Taco Talk – in search of the authentic taco

In 1987 at the age of 15, I travelled to El Paso, Texas, on a scholarship to spend a year as a student on a cultural exchange programme. I lived with a Mexican-American family. The school I went to was 95% Latino. I learned Spanish, played in the band, wrote for the yearbook. 

Until this point, I’d never really been anywhere on my own before, never really communicated with anyone whose first language wasn’t English. And I’d never had a taco. 

There’s a feature about me in the school paper a month after I arrived. The last sentence reads, “Of all the foods he has been introduced to in El Paso, the taco is his favourite.” It still is!

My first lesson in tacos was about how to pronounce them. To say it properly, you have to put your tongue behind your teeth, somewhere between /d/ and /l/. If you say it with that aspirated Anglo “tih” sound – you’re doing it wrong. You’ll just sound like a gringo. And the /o/ is flat. Like El Paso. Like taco. Not like the guy from the dictionary.

As an exchange student, I was obliged to get the hang of stuff like this. Cultural differences, obvious disparities, subtle nuances.  

The family I lived with were generous hosts, and Mum Norma was a brilliant cook. I was fortunate to eat home-cooked tacos every other day for the whole year. When dinner wasn’t a taco, it was a bean burrito or a quesadilla or a stack of enchiladas. I was taught how to use a flour tortilla to mop up a plate of frijoles. I was introduced to the wonders of chile con queso made from a block of Velveeta and a can of Ro-tel. 

Every Friday night after the ball game with the band we’d go to Chico’s Tacos and get a boat-shaped bowl of “tacos” that weren’t really tacos, but flautas – flutes – rolled, fried and soused in Chico’s watery salsa, piled high with shredded cheese and served with a side of zingy tomatilla

I still can’t say the word, but at least I know what a taco is. 

Everyone knows what a taco is, right?

In the UK, we can probably trace the emergence of the taco and foods like it to the 1980s when a greater diversity of products started to become available in supermarkets. 

The taco came in on a wave of other seemingly interchangeable foreign flatbreads, like pitta, chapatis and focaccia. Burritos were just bland, Anglicised “wraps”.

Over time, we’ve learned the difference. More than that, the taco is bound up with all sorts of narratives of travel-savvy culinary sophistication and cultural insider knowledge. 

But just as we continue to fail to master the pronunciation, the British version of this Mexican- American gastronomic staple is similarly approximate. Every festival seems to have its own taco truck, but our tacos are still gringo tacos.

The idea of trying to find an authentic taco in the UK feels slightly doomed before the off, even as it seems like tacos have become suddenly ubiquitous in the current “street food” boom.

Street food in the way that we know it in the UK, is altogether different from the concentrations of culinary entrepreneurialism across the world described by Irene Tinker in her study of street food markets in developing countries. Our “street foods” are not “street food” in anything like the same understanding of the term. 

Tinker cites an example in Yoruba, Nigeria, for example, where “Vendors … offered 335 different foods and 74 usual combinations from which customers could choose.” (Tinker 1997: 179)

There is considerably less choice on offer at Platform, Glasgow’s street food market at the old Arches venue under Central Station. Mobile vendors in adapted vehicles sell portable dishes from around the world. Or, around the corner, depending on your take.

In a culinary twist on the phenomenon known as “glocalization”, restaurants and places like Platform educate us in the unfamiliar by including familiar elements in the dining experience. No matter how sophisticated we get in our tastes, no matter how far travelled we are, no matter how exotic or far-flung the food, if you’re dining out in the UK there’s always chips on the menu. You can always get a pint

Ginger & Chilli - preparing a Kati Roll TacoAt Platform, a popular item on Chilli & Ginger’s menu is their Kati Roll Taco – a “folded paratha with curry, rice, lemon pickled onions, Jaipur slaw and a choice of chutneys”…

I give it a miss. It’s authentically, “glocally” something but I’m not sure a curry in a taco is what I’m looking for. 

What am I looking for? What is a taco, anyway? Is it a type of sandwich? Are they crispy or soft? Can any flatbread be a taco? If a curry can be a taco, what else can be a taco? Can a hot dog be a taco? Does it have to be made of corn?

