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Discovering Palenque: Mexico’s Lost City

The path narrowed as it wound through the undergrowth, skirting tangled roots and tracing the course of slender jungle streams. The heat and the humidity were energy-sapping, but I pressed on, snatching lungfuls of heavy, wet air and wiping the emulsion of sweat and suncream from my brow. Above was an unbroken canopy of cedar, mahogany, and young ceiba trees, their trunks studded with thorns as thick as my thumb. Strange birds with haunting calls moved in the branches and all around, cicadas screamed, winding themselves up like alarm clocks and hammering out urgent messages in shrill morse code. The path turned sharply. Webs of pearlescent spider’s silk hung across it in drifts, slung from the bushes and the emerald fronds of ferns. No-one else had been this way for some time.

There are thousands of Mayan ruins in Central America, but few have the charm of Palenque, a jungle-swathed city and UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala. This was once the seat of a great Mayan kingdom, a city state which flourished for a thousand years, from ca. 226 BC to ca. AD 799, before its rulers overstretched themselves, its farmers exhausted the soil and its great temples and pyramids were abandoned to the encroaching forest.

It was rediscovered by Spanish explorers in the 18th century and since then more has been written about its history and archaeology than almost any other Mayan site. Walking across the central plaza in the glare of the early morning sun – past the perfectly-proportioned pyramids with their elaborate roof combs and the palace with its many-tiered tower, from which Mayan priests would have observed the heavens – you’re struck by the flamboyance of it all. Nowhere better illustrates the architectural genius and flair of this great civilisation. It’s staggering to think that they did it all with nothing but stone chisels and bent backs.

I sat and ate a mango from my rucksack beneath the shade of a sapodilla tree and tried to imagine what it must have been like at the height of the city’s power: when the temples still had their coverings of stucco plaster, painted a brilliant red; when the aqueduct still carried water from the nearby River Otulum to feed the saunas and bathhouses of the palace; and when the ball court still drew crowds of spectators.

By all accounts the Juego de Pelota was a brutal game, played by two teams using a 4kg rubber ball which they struck with their hips. According to the Spanish chronicler Diego Durán, players could be killed if they were hit in the stomach or the head and often received bruises so severe they had to be lanced open. Losing captains were also routinely sacrificed to the gods, which must have added a further frisson of excitement. Perhaps that’s why modern-day Latinos take their football so seriously. They’re used to playing with a lot at stake.

It’s not just Palenque’s architecture that sets it apart though. The city has also given us a wealth of carvings and inscriptions, which make the breathless climb to the top of every temple emphatically worth the effort. This is the kind of site that brings out the completist in you. I wanted to see everything and I sweated my way up flight after flight of limestone steps to watch the faces of long-dead kings emerge from the aging plasterwork. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust, but then the details begin to reveal themselves, like pages from some ancient Magic Eye – all Mayan world trees, jaguar pelts and quetzal feather headdresses.

It’s because of carvings like these that we know so much about Palenque. They’ve enabled trowel-clutching, Birkenstock-clad archaeologists to piece together a complete ruling dynasty for the city, which began with the reign of the wonderfully-named Quetzal Jaguar (K’uk’ Bahlam) around 431 AD. We know about the sticky, jungle war that simmered between Palenque and the neighbouring states of Calakmul and Toniná, and about Pakal the Great (603 – 683 AD), whose lavish tomb was discovered buried deep in the Temple of the Inscriptions. It was Pakal who oversaw the construction of many of Palenque’s most magnificent buildings and who lifted it to the height of its prosperity. He was found lying in a vast stone sarcophagus, dressed in a funerary mask and a suit made of jade mosaic and gold wire. Hundreds of images were carved onto the sarcophagus’ surface, including one of the King himself, in the guise of the young maize god, escaping the jaws of the underworld to emerge reborn.

