I remember something the philosopher Gerald Heard told me. The first thing a man is aware of, he said, is the steady rhythm of his mother’s heartbeat and the last thing he hears before he dies is his own. Rhythm is the common bond of all humanity: it is also the most pronounced and readily misunderstood ingredient of jazz.
— Dave Brubeck
We’ve waited way too long for a serious biography of Dave Brubeck — but at last we’ve got it, and it’s a good one. British music journalist Philip Clark’s Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time rises to the challenge of portraying the pianist/composer in his fullness — his days, his works, his friendships, and his ideals.
Fittingly, Clark plays with time to unlock the rich pageant of Brubeck’s 92 years. Pivoting off a extended interview conducted on a 2003 British tour, the narrative unpacks Brubeck’s career in progress, building from West Coast beginnings through growing popularity coupled with critical puzzlement on the jazz scene to the mass culture break-out of Brubeck’s classic quartet (with Paul Desmond on sax, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums) via 1959’s “Take Five” and the Time Out album. It’s only the strangely muted reception of Brubeck’s ambitious 1962 cantata The Real Ambassadors (a sly satire expressly written for Louis Armstrong) that sends Clark doubling back again — to Brubeck’s upbringing in rural California and the influences that forged him as musician and man.
While most of the western world celebrated Friday, February 14, as the secularized Feast of St. Valentine, preparing for a Cinema Show of epic proportions and armed with chocolate surprises, I celebrated it as International Big Big Train Day.
Granted, by international, I mean several counties in Michigan, but still. . .
On Friday, February 14, Big Big Train launched its much anticipated web-based fan service, The Passengers’ Club. Let me state immediately: this is, by far, the best such service I have seen. While I belong—rather proudly—to Marillion’s fan service, I have never been totally satisfied with it. As much as I adore Marillion, I think the service is a tease. More than anything else, I feel like my subscription subsidizes their advertisements to sell me more stuff. Granted, I buy it, but I am less than completely satisfied with the service as a whole. Most frustrating by far, though, is Neal Morse’s fan service. I belonged to it for years—happily receiving several cds and dvds a year. Then, suddenly, it all just stopped, switching all of the great releases to mere downloads. Honestly, I feel as though I was totally ripped off. As such, I finally quit my membership about six months ago. I subscribed for a year too long. Trust me, don’t go near Morse’s service. Admittedly, I still love Morse’s music and his integrity, but he needs a serious reexamination of his attitude toward his followers.
BBT’s, however, is extraordinary. The service offers three levels of subscription: one year; two years; and lifetime. Though I am alone to blame, I initially only saw the first two subscription options, and I went for the two year. Had I been thinking properly and had I been observing what should’ve been observed, I would’ve signed up for the lifetime subscription (Patron). If you’ve yet to subscribe, don’t overlook the Patron option.
Through the service, BBT is offering music, videos, essays, and photos. Admittedly, the photos did not do that much for me (though, they’re fine photos), but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the other three sections (“platforms” in the presentation).
The brightest highlight of The Passengers’ Club, though, is the music platform. Indeed, the two songs released thus far are worth the entire subscription price. The first two songs are the 17-minute “Merchants of Light” and the (almost) three-minute long demo, “Capitoline Venus.” BBT promises new music and new content every two weeks for the next year and claims that we’ll be receiving four full CDs worth of music over the next two years. Though I’m only speculating, I’m assuming this is the equivalent (perhaps, a 1:1 perfect correspondence) of the long-discussed Station Master’s release.
The second brightest highlight (close to the second brightest star, it turns out) is Greg’s writeup about the songs. Stunning stuff, to be certain. Not surprisingly, Greg is a master of the word—whether in essays or in lyrics. I’d share some of what he’s written with you, but I agreed not to when I signed up for The Passengers’ Club, and, believe me, this is a trust I hold sacred.
Our own Dr. Brad Birzer joins hosts Scott Bertram and Jeff Blehar for an in-depth discussion of Rush on their Political Beats podcast. The more than 2 1/2 hour conversation begins with Rush’s debut album and continues all the way through Clockwork Angels. It’s a lot of fun to listen to, even if you aren’t a Rush fanatic. Jeff Blehar had never heard a single Rush song before he listened to their entire discography in preparation for this episode, and his takes on their various albums are refreshingly honest and fair.
