cover, discourage loitering, apprehend would-be assassins and such like.  In reality they were all sitting around in threes on the benches in the park across the street chatting and I couldn’t help thinking they’d be drinking tea and playing backgammon while they were at it if they thought they could get away with it.  Rachel really wanted to take a photograph of them but as that would possibly have been the one action that could have brought them jumping into action I advised against; security-related folk in Baku can be funny like that.

I waved farewell to Rachel at the airport last Wednesday.  After eighteen days, seven cities, two continents and a gig together I think we achieved our goal of getting to know each other a little better and we both had a good time in the process.  Where and when we will next meet is anyone’s guess; once we know I’ll be looking forward to the occasion.

Unfortunately Rachel left just before things started getting interesting in the Baku Jazz Festival which has been running for the last few days.  As I think I have mentioned before, Baku is a city that loves jazz and has not only a fondness for international stars but a lively local scene which has produced one or two of its own international stars in the past.  Spread over nine days and several venues the festival features mostly local performers but also attracts names from Europe and the Americas, a couple of whom I have seen in the last few nights.

I will freely admit to having known nothing about Al Jarreau all my life except for his charting in the UK with a single release of the theme tune to “Moonlighting” way back whenever.  Perhaps not the best basis for going to see the guy perform (especially as I have never watched one episode of “Moonlighting”) but the fact that he’d come to Baku at all was an event in itself and Ayla recommended him having seen him play in Austin, Texas about twelve years ago.  As it turned out the gig was great.

The venue was the Heydar Aliyev Palace and being Royal Festival Hall sort of size it was not an obvious space for a jazz gig.  Jarreau didn’t care though; his band was tighter and glossier than the proverbial duck’s derriere and he came fizzing onto the stage with an over-abundance of energy that he very nearly maintained for the full ninety minutes of the set.  Neither Ayla nor I could say exactly how old he is but he’s got to be well north of sixty and judging by his hands and his uneven walk off stage at the end he has arthritis or similar.

Age and illness did not deter him though and he remained the consummate performer from start to finish and with what a voice…  We reckon he was either overdosed on prescription drugs and/or enjoying some creative ones and/or simply mad as a hatter as the man did not stop.  The entire audience was on their feet at the end of the performance and rightly so: Jarreau had earned it.

Last night we saw Barbara Leah Meyer: a Canadian-born singer/songwriter now based in Germany.  Where Jarreau offers a mixture of jazz, r ‘n’ b, funk and soul Leah Meyer is an exponent of straight-ahead ‘smooth’ or ‘dinner’ jazz that many people often think of when asked about jazz as a genre.  She performed with piano, bass and drums in the Baku Jazz Centre, an intimate venue for a few hundred mostly seated around tables with waiter service and a bar.  During the first set (forty-five minutes) the quartet quickly established themselves as four strong musicians but they didn’t manage to gel together particularly well.  Indeed when speaking to the drummer after the gig I discovered that it was his first performance with the band…!  The second set was far stronger but for some reason only lasted five songs which I thought was more that slightly disappointing.  According to the drummer the band had come with a much longer second set prepared but the organisers asked them to cut it short.  Why?  Who knows…  It struck me as a wasted opportunity but as everything in this city seems to be playing second fiddle to the World Cup at the moment I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there was a football involved somewhere in the decision.

On which note I had best conclude.  England are playing their first knock-out match tonight and as I haven’t watched them play a full game yet I suppose I’d best get along and do so now before they make their usual sharp exit…


Out of the frying pan…

36,000 feet above Europe, eastbound, Sunday 11th June 2006

Breaking my discipline of writing once a week could be proving to be an error.  Sitting down and trying to marshal seven days’ worth of thoughts into a cohesive summary is often difficult enough; corralling those of the last twelve days is looking decidedly tricky.  Let’s see what can be done.

During the remaining week-days following my last scribble I was chiefly preoccupied with getting my car repaired.  Those of you who have met “The Bundestank” will know that I currently own a 1983 Mercedes estate, purchased for the princely sum of eighty pounds in Autumn 2004 to serve as a DJ’s workhorse.  Bless its Teutonic toughness, it had not put a foot wrong in seven thousand-odd miles worth of sporadic journeys around England and in and out of Paris but the return from the party in Wiltshire finally tipped the balance.  I didn’t realise the car even had hydraulic rear suspension until it had announced its presence by splattering its life blood across the rear screen during the drive from Westbury to Wroughton.  The wound was not mortal but it did render the vehicle unsuitable for my planned drive to Yorkshire on the Saturday and alas, at the eleventh hour my trusty mechanic was unable to effect the repairs on the Friday as hoped; many thanks to my mother for the loan of her car as a replacement.

As it turned out my mother’s car – a Vauxhall Astra – proved eminently suitable for the initial stage of the journey as this included a stop in one of the notoriously claustrophobic short stay car parks at Heathrow while I met my friend Rachel off the AI124 from Chicago.  Having flown trans-Atlantic red-eye she reclined in the passenger seat while I whisked us northwards towards a warm reception from two friends of mine in Bellerby and a gig in Middlesbrough.  For those who care about these things, The Empire in Middlesbrough is a great venue with fine acoustics and both The Cooper Temple Clause and The Howling Bells are well worth looking out for in your music sources of choice.  The former take the current vogue for electric/electronic crossover in very intelligent and energetic directions while the latter combine a female lead vocal which is at once both relaxed and compelling with electric musical textures that speak calmness while suggesting large amounts of latent power.  Make of each what you will; I liked both of them a lot on the night.

The Yorkshire Dales always feel like home to me and spending three nights there in warmth and bright sunshine with good company was a distinct pleasure.  Anglophobic doubt was far from my mind and even discovering the closure of one of the few record shops in York did not upset me unduly.  Much as I like London I could be very tempted to live ‘up north’ as and when I return to ‘home’ shores.

Our return south certainly did little to dispel the thought, the well-to-do (i.e. pricey) hotel we booked into in London proving to have thoroughly inadequate cooling which resulted in three nights of bedroom conditions comparable to those of a sauna and a lot of lost sleep; not impressive.  On the upside we did get to enjoy further warmth and sunshine while pottering around town and visiting places like the Tate Modern.  English Summers seem to be improving.

After spending last night in Windsor we braved a tour of Windsor Castle this morning.  Outside the walls of the Royal estate there’s no denying that the property looks charming but once you’ve bought the ticket to step within those walls everything takes on the appearance of a thinly disguised tourist trap.  All visitors are expected to follow a carefully plotted route through the grounds and the state rooms, along which there is a gift shop placed strategically every few hundred yards pedalling wares of dubious taste at eye-wateringly elevated prices.  Rachel commented on the whole scenario looking like a theme park before we’d even cleared the ticket hall.  I can only assume that enough other tourists are suitably taken in by things to justify arrangements being as they are.

Sitting on the ‘plane now I look back at the last couple of weeks with a smile.  As always there were people I tried to meet but did not succeed to but there were many people I did see and my thanks to them all for their time and in many cases their hospitality.

Now I am to be the host rather than the guest; Rachel has chosen to join me in Baku and explore a new part of the world for a week.  More news will follow.