Month: November 2013

The time of insularity in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

© Elise Fimbel

© Elise Fimbel

They finally made it to the lighthouse. It took them the whole novel to get there but when Mr Ramsay and his children reach the shore, the destination – “a stark tower on a bare rock” – pales in comparison with the craggy and drawn-out journey that led up to it. This beautiful novel set on an island off the coast of Scotland (The Hebrides) is my first attempt at reading Woolf’s fiction, and arguably a compelling introduction to her writing. The main plotline seems to revolve around the question of whether the weather will be fine enough for the Ramsays to make that long-anticipated boat trip to the disquieting silhouette looming in the distance.  But this deceivingly trivial climatic element is only one functional motif in the misty ambiance Woolf establishes through the characters’ perceptions of reality. I guess what matters ultimately in this book is not so much that Mr and Mrs Ramsay fail to reconcile their conflicting personalities and aspirations in the middle class drama, that the children James and Cam feel ambivalent about their father’s overbearing authority, or that despite her admiration for Mrs Ramsay’s beauty Lily Briscoe can’t seem to conjure up the right mix of colors to paint her portrait faithfully, as how all these issues are informed by the natural landmarks of the island and the dislocation of time that results from that insular environment.  The constant ebb and flow of the waves seems to metaphorically reflect the characters’ idiosyncratic relationships with time. Time does seem to stand still on this island and yet there is a sense that everything has already been experienced and can only be missed or recreated through melancholic recollection. Mrs Ramsay knits her way through domesticity like an impatient Penelope not waiting for her Odysseus but struggling to gain a sense of herself around his (Mr Ramsay’s) dominant presence. A boeuf en daube takes twenty or thirty pages to be finally eaten while speculation runs high as to whether the latecomers to this pivotal dinner, Paul and Minta, got engaged in the meantime. By moving to this island, Mr Ramsay has turned away from the accolades of scholarly recognition but he is restlessly craving the attention and praise of his wife and children and intent on teaching those “young men at Cardiff” a lesson or two. Through it all, one family member gets killed at the western front of WW1, others from childbirth or diseases, only to resurrect later in the next wave of reminiscences. Divided into three sections – The Window, Time Passes, The Lighthouse – the novel has all the Proustian knack for evocative metaphors and detailed characterizations. The underlying theme seems to be the perception of reality and how each character strives to see and remember in a natural environment that dictates the progression of time and what the characters will be able to accomplish in its changing rhythms. Will Lily Briscoe ever finish her painting? Is it too late for Mr Ramsay to make amends and take his children to the lighthouse?  Although Woolf equips her characters with acute vision, shapes and objects dissolve as if washed away by the tide shifts of the sea. Here’s Lily Briscoe observing Mrs Ramsay:

“Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.”

I can’t really elaborate on this novel as much as I intended. Oh well, books need to be read not commented on, right? By blurring the line between the vastness of the surrounding space and the smallness of domestic life, between the slow rhythms of insularity and the instantaneous flashes of the lighthouse, Woolf wrote an important novel. To say that her writing ranks alongside the 20th century modernists like Proust or Joyce is probably a truism but one we don’t hear that often (women of the 21st century, revolt!).  I can hardly wait to ride The Waves.

Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (copyright 1927; A Harvest HBJ Book, 1989). Any edition will do, of course.

Mr Ahmad Jamal still going strong at 83.

2013-11-10 15.19.41

That was a gamble.  Presumably, every music fan feels the same way when attending a concert by one of their aging heroes. Is he/she going to do justice to the countless hours of passionate listening I’ve dedicated to them or is it going to be the just a sad and disappointing swan song that will send me rushing back to their early catalog for reassurance’s sake?  I’ve probably worn out the Ahmad Jamal 50s trio records more than a person in their right mind should. When Mr Jamal – the man deserves this distinctive title – stumbled over to the piano last night, I started getting worried. A concern that evaporated five seconds into the first song as Mr. Jamal’s fingers rippled up and down the keyboard like rushing water, tossing off power chords with disarming abandon and throwing vamps at Reginald Veal’s bass which happily picked them up. Drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena complemented the fierce rhythm section, which was tight as can be. That concept where bass and rhythm assume a large part of the melodic duties leaving the piano to build momentum with off-kilter runs and timely ostinatos is Jamal’s signature style, going way back to his pioneering trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier. To hear it 60 years on with even more interaction between the players was pretty thrilling. Starting off with Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly”, the almost uninterrupted set mingled standards and a couple of new originals of Mr Jamal’s. The old neoclassical Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris provided an ideal, though unusual, setting for Mr Jamal’s ingrained sense of drama. Like a classical conductor improbably admitting to be on a James Brown kick, Mr. Jamal pointed up when signaling transitions or turned around to Veal, Riley or Badrena to distribute solo space. Short and to the point, these collective improvisations never strayed too far from the melodic core of the songs but showcased the group’s amazing cohesion and tight adherence to the master’s concept. Drummer Herlin Riley really blew me away, dancing around his set with balletic grace and an infectious groove that was hard to believe. I had mixed feelings about the merits of percussions in Mr Jamal’s recent music but, admittedly, they contributed another layer to the potent rhythmic mix. Why the percussionist decided to growl and act like he was walking offstage at one point remains a mystery – funny though – but he served the music well.