One of the highlights of 2017 was I Am The Manic Whale’s second album, Gathering the Waters.
Here’s their press release for the upcoming third album, Things Unseen:
Things Unseen by I Am The Manic Whale
Formats: CD, vinyl, download
Labels: Independent (CD/download)
Plane Groovy (vinyl)
Run time: 65 minutes
The Deplorable Word 7:56
Into The Blue 6:28
Build It Up Again 7:03
Halcyon Day 5:28
Valenta Scream 7:19
Following the success of 2017s Gathering The Waters, Michael, David, John and Ben have been working hard writing, recording and producing 8 more songs of intelligent, energetic, beautiful, whimsical, thought provoking and inspiring progressive rock for your listening pleasure.
The boys have again chosen to work with the mighty Rob “mix wizard” Aubrey at Aubitt studios and the result, Things Unseen, will be released on the 24th of April on CD through the band’s bandcamp page and as a download in all the usual places. There will also be a vinyl release courtesy of the magnificent Chris Topham and Plane Groovy, including a limited run on coloured vinyl.
So what are the songs about? Michael Whiteman (bass/vocals) explains; “Expect the unexpected. These songs aren’t about what you might at first think. They are inspired by urban myth, fantasy literature, ecology, celebrity culture, a baby’s smile, a summer afternoon at Grey’s Court, interlocking block construction toys and a British engineering marvel. What more could you want?”
“We are delighted to be working with Plane Groovy again,” said John Murphy (keyboard/vocals). “We’re very proud of this album and knowing that it’ll be available in such a great quality 180 gram double vinyl version is incredibly exciting. Vinyl is so visceral, so tactile and above all, so large that we’re even able to include some bonus music on the fourth side; a live recording of Derelict, our 20 minute epic song about an abandoned swimming pool, which we recorded one night at a theatre in Reading last year. The night of that show, I heard that Reading even has a swimming pool somewhere, which made playing the song feel even more poignant.”
David Addis (guitar/vocals) had this to say; “Things Unseen has been a labour of love for three years, and the conception reaches back to some musical ideas that have been in incubation for over a decade. We hope everyone will have something to relate to on the album and that it conjures up some tangible and fantastical images. Also, the metal parts kick ass.”
Ben Hartley (drums/vocals) said this; “I am thrilled that Things Unseen is coming out soon. Pre-orders will be available on our bandcamp page for CDs and Burning Shed for the vinyl from Monday 10th of February. We’re also setting up some crowdfunding options through bandcamp, so people can help us finish the album. These include booking us for a house concert, purchasing sheet music and sticks I used during the recording process, or buying a cover song of your choice, which we will lovingly make for you.”
‘The Bardic Depths’ is an all new progressive rock project formed from the writing team of multi-instrumentalist, Dave Bandana with lyrics and concept from Bradley Birzer, plus contributions from Peter Jones (Camel/ Tiger Moth Tales) – Saxophone/ Vocals, Tim Gehrt ( Streets/ Steve Walsh) – Drums, Gareth Cole (Tom Slatter/ Fractal Mirror) – Guitar and Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) – Keyboards/ Guitar/ Bass, amongst a host of other amazing musicians from the progressive rock community around the world.
“The album is about friendship and its ability to get us through anything including war, with the concept centering on the literary friendship formed between J.R.R Tolkien and C. S Lewis between 1931 and 1949. “ says the Lanzarote based band leader Dave Bandana.
Friendship also provided the catalyst to enable such a wide cast of musicians to come together for the record, largely from the community provided by the Big Big Train Group on Facebook. The resulting album is an immersive combination of ethereal soundscape with Floydian undertones, and Talk Talk progressive pop sensibilities.