Nobody had heard of the things thirty years ago, but now they’re everywhere.

One thing I realise is there’s no such thing as a “humble” taco. For such a tiny couple of mouthfuls, the taco does a lot of heavy lifting in the global village. In fact, the more you investigate any ingredient, or food type, the more complex it reveals itself to be. The idea that a specific food can be authentically from specifically one place gets quickly tangled in the crossed lines of global trade, colonisation, migration, tourism, genetic modification, refrigeration etc. 

In what is probably the definitive text on the history of Mexican food, ”Planet Taco”, Jeffrey Pilcher reminds us what the historians have been telling us all along, that “Mexican food has been globalised from the very beginning.” (Pilcher 2012: 5)

Taco on Apple iOS 13.1

Even so, in a world where we increasingly communicate in shorthand visuals, foods have come to stand for certain countries. And no matter what you put in them, the taco has come to signify  Mexican food – especially since it was codified by the Emoji Corporation in 2015 – much as the burger stands for American food or “curry” stands for Indian food. 

But you could argue that the taco along with all these emoji foods – like sushi, like pizza – transcends national identity. You won’t find any mention of tacos in the UNESCO inscription of traditional Mexican food. Which is fair enough. Tacos should probably have their own separate inscription. Even in kit from. Especially in kit form.

The emoji taco is a hard shell taco, a 20th century invention borne of a desire to scale up distribution across the American continent. Corn goes off quickly, so fry-baking tortillas into a hard shell prolongs their shelf life, allows them to travel. It’s a product that facilitated the McDonaldsification – or more accurately, the Taco Bell-ification – of the taco. 

Taco kits were an instant hit, partly because the product conformed to a familiar foodway formula: you take some kind of meat protein with a starchy base, sauce, veg/ salad, optional cheese on top. 

In the UK, it’s probably still the case that the name most closely associated with Mexican food is the supermarket megabrand, Old El Paso, which has been supplying kit meals to UK households since the mid 1980s. 

For me, the great thing about Old El Paso is that they don’t pretend their products are authentic. 

The warm desert yellows, the tiled roof of a colonial hacienda on the packaging nudge us towards an innocent, idealised version of the Southwest USA, free of conflict, devoid of banditos or any of the usual cowboy movie cliches. The name harks to a nostalgic past,  to a time maybe when El Paso was part of Mexico. The generic Spanish food names are there – salsa, fajita, enchilada etc – and everything is reassuringly mild. Even the spices come in a “white” sachet. The starch/ protein/ veg/ sauce template is comforting and familiar, with a handy picture on the front for reference. It just needs you to chop a few peppers, some onions, fry a bit of steak or chicken, open a jar or two and you’re there.

The authenticity they’re going for is a kind of heritage authenticity, fostering trust in the brand through storytelling. Their packaging tells us they’ve been in business “since 1938”. Their website tells the backstory of its origins as a canning plant on the outskirts of El Paso. The brand is operated by American food giant General Mills, who know, perhaps, that culinary authenticity is not a strong motivator for their audience, that the heritage value of the Old El Paso brand is a powerful asset in the crowded convenience foods market. 

Tastes change, though. In 2012, a newcomer arrived offering some heavy-concept competition in the Mexican aisle. Gran Luchito was the brainchild of an English foodie who thought there was room on the shelf for something more strongly Mexican flavoured. 

Gran Luchito’s products come in saturated terracottas, vivid cactus-greens and sun-drenched ochres, eschewing Old El Paso’s safe, bland imagery and tired serving suggestions for bold typography, exotic Day of the Dead iconography and exciting new flavour profiles.

They obviously spooked General Mills, because in 2015, Old El Paso rolled out a new range called “Restaurante” and employed an expensive London agency to handle the marketing

The whole thing was geared around culinary authenticity with the strapline “Cook like the locals”. They hired a down-to-earth Yorkshire butcher and a salt-of-the-earth Cornish fishmonger to travel to different bits of actual Mexico to learn how to cook “regional” dishes. The campaign was threaded together with language like “authentic” “traditional” “local” and introduced new concepts like “al pastor” “carne asada” “chicken tinga”.

It flopped. 

