The raison d'être of this blog is to review quality books, music, photography and other content that is seldom brought to our attention by the mainstream media.

The title EV+1 is photographic jargon for Exposure Value plus 1: increasing exposure by one stop from the metered value. Photographers use exposure compensation in order to obtain a correct exposure, when the light meter's averaged reading would be incorrect. Like a photographer allowing an extra stop of light to reach the film, I hope to shed a little light on a few under-appreciated gems.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Maurice Lye: Only God Can Make a Tree

If I were to choose one word to describe this book containing twenty-five examples of Maurice Lye's photography, it would be charm.

Maurice has stated: I enjoy and respect the many ways people create, beautify or arrange their surroundings, the passion, love and sometimes a bit of madness which goes into many of the subjects in this book. All the photographs were taken as the scene presented itself, nothing was manipulated or rearranged, the random coincidences are just as interesting. 1

He has described himself as a scavenger of images. One reason why I am so receptive to his work is that he sees things that I feel I would never have noticed, without his help. His exacting eye pays great attention to every detail of composition, all elements being deliberately and precisely placed within the frame.

The book's images, dating from 1979 to 2007, provide a sympathetic and sometimes humorous portrayal of New Zealand emblems found in suburbs and country towns. This is humble subject matter, but material that causes us to smile with immediate recognition; material captured with quiet affection, yet never lapsing into cliché or sentimentality.

The photos tend towards the minimalist (Holiday House, Arthur's Pass | 1979 – a detail of which is on the cover), the simplicity of the images lending a restrained beauty, which makes them all the more mesmerising. Subjects range from old South Island holiday houses, to a Santa Parade, a Vintage Machinery Show, a roadside bench, a concrete fawn and a Knitted Nativity shop window display.

Having seen this small, but enticing sample of Maurice's work from the last three decades, I'm hoping that another book will not be too far away.

Only God Can Make a Tree
can be bought from Maurice for $40 plus p&p and would make a great Christmas gift; he can be contacted via his website:, which displays an informative sampling of his work.

Photos: 1. Daisy, Kaikura | 2003; 2. Christmas parade, float, Christchurch | 1987. (Photos © Maurice Lye)

Copyright © Richard Smallfield 2011

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Myra Melford and Tanya Kalmanovitch: Heart Mountain

The art of conversation is mostly about listening, whether conversing verbally or by playing notes. A fluent and empathetic conversation between viola and piano (or occasionally harmonium), mostly in the form of free improvisation, Heart Mountain is a rare album that stands apart from the crowd; one which stopped me in my tracks.

Although almost all of it is freely improvised, in terms of 'feel', it is often closer to avant-garde classical music than jazz. This is not a negative observation, however, for Heart Mountain transcends categorisation; it is simply  one of the most arresting performances I've heard – in any genre.

Tanya Kalmanovich's playing on this album has a mesmeric and fully-realised voice of its own. She is a widely acclaimed Canadian violist and violinist, classically trained at the Juilliard School of Music. Among her posts, she is Assistant Chair of the department of Creative Improvisation at Boston's New England Conservatory, as well as being an instructor at the Guildhall School in of Music in London. She has repeatedly visited India to study music and conduct research for her doctoral dissertation on jazz exotica.

Myra Melford, whose performances here display great sensitivity and technical facility, is a seasoned jazz pianist. She has over thirty recordings in her catalogue, in nineteen of which she is the leader or co-leader. She trained classically until her college years, when she developed an interest in improvised music and blended an avant-garde approach from studies with Henry Threadgill and Don Pullen, with her classical background. To these she added an Indian influence: in 2000, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study North Indian music in Calcutta, which she undertook over 2000 and 2001. She has been on the faculty of music at U.C. Berkely since 2004.

All but one of the performances contained in Heart Mountain are free improvisations. The dialogues show a deep rapport between the two musicians; by turns hypnotic and unsettling, the music unfolds at the speed of thought as they feed off every scrap of an idea contributed by the other, each track unfolding a unique story.

