Monday, November 19, 2007

Berlusconi dons the helmet and lifts the sword.

That old friend of Tony Blair is at it again. The man who offered the ex PM of the UK the use of his holiday home and a shoulder to cry on now wants to merge all the centre-right groupings of Italy into one party under, presumably, his leadership.

Mr Berlusconi – one of Italy’s richest men, thinks it is time to for the Italian centre-right “to unite against the old fogeys of politics”.

Mr Berlusconi is no stranger to controversy. He has survived a number of scandals and has been the object of a number of enquiries into alleged shady business dealings. He is also the man behind some, shall we say, ‘colourful’ quotes. Comparing himself to Napoleon, then Jesus Christ. Understatement and restraint would not seem to be two qualities he is in possession of.

What is worth remarking on, regarding Mr Berlusconi’s new initiative, is his assertion that this new party, entitled, The Italian People's Party for Freedom, is to be a “protagonist of freedom and democracy for decades". Which to my ears sounds somewhat chilling. It is almost a threat.

The term ‘freedom and democracy’ is coming to sound like one of those political terms leaders love, such as, ‘joy through work’ or ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It is now bandied about as though it actually means something. It is also generally used in quite an aggressive and confrontational manner.

Democracy is not a political ideal. Neither is it a political ideology. Democracy is a political process. It is a method of government. It comes from Greek, meaning broadly ‘government by the people’. It is not a ready-made. A system that once put in place yields instant results and unites a populace. In fact whenever imposed or transplanted onto a society that has previously not been ‘democratic’ it often has the exact opposite effect to that desired. It disunites and cause a form of political free for all. A populace used to adhering to a centralised or dictatorial system suddenly finds itself with the freedom to indulge every form of political opinion and aspiration. And frequently does- resurrecting old grudges and agendas. Or breaking up along historical or ethnic lines. We forget our societies have developed our understanding of democracy over a long period and in response to differing social pressures and needs. And they are still far from exemplary.

Freedom too is a difficult concept. The reason why, certainly in Europe and North America it has taxed the minds of philosophers for centuries. One person’s freedom can be another’s prison. And freedom is also relative to the special values or principles one culture or people hold in particular importance. Therefore in cultures that hold family and extended family in very high regard, western freedom from family obligations and ties is often seen not as freedom but as chaos and a lack of responsibility. Cultures that hold community as central to identity find our need for ‘individual’ freedom as difficult to understand – certainly to condone.

And this is the problem with the new slogan, ‘freedom and democracy’. Because it is just that. A slogan. Interchangeable with ‘our way of life’. Mr Berlusconi wants his Italian People’s Party for Freedom to be a protagonist for ‘his way of life’. And given his track record it has to be said his instincts would appear to be anything but democratic. In fact based on the evidence one would have to say they are oligarchic. Or at the very least populist.

Mr Berlusconi may call this new party an appeal to the centre right, but in truth it is no more an appeal to centre right than it is an appeal to far right or hard left. Or perhaps all three.

Mr Berlusconi is branding his beliefs with the slogan of our time. "Come with us, against the old fogeys of politics to form a great new party of the people," he says.

We have heard this sort of thing before. Join with us and we will march on the future. The trend in western politics for messianic style crusading is at best unnerving.

Perhaps next time Tony visits he could have a word with Silvio about where this sort of thinking leads. That is when not licking his wounds over Iraq. Another initiative that started with cries of ‘freedom and democracy’.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Nov 2007

At their Best: Paul Motian Trio with Marc Johnson.

Paul Motian has been a constant and essential feature of the American jazz scene for many years. From his early days as drummer with the Bill Evans Trio through to the mid period of his career, as one third of the Paul Motian Trio he has constantly shown touch and perception in his choice of material and playing partners.

The album, Bill Evans: Tribute to the Great Post-Bop Pianist, recorded in 1990 on Winter & Winter, when he was approaching his sixtieth birthday marks perhaps a highlight in a career that has many highlights. Drawing on the material of the legendary pianist and melodist, Bill Evans, he has, together with his trio partners, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano plus bassist Marc Johnson created an album that is excellent and at times sublime.

Given the high standards of playing this group of musicians has been responsible for over the years and add to that the unforgettable and haunting melodies of Bill Evans it is hard to see where this recording could have gone wrong. But what is truly remarkable is that all four musicians have found ways of expanding their past powers of interpretation and unearthed in these nine Evans tunes harmonic possibilities, rhythmic interplay and originality of voice that with lesser musicians could have resulted in a more subdued tribute. Perhaps Motian’s personal experience of playing with Evans brought an element to the sessions that prevented it from simply treading water as the work of four fans.

The only real problem must have been deciding on which Evans songs not to include. There are no real highlights here, as each track is played with such excellence and sensitivity they all stand out. It would be better perhaps to name my favourites. An absolute contender has to be ‘Turn out the Stars’, Joe Lovano floating lovely feathery and melancholy tenor sax over Paul Motian’s ever thoughtful drum and brush work - Bill Frisell’s curious, at times bluesy guitar shapes and Marc Johnson’s bass working off the percussion with a bounce and lightness of touch. ‘Time Remembered’ also stands out. The minor figures, the melody’s downward pull being interpreted with emphasis on its spaces, its sense of loss. The drum and brush work adding a fluid, almost liquid quality, a splash of cymbal here, a rhythmic phrase rising like a wave only to subside. A military style tapping out of beat that falls back into reflection. Again Bill Frisell pulls shapes and lines from his fretboard that have a feel of the blues as well as conventional jazz, even at times a hint of country-western. (a field he was later to explore). Marc Johnson walks and steps though the melody, with a solo that finds hidden harmonics. And Lovano’s tenor sax is perfectly pitched, sweet without being saccharine, expressive without being intrusive. There are other wonderful tracks. ‘Re: Person I knew’, (a great title), played with an engaging and wistful nonchalance, ‘Very Early’ that simply swings. ‘Five’ the most experimental, distorted guitar and passages of free-jazz. ’34. Skidoo’, a playful and uplifting number.

This is an excellent and essential recording. It shows four musicians at their best. The level of interplay and communication is never short of exquisite. It is a worthy tribute to a great musician and a worthy example of four great musicians playing music that is unforgettable and inspiring. Highly recommended.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Nov 2007

Paul Motian: Bill Evans: Tribute to the Great Post-Bop Pianist. Buy here.