Old El Paso pulled the concept after 18 months and reverted to their core generic range of Tex-Mex staples. General Mills didn’t elaborate on the reasons for the sudden recall, but we can perhaps draw our own inferences about the nature of their audience and how much regional authenticity that audience is willing to bear. 

Meanwhile, Gran Luchito goes from strength to strength, opening new markets, developing new products, adding to their reach and range. They manage to offer the kind of “authenticity” on the shelves of the UK’s big supermarkets that Old El Paso can’t get near. Their products are full of regional references, authentic ingredients. They promise “the real flavour of Mexico” with not the slightest hint of the border about them.

Which raises an interesting question about who gets to claim their version of Mexican food is authentic… The entrepreneurial tourist? Or is it the people of Mexico and their descendants? 

It’s currently fashionable to dismiss so-called Tex-Mex food as inauthentic. And if you’re taking hard shell tacos to stand for the whole vibrant diversity of Mexican cooking, fair enough. But Tex-Mex is more than just an emoji. 

For me, Tex-Mex food is Mexican food. It’s not the whole story, but nothing ever is. By dismissing it, you erase the journey the food of the Southwest USA has been on over the generations, carried by the people who cook it, from their origins in Chihuahua or Oaxaca or Jalisco or wherever migrating north to the border towns of the US. 

Pilcher again.

“The regional cuisines of Oaxaca and Sonora, as well as their Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex counterparts, are modern artifacts of culinary tourism, in many ways quite distant from the domestic practices from which they emerged. The culinary literature and restaurant menus that serve to codify recipes are similar to and often allied with the ideological work of forging national identities.” (Pilcher 2012: 224)

Right now, Glasgow seems to be having a Mexican moment. The city centre is home to a dozen Mexican restaurants, most of them fairly new. My girlfriend and I try Topolabamba. They too have a professed avowal of the “Tex-Mex”, as their website declares: 

“We’re not talking about those pre­-packed wraps, or Tex­Mex inspired kits – we mean the real deal, amigos – the real deal.” 

The portions are tiny. It’s tapas-style, we’re told – I’m not sure how authentically Mexican that concept is, but it’s on the Old-World/ New-World continuum, so I’m not going to quibble. I remind myself that I’m a “culinary citizen of a glocalized and imaginary culture” and order a pint and some chips while we study the menu.

There’s no refried beans – maybe that’s too Tex-Mex? – but they do have taquitos, little tacos, which is everything I need to hear. 

What arrives is a fitting return to the tacos I ate back in El Paso, at Chico’s: the rolled, fried crispy tacos that aren’t really tacos. They’re a bit dry – no salsa, no tomatilla, no shredded cheese – but they’re perfectly delicious nonetheless. 

Have I just eaten an authentic taco? In Glasgow? Probably. It’s not a Chico’s Taco, but then, that’s not really an authentic taco either

I’m happy the journey has taken me full circle, reignited old memories. I’m happy to forget about food semiotics for a minute and just enjoy the celebration of Mexican culture in whatever form it has found itself here, authentic, glocal or otherwise. I post a message to my El Paso facebook friends, ask them their take on the taco. No-one seems to have very definite ideas. 

Taco’s just a taco.

 El Paso, TX; Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; Rio Grande River.
The border town of El Paso, TX with Juarez, Mexico in the background south of the Rio Grande River. (Photo: Ron Reiring/ Flickr.com)

YFU

Yfu-logoI’m scouring my shelves for something that triggers a memory from my El Paso days. Something tangible – some souvenir or memento, a photo, maybe – that might act as a kind of emotional rope ladder that I can cast down to the sense reservoir that lurks deep down in the memory cave.

A book, maybe, that was inscribed by my yearbook class teachers. An LP that a pal bought & gifted to me the weekend before I set off. Something I took with me. Something I brought back. Something that was important then. Something that might find renewed importance now.

But there’s nothing. It’s like I’ve left everything from that part of my life behind.

I’ve written a bit already about my El Paso year, but I want to come at it from a different angle. I received an email the other day from Carol H, my south west El Paso YFU area rep, and before I reply to her I’d like to create a picture of the year I spent there, to reflect on it a bit, to try and see it with fresh eyes. I want to do justice to the response I send Carol, to acknowledge the impact that year made on my life, then and since, and to pay respect to the considerable part she played in all of it.