Names were attached to the tracks afterwards; in some cases they are uncannily fitting: Into a Gunny Sack and Into the Kootenay River not only conveys the menace implied in the title but, as is pointed out in the excellent interview with Benny Lackner on the Brooklyn Jazz Underground Podcast, one passage of Myra's very effectively evokes  a terrifying ride upon torrents of water cascading over rapids.

This is an album that will not fade from memory over the years; an album to which I will regularly be returning – for me, one of the classics of improvised music.

Copyright © Richard Smallfield 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Nico Soffiato Quartet: Just Add Water

Every year, a few albums stand out from the rest, getting replayed repeatedly, both on the stereo and in my head. Just Add Water is one of these – an album which could prompt a much longer discussion than is possible here.

Nico Soffiato studied philosophy in Padua, where he grew up; he then continued his studies at UC Berkley, before deciding to change his focus to music and studying at Boston's Berklee College of Music for two years. It's not surprising to learn that he's studied philosophy, because his music has a cerebral quality that demands repeated listening – and from which the rewards are always proportional to the depth of one's attention.

In the '90's, fusion super-group Lost Tribe  blended complex time signatures and counterpoint with jazz, rock and hip-hop to create an infectious and intellectually stimulating recipe; their albums were high water marks in the last couple of decades of my jazz listening. A similarly eclectic approach is taken by the Nico Soffiato Quartet in Just Add Water: like Lost Tribe, the compositions (drawn from every band member) blend diverse ingredients: often contrapuntal, frequently changing metre, tightly structured, yet often with free improvisation devoid of metre; sometimes incorporating a steady rock beat and at times, fascinating cross-rhythms. The result is a refreshing and adventurous mixture which makes sense of the album's name: all that remains is for the band to add the water – interpretation and improvisation – to complete the recipe. (Soffiato likened the album's name to instant noodles: the composition is the noodles and the improvisation, the water.)

The first tune, Alexander (penned by bassist Giacomo Merega) is typical of the complexities and rewards of this music. It opens with a simple, shimmering guitar motif from Soffiato. This is joined by the rhythm section: a rocking beat and a busy, but catchy bass line are overlaid with the theme on sax, in counterpoint to the guitar line. The performance doesn't follow a conservative pattern such as returning to the top and improvising over the changes; rather, the tightly structured first section is followed by a meandering interlude of free improvisation (without metre), before returning to the guitar and sax theme and then the coda. The many metre changes throughout the performance surprise and delight the listener. As is the case throughout the album, one feels compelled to re-listen in order to understand how the performance works – and repeated listening is generously rewarded: one is left marvelling at the mixture of freedom and structure, at the interweaving lines and the ability of the band to move seamlessly from one time signature to the next and make musical sense throughout.

Soffiato is not a guitarist given to show; rather, he is a player and composer to whom one returns repeatedly, to unravel the threads. He is reserved in his use of the guitar as a chordal instrument, often weaving single lines behind Videen's smooth-toned alto sax, rather than comping with chords – an approach which adds to the feeling of space which is felt throughout the album. His use of a solid body Telecaster guitar (to which effects are occasionally added), along Meregat's often rhythmically complex electric bass, adds to the contemporary sound of the band.

It's heartening to hear such a fresh and adventurous debut album as this: Just Add Water leaves the listener eager to hear what the quartet will come up with next – and optimistic about the future of jazz.

Nico Soffiato is interviewed by Jason Crane on his excellent podcast, The Jazz Session.

Nico Soffiato, guitar
Nick Videen, alto sax
Giacomo Meregat, electric bass
Zach Mangan, drums
nBn Records, 2011

Copyright © Richard Smallfield 2011

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Martin Parr: Luxury

Martin Parr: Galway Races Festival, Ireland, 1997
Documentary photographers have traditionally been drawn to adversity: deprivation, crisis and aftermath; less often have they looked at the privileged.