At 83, Mr Jamal lives up to a well-deserved reputation as a pure-class musician and performer. At a time when that generation of veteran musicians is becoming scarce, that’s pretty good news . And thank you to my beloved girlfriend for setting up a fund drive for these pricey tickets. Definitely worth it.

New album “Saturday Morning” is out on Harmonia Mundi/ Jazz Village

Recommended listening:

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Alhambra and Blackhawk Performances

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Live at the Pershing Lounge 1958

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Live at the Spotlite Club 1958

Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile


Continuing the bold agenda initiated on her previous Coin Coin Chapter 1 Gens de couleur libres, Matana Roberts’ follow-up is an impressive and exciting album. Though it builds on the seminal first chapter, this sequel finds Roberts upping the ante and engaging an even wider spectrum of musical and historical milestones to explore her roots as an African-American woman.  The alto saxophonist and multidisciplinary sound artist has defined her artistic statement as “panoramic sound quilting” and this patchwork quality is even more intriguingly articulated on this new chapter, suggesting a deep-seated desire to piece together the tapestry of the African-American experience through both microcosmic and personal lenses. Coin Coin is the nickname of an inspirational freed slave, Marie Thérèse Métoyer, as well as what Roberts grandfather called her “for fun”, she says. As on Coin Coin 1, Roberts addresses the issues of appropriation and female empowerment with a very unique talent for storytelling. The haunting howl of Pov Piti (Coin Coin 1) has erupted into multiple vocal reverberations on Coin Coin 2, with Robert’s incandescent alto propelling the narrative forward.  While jazz is still a prominent part of this project – and Roberts’ improvisations and composition skills cannot be faulted – it is only one piece of the ongoing story, one that incorporates African 6/8 beats (“Thanks be you”), the blues (“Responsary”), funky New Orleans undertones (“Spares Of The World”), sacred music, communal chant (“Woman Red Racked”), and even the tenor voice of an opera singer. Throughout, Roberts mixes in her own voice in the form of fragmented narratives and spoken word based on family lore and African-American history. There is a sense that the story cannot be told in one big outpouring but needs future editing to patch together the “quilt”. “There are some things I just can’t tell you about”, she intones obsessively throughout the album.

“Invocation” leads off the suite, a Coltrane-tinged-circa Meditations-Ascension symphony of canon-like motifs coming together and apart over the churning rollercoaster of the rhythm section. The operatic tenor voice of Jeremiah Abiah, present from the start, is probably the most adventurous innovation on an album that straddles the secular and sacred lineages of African-American music with hard-edged commitment. Once you get past the oddness of hearing a music style that seems antithetical to the spiritual and labor roots of that culture – well, opera and jazz turn out to be a surprisingly successful marriage.  It also speaks to Roberts’ “avant-garde” sensibilities, which seem to center around the expression possibilities of the human voice in the context of orchestrated improvisation. Each song segues into the next seamlessly, with all the musicians bouncing around the melodic content, interacting with each other or contributing their own instrumental voice to the story. “Benediction” picks up the mood established by the opener “Invocation”, rounding off the album on a meditative and highly spiritual note. Part of a projected 12-part series, Mississippi Moonchile is a thrilling waystation along Matana Roberts’ fascinating journey, one that solidifies her place as an accomplished modernist and nonpareil artist.

For more detailed analysis of the album, I recommend buying The Wire’s October issue, which contains a full-length interview of Matana Roberts and, presumably, an insightful review of the album. I need to get that.

The album is out on Constellation Records and streaming on The Wire’s website.

Personnel: Matana Roberts (alto saxophone, vocals, conduction, wordspeak), Shoko Nagai (piano, vocals), Jason Palmer (trumpet, vocals), Thomson Kneeland (double bass, vocals), Tomas Fugiwara (drums, vocals), Jeremiah Abiah (operatic tenor vocals)

Also on Constellation:  Coin Coin Chapter one, gens de couleur libres.