The first large human settlements in the Near and Middle East from around 10,000 years ago were often decimated and sometimes destroyed by the diseases caused by the build-up of the wastes. Hunter-gathers left their parasites behind as they roamed. In the Black Death, millions died as the huddled in churches praying to God. Now Ebola thrives in dense, unhygienic settlements but it also spreads across the world on the trail of jet-plane journeys. Like the rogue alien plants, animals and their diseases that are causing environmental havoc world-wide, human diseases now hitch a ride on human mobility. Nowhere to hide.
One of the minor mysteries of our time is why the 1968 album by the New Jazz orchestra Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe has never been released in a digital format. The album is classic big band orchestral jazz in the mould of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans albums. Le Dejeurner stands up to the comparison well.
Neil Ardley is the Gil Evans of this project; there is no Miles Davis figure but the band features the cream of British jazz of the period. There is also an interesting rock component because the drummer is Jon Hiseman of the jazz-rock band Colosseum and the bassist Jack Bruce of Cream. I’ve always been amazed that Bruce found the time to do this session at a time when Cream was a very big band indeed. He plays very well in a totally different style.
The tunes include the jazz standards Naima and Nardis and the rest are by the British composers Howard Riley, Mike Taylor, Michel Garrick, Michel Gibbs, and Ardley himself for the title track.
The arrangements demonstrate again how beautiful orchestral jazz can be: the skirling flugelhorn and growing tuba offsetting soaring soprano saxophone. The arrangements are intricate and the playing warm and inventive. I’ve been playing the vinyl album for 46 year and have never tired of it.
Why am I’m writing about it now? Because the title track is now available on iTunes on a compliation disc (only that one, sadly): Impressed with Gilles Peterson, Vol 2. Ardley’s Le Déjeuner is a masterpiece. 7 min and 40 secs long; it has many shifting moods, developing as a classical piece does, rather than simply running thorough the changes. It’s wonderful to have this on the iPod: can we soon have the rest of the album, please?
PS. There is a live digital album of the NJO, Camden ’70 Live, playing most of the material from Le Déjeuner but it often sounds frantic and lacks the gorgeous precision of the original.
The race is truly on to find an economic process for producing solar fuels. Chemical fuels produced using solar energy would be the solution to several problems. However efficient silicon and other solar cells and other renewable sources of electricity might become in the future, the world cannot run on electricity alone. Forms of storable energy are needed, not to mention chemical feedstocks for our materials industries. Solar fuels would be able to use the existing infrastructure of petrochemicals plants, pipelines and filling stations. The route is well understood: the processes are simply not yet cost-effective.
Natural photosynthesis is the inspiration but solar fuels will not be produced by imitating it in detail. Natural photosynthesis has two stages: water splitting – producing hydrogen and oxygen – and carbon dioxide reduction to yield hydrocarbons and hence the panoply of organics. For now the emphasis is on water splitting: “fuel from air and water” is already a commercial operation where cheap electricity from hydrothermal sources is used for water splitting and carbon dioxide is then reduced to organics by the hydrogen. But to be able to produce hydrogen from sunlight would be a game changer for the whole world.
Now Michael Grätzel’s team at Lausanne (of fuel-cell fame) have coupled a perovksite solar cell to a cheap water-splitting catalyst to produce solar hydrogen with a 12.3% solar energy:hydrogen efficiency (natural photosynthesis is less than 1% efficient).
Tantalisingly, the new system so far meets only three of the requirements for a commercial process: efficient, cost-effective, scalable, and stable through many cycles. The perovskite solar cells fall at the last hurdle and urgent work is now being done to address this.
Science, 26 September 2014, pp. 1566-7; 1593-6.
I'm a writer whose interests include the biological revolution happening now, the relationship between art and science, jazz, and the state of the planet