In Luxury, Martin Parr's eye cuts like a laser through artifice as he looks at the global culture and adornments of wealth. I say culture, because this book left me with the impression that wealth is a mono-culture: while photo essays about the disadvantaged have tended to be revealing of cultural distinctions, the wealthy in this book appear to be wearing similar designer labels (the exceptions being traditional dress found in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Delhi), attending similar social functions – and apparently aspiring to similar identities.

One memorable photo is focused on a fly on the rim of a woman's hat: beneath immaculate dress and in spite of attempts to achieve exclusivity through conspicuous consumption, we remain part of, and subject to, nature – flies land on everyone.

This review is of a library copy, but Luxury is now on my shopping list: every time I look at it, I make new discoveries.

Copyright © Richard Smallfield 2011

Sunday, August 28, 2011

John Lloyd and John Mitchinson: The QI Book of the Dead

Squeezing 60 mini-biographies into about 400 pages, The QI Book of the Dead is written in a very readable, Brysonesque tone; the brevity of the biographies makes them perfect for idle moments.

The Dead, ranging from saints and geniuses (Florence Nightingale, Nikola Tesla) to scoundrels (Titus Oates), are thematically arranged in chapters with titles such as: 'Nothing Like a Bad Start in Life', 'Driven', 'The Monkey-keepers' and 'Grin and Bear It'.

The authors' delight in eccentricity left me with the impression that we humans are a very strange bunch indeed: Catherine de' Medici, for example, refused to give up trying to conceive, 'downing large draughts of mule's urine, wearing stags' antlers and dressings of cow dung.' And Frank Buckland had an unlikely passion for zoophagy (the eating of unusual animals – which had the serious purpose of discovering alternative, high-yielding food sources). He took to 'making pies from rhinos ('like very tough beef'), frying earwigs ('horribly bitter'), stewing the head of a porpoise ('like broiled lamp wick') and consuming the chops from a panther that had been buried for several days ('not very good').'

This is not a mere compendium of the absurd, however: I learnt about figures as diverse as Genghis Khan, Ada Lovelace, Oliver Cromwell, St Cuthbert and many more; and will be returning to it to reacquaint myself with its characters from time to time.

The only bum note is found on the book's final page. In noting that, in spite of their bad starts, bad habits, cruelty or mistakes, The Dead had all made a difference, it adds: 'they did it by making something of themselves. And so can you.' I felt that the book had grown one sentence too long.

Also available in softback.

Copyright © Richard Smallfield 2011

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bireli Lagrene: Standards

It is with trepidation that I review this album, as no words I can contrive will do it justice.

Some recorded performances are so insightful and virtuosic that they redefine a work and for the listener, become as important as the notes penned by the composer. A few spring to mind, for me at least, such as the performances of the Miles Davis Quintet on Round About Midnight (1956). Similarly, at least for me, many performances on this disc have become definitive jazz guitar performances of these tunes.

Bireli Lagrene who, at age thirteen, emerged to the world as a reincarnation of Django Reinhardt (Routes to Django, 1980) has, over the subsequent decades, matured and moved well beyond his Manouche (French Gypsy) origins, to explore standards on electric archtop guitars as well as fusion (initially with Jaco Pastorius, whose career marked a turning point in bass guitar playing). Lagrene has long-since taken virtuosity in flat-picked jazz guitar to unsurpassed levels; but he is also one of those rare players whose technical finesse is matched by a profound, yet seemingly effortless, sensitivity in interpretation.

On Standards, Bireli is joined by a stellar rhythm section: Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen (aka NHOP) on acoustic bass and the exuberant drummer, André Ceccarelli.