The chirping of the cicadas had reached fever pitch and somewhere in the surrounding forest a troop of howler monkeys began calling from their treetop perch, roaring like asthmatic lions. They’re a reminder of the most staggering fact of all about Palenque: only 10% of the site has been excavated. Cross the manicured lawns of the plaza and the river beyond and you’re in the city’s ancient suburbs, among crumbling stone residences, their walls thick with ferns and succulent jungle mosses. Beyond that, who knows. Palenque is no longer a lost city, but isn’t quite found either. It’s thought that there at least 1,000 structures still out there, hidden beneath the trees.

It was then that I saw the path snaking away into the undergrowth and I couldn’t help but follow it, breaking the skeins of spider’s silk and catching my shirt on the thorns of the ceiba to emerge in a boulder-strewn clearing. In front of me was a great mound of earth. Saplings and thick plaits of vine obscured its outline, but there was no mistaking what it was. Steps punched through the leaf litter like stone knuckles. A temple.

I scrambled to the top. An ochre-skinned lizard wriggled through a gap in the crumbling mortar. In the distance the howlers had started up again, sucking in croaky gulps of air and wheezing like punctured bagpipes. A blunt-edged pick axe was propped up beside a tree. Two stone slabs had been rolled away and beside them was a rectangle of black just a few feet across. The earth smelt of dark chocolate and toasted maize. Is this what Alberto Ruz Lhuillier felt like when he discovered the tomb of Pakal? I slid onto my stomach, pulled a torch from my rucksack and peered inside.

— Thomas Rees

— Image Credit: Flikr/Carlos Adampol Galindo

This article was originally published on

Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz for Jazz Standard

A free jazz primer for the confused and horrified

Fire in a petshop. Squeaky gate. Few genres of music get more abuse than free jazz – the disparaging nicknames say it all.

It’s not difficult to see why. Free music can feel like an assault on the senses and if you’re coming to it cold it can be baffling and impenetrable. Even jazz legend Miles Davis was unimpressed the first time he heard it, famously saying that sax player Ornette Coleman, the inventor of free jazz, was “all screwed up inside”.

But people are often hostile to things that are different and new. Miles soon got onboard and went on to record numerous free tracks of his own and Coleman was hailed as one of the true great innovators in jazz when he died this time last year. Free jazz haters are missing out on some genuinely brilliant and uniquely expressive music so don’t be one of them. Follow these seven tips and set yourself free.

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— Thomas Rees

— Photo: The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Joseph Jarman

Film Review: Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle’s jazz biopic is a mess but it comes with insight and flashes of brilliance too

I saw Miles Ahead on its opening weekend in the UK, in a rundown Odeon in central London. I’d booked tickets but I needn’t have bothered. It was me, two middle-aged men with ponytails and Forbidden Planet carrier bags, and seven to ten other people – fellow jazz nerds and their hostages for the evening. We could have had a row each.

That was over a fortnight ago, but it’s taken me until now to figure out what on earth I should say about Don Cheadle’s controversial biopic – which probably tells you everything you need to know. Miles Ahead is a bewildering, frustrating, mess of a film – a questionable picture with flashes of brilliance or a brilliant and boldly creative one with near-fatal flaws, I still haven’t made up my mind.

Put simply, the problem is car chases and Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a Rolling Stone reporter who pitches up at the trumpeter’s Upper West Side apartment looking for a scoop. It’s the late 1970s and, true to life, Miles is in the middle of a period of drug- and alcohol-abetted isolation, during which he hardly played a note. Braden wants to write his comeback story and ends up riding shotgun as the trumpeter careers around New York with a pistol in his waistband on the tail of an unscrupulous Columbia record executive (Michael Stuhlbarg, complete with lurid paisley tie, seedy mustache, aviator sunglasses and permanent sneer) and a stolen session tape – Davis’ first recording in years.

Several reviewers have complained about this plot line on the grounds that it’s fictitious, but that doesn’t bother me. Miles Ahead is as much a work of historical fiction as it is a biopic and Cheadle should be free to improvise around the facts. What bothers me is that it’s tedious and daft, an irritating story made infinitely worse by Braden who is both whiney and catastrophically bland – a floppy-haired sponge who sucks the enjoyment out of every scene.

