Allen Toussaint RIP

He wrote and produced no end of classics, but whenever he came over to play a concert he always seemed mildly surprised that audiences were keen to turn out to hear him. In an age of rampant egos, he was an old school gentleman. There’s no shortage of his vintage recordings on the web, but this instrumental version of the old standard “St James Infirmary” – taken from a fine album he made in his final years — is a particular favourite of mine. A little bit jazzy, a little bluesy, like Toussaint himself, it’s  in a category all of its own.

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Publishers like books on race to be controversial. Who cares about complexities?  “Truth is, some white people drink Hennessey. Some black people jog.”

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Remembrance Day


‘The Last Muster: Sunday at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea” by  Sir Hubert von Herkomer.  Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral [HT: @DrLivGibbs]

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Stanley was handed an extra bandolier of fifty rounds, but it was the anticipation of hand-to-hand fighting that filled him with apprehension…  “I felt a kind of disagreeable gloominess and taciturnness settle on my spirits as the night wore on. But 2 o’clock came and no move; then 3 o’clock approached and no one seemed to be preparing for anything. And I began to look about me from when I sat on my ground sheet rather like a bird that feels morning is near. Soon I saw men walking about, dividing in dark vertical streaks the crack of dawning light. The disappearing night seemed to taker my dread with it… Then the whole camp began to get news of what had happened. Apparently the Bulgars had fallen back, but they were not at all sure how far.”

Richard Carline,  “Stanley Spencer At War”.

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The last word on Mr S?

sinatra bio pic from my times review

In today’s Times, my review [£] of James Kaplan’s epic, no-stone-left-unturned biography:

Can you imagine Frank Sinatra as an ambassador? The idea seems laughable, yet in 1958 that doyen of American columnists, Walter Winchell, floated the idea that JFK, then still a presidential hopeful, might appoint America’s most famous Italian-American as his main man in Rome.

It came to nothing, of course, which is surely just as well. Sinatra was not the happiest of travellers. He always liked to have his favourite food on hand whenever he left America. And even if he christened his private plane “El Dago”, he was, it seems, none too enamoured with his ancestral land. Unable to speak Italian, he struggled to bond with the audiences there. The man who sang Come Fly With Me was much happier to stay at home and rule as emperor of Las Vegas.

Still, the story is a sign of the influence that “The Chairman of the Board” once wielded. Almost exactly a hundred years after his birth on December 12, 1915, the boy from Hoboken remains the embodiment of the American dream. Can any book do full justice to his multi-faceted career? Probably not. But James Kaplan’s sequel toFrank: The Making of a Legend — published five years ago — does an honourable job of balancing the tawdry with the inspirational. Unlike Kitty Kelley’s infamous if eminently readable 1986 biography, His Way – a minnow at a mere 630 pages – The Chairman paints a rounded portrait.

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Pro tip

“You can’t write about people unless you know what’s on their mantlepiece.” Journalist and mental health campaigner Marjorie Wallace on today’s Desert Island Discs.

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I’m glad Paolo Conte made room for this at his Barbican show. My review is here [£].  The video, though, is something else again.

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In 1861, the year the Kingdom of Italy was born, it has been calculated that one Italian in 40 (2.5 per cent of the population of the peninsula) spoke Italian: just over 630,000 people — mainly Tuscans speaking what was after all their own dialect — out of a total of 25 million. Even if we add others who had some familiarity with the language, such as those who had read it at secondary school, it is difficult to push the figure beyond 10 per cent… Most of the early statesmen of united Italy came from Piedmont and had to learn Italian as a new language: the best of them, Camillo Cavour, was happier speaking French and was so ignorant of how people talked in the south that he thought Sicilians still spoke Arabic.

David Gilmour, “The Pursuit of Italy”.

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In concert

Esperanza Spalding’s geeky alter-ego, Emily, makes a disappointing Shepherds Bush debut. Defying the decades, Charles Aznavour holds an audience transfixed at the Albert Hall. [£]

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I think I may have found my world music album of the year: Shye Ben Tzur with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express. The same material I heard at Jerusalem’s Sacred Music Festival earlier this autumn. Magnificent.

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