Opening with a blissful C'est si bon, the album moves on to a singular interpretation of Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise – which stands against the poetic restraint exhibited in Emily Remler's performance of Softly (East to Wes, 1988) – as a very different and much more muscular, interpretation. It is not so much a feeling of softness that is imparted by the opening of Bireli's version, as a feeling of urgency at the start of the day. Ceccarelli opens the performance with a pyrotechnic drum solo – WHAM! – then comes a repeating bass figure from NHOP, soon to be overlaid with Bireli's statement of the tune. From the outset it's clear that, far from enjoying the tranquilly of sunrise, he has overslept and is rushing out the door, brushing his hair back with his fingers and wolfing down a croissant, as he runs for the bus. I have to say I like his and Remler's versions equally – even if Bireli's version is anything but Softly.The album then takes the listener on journey through familiar tunes that is, by turns, exuberant and reflective; but the familiar is reinvented by performances of brilliance. Although the self-abandoned joy of music-making without technical hindrance is a large part of what makes this album compelling, virtuosity without insight is sterile. Fortunately, Bireli has the deepest of musical souls. To discuss each performance adequately would require a dissertation rather than a review, so I will look closely at only one of the most affecting performances: a masterpiece of interpretation and thematic development, How Insensitive (insensatez).

The delicacy and emotion dripping from tracks such as How Insensitive is heart-stopping. Fluid, but perfectly articulated single-line phrases, framed on either side by passages of chords, are tenderly played, with sparing hints of rubato, occasional grace notes, rare bent notes, subtle use of vibrato and a gentle attack. Tracks like this are destined to make a life-long imprint in the mind of any attentive listener.

How Insensitive offers a lesson in musical form and thematic development. Bill Evans cautioned against overplaying in the first chorus, as it leaves little scope for the solo to develop in subsequent choruses – and here, Bireli follows this philosophy. He introduces the tune chordally and the first chorus unfolds likewise, although interspersed with single-line phrases and occasional embellishments; his second chorus again opens chordally, though with variations: he inverts and substitutes harmonies and explores possibilities as he starts to reinvent the tune. When the third chorus starts, Bireli has done the groundwork in his solo and is able to take thematic development to its climax. He dispenses with the chordal approach, contrasting with it a single-line solo that completely reinvents the tune, turning it inside out and shining with a logic that seems inevitable – but only in retrospect. The solo then comes full circle, returning to a chordal conclusion, which sets the stage for NHOP's bass solo, against Bireli's chordal accompaniment – after which, in conclusion, Bireli recapitulates the tune. No other player I've heard, has said half as much with the same material – and much of its effect is due to his building each chorus upon its predecessor, with complete logic; and the holding back of most of his single-line playing until his solo's final chorus.

This album is unsurpassed, after almost two decades – and remains, for me at least, a definitive recording of jazz standards in a guitar trio setting.

Tracks: C'es si bon; Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise; Days of Wine and Roses; Stella by Starlight; Smile; Autumn Leaves; Teach Me Tonight; Donna Lee; Body and Soul; Ornithology; How Insensitive (insensatez); Nuages.

Blue Note, 1992

Copyright © Richard Smallfield 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Parr by Parr - Quentin Bajac meets Martin Parr - Discussions with a promiscuous photographer

A must for any fan of social documentary photography, Parr by Parr – Quentin Bajac meets Martin Parr – Discussions with a promiscuous photographer; Schilt, 2010, is an extended interview in book form.

Able to be read in a sitting or two, this book explores Martin Parr's beginnings, his motivations, methods, the evolution of his subject matter and means of presentation, as well as delving into his involvement with the Magnum photo agency and the possibilities this has facilitated.

The book contains a cross-section of his images, from early black and white work in 1975, to celebrations of colour as recent as 2009. The Parr humour and juxtaposition of subjects within the frame were there right from the early monochrome images; but it was the addition of colour and flash in the eighties which defined his instantly recognisable aesthetic.

The greatest area of interest for me was the discussion of Parr's probing and evolving exploration of his subject matter - English middle class culture, through global consumerism - which is discussed in a down-to-earth and accessible way.

(For an overview of his work, further recommended reading is Sandra S. Phillips' Martin Parr; Phaidon, 2007.)

Copyright © Richard Smallfield 2011