It’s a shame because there’s so much to love about the rest of the film. Cheadle’s passion for this project radiates from the screen and his portrayal of Miles is sublime. Everything from his raspy, wrung-out voice, to his swagger and his mannerisms – the way he holds himself, the way he sits with his trumpet and the way he strokes his thumb across the fingers of his free hand as he speaks – is bang on.

The actor/director even took trumpet lessons in preparation for the role and allegedly learnt a few of Miles’ solos. His playing does look convincing – certainly more so than that of his trumpet-playing rival in the film, the otherwise excellent Junior (Keith Stanfield), a shuffling junkie with a hangdog expression in whom Miles sees his younger self. In one scene – the only real clanger I spotted – Junior is tearing it up in a club, playing open and without a mic, yet the sound we hear is Keyon Harrold, the trumpeter on Robert Glasper’s snarling jazz-rock soundtrack, giving his wah-wah pedal a work out.

But enough trumpet geekery. Back to the positives. Braden’s involvement aside, the script is a joy and Cheadle has some wonderful lines to work with – vague utterances and evasive answers that hang in the air like cigar smoke – as well as pithy one-liners and dryly humorous put downs:

“You studied piano too, huh?”

“Nah. Just woke up black and knew how to play.”

Extended quotes from real life interviews with Davis have been woven into the script, including reflections on his early days in New York, getting shown up on the bandstand by Dizzy and Bird and wanting to “quit every night”. We hear his thoughts on music, style and attitude, along with immortal lines: “When you’re creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain’t the limit” and “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself”.

Statements like these run deeper than the dialogue, however. So many different aspects of the film seem to have been shaped by Miles’ personality, his music and his opinions. It’s as if the whole thing was made in his image.

Miles Ahead is arty and relentlessly stylish. There’s a hazy softness to the cinematography that could be the visual expression of Miles’ trumpet sound, and if I were feeling particularly indulgent I’d say his music was there in the rambling subplot too. Davis and his second great quintet pretty much invented the use of ‘metric modulation’ (seamlessly switching between related signatures) in jazz and it seems fitting that Miles Ahead should play fast and loose with time, jumping around by way of extended flashbacks to scenes from the ‘50s and ‘60s, which merge and overlap with the ‘70s present.

The effect is trippy, disorientating and delirious – like spending 90 minutes careering around the inside of Miles’ head. It’s almost too much, but so many great things come of it, on balance it feels worth it. Dipping in and out of different time periods means we get to enjoy the contrast between clean-cut, sharp-suited ‘50s Miles and washed-up jazz rock Miles, who favours snakeskin, sequins and wife-beater vests.

It means we get to hear a greater variety of Davis’ music aswell and to watch legendary sessions, like Miles recording Porgy and Bess with Gil Evans and Teo Macero and playing over “Gone” – for my money one of the greatest trumpet solos of all time.

Throughout the film, the attention to detail is borderline-obsessive. The interiors of jazz clubs and studios have been lovingly recreated from photographs and there are innumerable “Easter eggs” to watch out for – little touches, like the photograph of Lester Young, a major influence on Davis, on the wall of the trumpeter’s basement lair/coke den/home recording studio.

The fluidity of the time encourages Cheadle to stretch out as a director too and he’s worked-in some enjoyable, arthouse flourishes – scenes of infidelity seen through a scatter of polaroid pictures; a flashback triggered by Miles pushing the wall of an elevator and a recurring boxing motif (boxing was one of Davis’ passions).

Best of all, it means we get a nuanced and richly detailed portrait of Miles himself and an in-depth exploration of his psyche. We see his prickly, sharp-tongued, depressive side as he mopes about his dishevelled apartment haranguing radio DJs for playing the wrong tracks from his back catalogue and we see him blood-spattered and defiant after his altercation with a racist cop (a real life incident and one of the most powerful moments in the film).