The Bardic Depths is available to pre-order now from Gravity Dream on CD or in an extremely limited CD/T-shirt bundle. It’s also available on CD from Burning Shed, who provide the tracklist:
1. The Trenches
2. Biting Coals
3. Depths of TIme
i) The Instant
iii) The Moment
4. Depths of Imagination
5. Depths of Soul
6. The End
And of course, there’s an album teaser on YouTube:
I freely admit that I am an Anglophile. When I was 13, my father took a one-semester sabbatical from Vanderbilt University – where he was a materials science professor – to do research at Cambridge University. He loved to tell me how he worked in the same lab where J. J. Thomson discovered electrons. Our family lived in a house in Cambridge, and I went to school at Comberton Village College. The few months we were there were some of the happiest of my life.
I don’t know how we first learned about brass rubbing, but we quickly adopted it as our family hobby while we lived in England. Brasses are engraved plates of brass that were placed over tombs in English churches. They were popular from the 1200’s until Victorian times, and they were often quite ornate representations of the person they commemorated. Many are over six feet long and portray knight crusaders. Others are more modest in size, and they might represent prosperous merchants or accomplished academics.
Brass rubbing is the same as putting a penny under a piece of paper and rubbing it with a crayon. As you rub, all the details of the penny emerge onto the paper. With a medieval brass, it’s same principle, just on a much larger scale.
My family had a book that catalogued all of the brasses in Europe and Great Britain. Every week, we would locate a promising brass somewhere within driving distance and spend a Saturday afternoon making rubbings of it. Some small country churches had many beautiful examples, hidden under old rugs in the aisles, or atop sarcophagi in side chapels.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but our family hobby ended up being a marvelous way of visiting out-of-the-way villages all over East Anglia. We even got fairly proficient at spotting churches that were likely to contain hidden brass treasures. While we worked, the local vicar would often stop by to chat with us and share the history of the church and the person under the brass. To my 13-year-old eyes and ears, these impossibly old churches and the persons buried in them came to life, and I grew to love British culture and history.
Which is a convoluted way of explaining why I also love Big Big Train, possibly the most “British” group working today. In song after song, they sing of forgotten heroes and heroines, everyday Britons who labored without complaint to make their communities safe and prosperous. As an American, I don’t understand all of the references in their lyrics, but, God bless ‘em, their albums contain enough notes for me to get the gist of what they are trying to convey.
One of Big Big Train’s albums that is most grounded in English life is English Electric Part One. (Even the title is a reference that is easily missed by a non-Britisher. English Electric manufactured diesel engines for trains.) It is also one of the strongest set of songs they ever recorded.
Released in September of 2012, it came two years after BBT’s Far Skies, Deep Time EP, and three years after The Underfall Yard. So BBT fans were eager to hear new music from them, and English Electric did not disappoint. From the energetic opener The First Rebreather to the immensely satisfying closer Hedgerow, there is not a weak track on this perfectly sequenced album. Even the cover art, featuring Matt Sefton’s close up photos of rusted and worn metal surfaces, contributes to the sense of past glories and forgotten men and women.
The Underfall Yard was the first album that featured vocalist/flutist David Longdon, and with English Electric Part One, he is a fully integrated member of the group. Drummer Nick D’Virgilio is also officially on board, so the original core trio of Greg Spawton, Dave Gregory, and Andy Poole is now a quintet.
The First Rebreather is a tale of diver Alexander Lambert, who, in 1880, used an experimental “rebreather” (like today’s scuba equipment) to rescue some workmen who were trapped in an underground tunnel. While they were digging the tunnel, they struck a spring which quickly flooded their exit. Lambert used the rebreather to swim 1000 feet in total darkness to reach the trapped workers. Greg Spawton brilliantly imagines Lambert as a “mummer” (a British folk actor who brings dead characters to life). The guitar-driven melody features a beautiful string interlude composed by Dave Gregory. The musical tension builds inexorably until it is blessedly released with the spring water bursting out to the words “Here she comes/the sleeper wakes/ten thousand years/she lay in wait for this.”
After the intense drama of The First Rebreather, we need a little relief, and Longdon’s Uncle Jack is the perfect song for that. It starts with a down-home banjo riff that is soon augmented with fiddle, keyboards, double bass, and melodica. It features one of the most infectious melodies BBT has ever recorded, particularly when Lily and Violet Adams chime in on background vocals to sing, “Rose Hips/Haw Berries/Hedgerow/Dry Stone/Dog Rose/Honeysuckle/Blackbirds/Red Wing” – all inconspicuous and mundane sights of an outdoor stroll, but to Longdon’s coal miner Uncle Jack they are magical elements that cannot be taken for granted. Spending hours toiling underground makes any time in the sun outdoors infinitely precious.