We get the suave, swaggering self-confident Davis, but Cheadle also shows us the vulnerability behind that swagger and when it comes to his relationship with Frances Taylor, his first wife (magnificently played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), the camera doesn’t flinch. It’s clear that Davis adores Frances, her image on the album cover of Someday My Prince Will Come haunts him throughout the film, but he’s also intimidated by her independence and strength of character and we watch him become increasingly possessive, paranoid and violent as the story plays out.

Cheadle’s masterstroke though is the way that he shows Miles’ life intruding directly on his art. By weaving classic recordings in amongst the drama, he forces you to see them in context and to appreciate that the man and his music are inseparable. Particularly in the later stages of the film, he imbues the mood of Miles’ solos and the phrases that he plays with so much meaning it made me think about them in a completely different way. Maybe what I’d always assumed to be purely artistic decisions weren’t purely artistic at all. Maybe that is the sound of genuine anger and frustration cut into the wax. Perhaps that pause as Miles is soloing over “Nefertiti” isn’t just a pause, but the trumpeter taking a moment to compose himself as a fight with Frances flickers across his field of vision in a blur of splintered wood and broken china.

Flashes of genuine insight like that make it doubly frustrating that Braden and all the gun-toting, gonzo-gangster nonsense exists. The subplot and the true to life material – the racism, the romance and the armchair psychology – is so much more interesting and it could easily have carried the film on its own. Instead we’re left with this bizarre, arthouse-action hybrid – a picture that’s half commercial, half challenging to the point of alienating.

Cheadle has given endless interviews about Miles Ahead and his explanations of the McGregor plotline have been almost as various. He wanted to create, to improvise like Miles did and to make a film that the trumpeter would have wanted to star in. The screenplay is littered with further justifications for his approach: “Be wrong strong otherwise lay the fuck out”; “If you’re going to tell a story, come with some attitude” and “You’re the artist, Miles. How would you say it?”

Yet Cheadle has also talked about needing a big name European actor like McGregor to convince Hollywood backers of the film’s viability – and presumably to ensure that it wouldn’t be showing to half empty Odeon cinemas, populated by jaded critics, jazz nerds and their hostages for the evening. Some of his comments sound like attempts to distance himself from Braden and the session tape story altogether – to make it seem like an imposition by the money men. It’s hard to say what Miles would have thought of Miles Ahead, but he certainly wouldn’t have stood for that.

– Thomas Rees  

Review: Empirical’s Pop-Up Jazz Lounge, Old Street Underground

Free jazz and the hipster singularity

“I can’t believe it. Free jazz in Old Street tube, how cool is that?”

It’s a relief to hear this kind of thing from passersby, because Empirical’s attempt to bring jazz to the people, to reach new audiences and develop their music through an experimental, week-long residency in a London tube station, could so easily have gone wrong.

When I spoke to bassist Tom Farmer about the project, the MOBO-winners, due to release their fifth album, Connection, in March, seemed well aware of the risks. Commuters might hate it, or worse, keep their heads down and ignore it altogether. (“Don’t make eye contact!”) It seemed touch and go whether the band (jazz night owls to a man) would turn up to one of the performances, scheduled for 8am on a Tuesday, and there was also the distinct possibility that a jazz pop-up might tip Old Street over the edge. Could this postmodern cave of wonders – already crammed full of pop-ups selling pop art, kale juice, vegan energy bars, and spiralised fresh air – cope with jazz, or would Empirical bring about some kind of hipster singularity in which Silicon Roundabout disappears into its own Instagram account and a giant beard ultimately becomes the next Mayor of London?

Happily, it turns out that it can. In fact, on the evidence of Thursday night, the lounge is a roaring success: relaxed and welcoming, not edgy or pretentious, and consistently packed. It looks the part, a narrow space lit by filament lightbulbs and angle-poise lamps, with Empirical album art splashed across the walls. And the audience is as varied as the band had hoped: a few hardcore music fans (you can tell from the earnest nodding), men in suits, tech company types, shoppers and even a few kids. Not the usual jazz club crowd. Read the rest on

— Thomas Rees

— Photo by Dan Redding/Empirical