Spawton’s Winchester From St. Giles’ Hill is a beautiful ode to the historic town of Winchester. Its heritage goes back to ancient times of chalkhills and Alfred. Danny Manners’ piano and Longdon’s flute combine for an exquisite duet on this celebration of a quintessentially British town.
Judas Unrepentent is a tribute to Tom Keating, a frustrated artist who turned to painting forgeries of masters’ works to undermine the art establishment. He left clues in all his works, and he was eventually found out. He has since passed away, but he has the last laugh, as his art now fetches high prices. “So now we can all buy/Real genuine fakes/That’s posthumous fame/It’s always the same”. Another Longdon composition, this track features an insistent rhythmic base supporting an irresistible melodic hook and cascading vocal harmonies. It is one of the most enjoyable songs in BBT’s entire catalog.
Summoned By Bells is a gentle celebration of Spawton’s mother’s hometown of Leicester. Spawton’s lyrics describe the nostalgia and disorientation one feels when returning to a place of one’s childhood after it has changed and evolved: “A stone’s throw from the line/some of the old places survive/ a golden thread in time.” Once again, Danny Manners’ piano playing is masterful, and a musical theme emerges that will be heard again in the finale, Hedgerow.
Upton Heath is a Spawton/Longdon collaboration, and it draws on the strengths of both songwriters. The melody conveys a yearning that cannot be put into words, yet the lyrics complement it perfectly. Ethereal voices sing, “And all that we are/And all that we shall be/Walk with me/Up on Upton Heath” and transform the simple activity of strolling through the countryside into a sacramental act. The instrumentation is all acoustic – this is timeless folk music, and like the best folk music, it manages to evoke contradictory emotions. Listening to it makes me melancholy and joyful at the same time. It is a masterpiece, plain and simple.
From the heavenly heights of Upton Heath, we are brought down to earth with a crash by the harrowing A Boy In Darkness. This song begins with a clear-eyed depiction of the horrors of child labor in 19th century British coal mines and fast forwards to the suffering of abused children in our supposedly more enlightened times. It is a fearless and unflinching song, performed with sensitivity. It doesn’t preach; it just makes its case. You have to have a heart of stone to not say a prayer for the young innocents who suffer after hearing this song.
English Electric Part One finishes with another masterpiece, the Longdon/Poole/Spawton composed Hedgerow. An ebullient guitar riff kicks it off, and before you know it, we’re off on another jaunt outdoors with Uncle Jack. Musical and lyrical motifs from Uncle Jack, Summoned By Bells, and Upton Heath pop up, tying together the entire album into a satisfying whole. It is the perfect conclusion to a song cycle that celebrates all that is good (and weeps for some that is bad) in England.
I titled this reflection on English Electric Part One The Overshadowed Child Of Big Big Train, because one year later they released English Electric Part Two, and a few months after that they combined both (with a few extra tracks) into English Electric: Full Power. Full Power is a gorgeous two-disc package with a huge full-color booklet featuring explanatory notes on every song, brief bios of all the contributors, and beautiful photos. It makes sense to plunk down the money for the two-disc set, right?
Well, yes, but I also want to make the case for English Electric Part One as a major work that deserves its own place in the BBT pantheon. As I stated at the beginning of this essay, it is a perfectly sequenced album, moving effortlessly from peak to musical peak. Spawton and Longdon both subsume their individual songwriting styles to serve the needs of the group, and as a result come up with some of their finest efforts ever. There is quite a large supporting cast of musicians (including future official members Danny Manners and Rachel Hall), but every song sounds intimate, like someone tapping you on the shoulder and asking, “Can I share with you a story about this place you might find interesting?”
In these times of streaming music, you can create endless playlists of your favorite songs of your favorite artists, but back in 2012, Big Big Train released an album that they obviously lavished great care on. Do them a favor and listen to it as they originally intended. Uncle Jack would appreciate it.