IMG_3740The strongest image I have of Carol and the one that stays with me as I write this, is of her face, beaming rosy and round and bright, dimpled at the cheeks, crinkled at the eyes. A smile of genuine warmth, of affection all-encompassing, unconditional. Gentle, easy, happy, a powerhouse of positivity. In my mind, she’s wearing a short-sleeved blouse and slacks, big glasses frame her eyes; her short wiry hair reminds me of my mum’s.

Indeed, Carol was a kind of mother to all the exchange students in her area, even as we had been taken in as the guest sons and daughters of our host families. Carol’s job was to make sure we were all ok in our new temporary homes, host families too, to see that we were happy and settled, to deal with any upsets, to find resolutions to difficulties, to act as intermediary, as counsellor, and above all, to make sure that we all made the most of this incredible transformative gift that we’d been given – the opportunity to live in a foreign culture, many thousands of miles distant from our own families, for a whole year.

IMG_3744And she was great at it. Carol’s house was a regular little united nations of French and Dutch and German and Japanese teenagers where we gathered for pool parties, pizza parties and Christmas parties to share our experiences and observations about life in Texas, our highs and lows, to gossip and moan, and above all to delight in the quirks and perks of our host city and its generous, colourful, beautiful, crazy people.

Carol listened to it all without prejudice.  She took time to know us, to love us all equally. She recognised the things that made us who we were – and who we were becoming – and she gave each of us our place in this home from home. She made us all feel that we belonged – together, in her house, in our new country, and in the world as individuals. How many people in your life can you genuinely say that about?

IMG_3827The world has shrunk a lot since 1987. Even more since the 1950s when YFU (Youth for Understanding) was set up. Its aim was, and still is, to foster peace and unity in the world through sharing values and experiences between cultures after the mass slaughter of the Second World War. Initially operating between Germany and the USA, school aged students travelled from one country to the other and lived for a year, learned the language and ways of life, and shared something of their own with the families who hosted them. The programme quickly spread to most of the rest of western Europe, Japan, China and other countries in east Asia, South America. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened up Eastern Europe, and now the list of participating countries runs to around 50 – the UK sadly but unsurprisingly no longer among them.

The UK has never really “got” the whole cultural exchange thing – we’re happy to go overseas and take the best of everything that’s on offer, but when it comes to allowing foreigners to share our houses, share our lives for a whole year… well, that’s just not very British, is it.

The spirit of YFU is based on openness, inclusivity, respect and, fundamentally, intercultural understanding. None of these things could describe the UK over the last few years, especially since the vote to leave the EU, the increasingly rabid anti-immigration, anti-foreigner rhetoric at large in society, and our government’s moronic ideological pursuit of an isolationist political agenda and the imagined good old days of Empire. I doubt many YFU alumni would have much truck with Trump either.

I’m not sure this is the world that any of us imagined when we got with the peace, love and understanding programme. How could it be? Everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost. The old evils that YFU’s founders sought to eradicate with knowledge are back with a vengeance, bolder and more empowered by ignorance. The structural injustices and inequalities never went away. We’re left with ourselves and the challenge to be better versions of who we are, the best we can imagine ourselves to be.

And who is that person? Who did I become? And who would I have become if not for my year with YFU?

Looking again at the stuff on my shelves, in the corners of my cupboards where I keep the treasures and mementos from my past, nothing at all exists from my El Paso days – partly, it seems, because I had yet to become the person I am now. It sort of feels like the whole thing happened to a different person, someone I have in part disowned.

7F595C9F-F6FE-4D97-891B-00AB320FEC14I knew nothing of myself as a 15 year old. I knew even less about the world around me. Travel was a few summer trips to France and Tenerife with my parents, visits to uncles and aunties in England. The furthest I had ever gone on my own was a 15 mile bike ride in the countryside. At school, I was reasonably good at music, English, geography; hated maths, science. I was learning French but had never met a French person. I harboured vague notions of one day going to music college, but nothing definite, nothing you could call a career plan or a vocation.

That all changed when my dad came home from work with a company circular offering the children of employees the chance to win a scholarship with YFU. It was presented as a kind of competition – and competitions were a big thing in our family, my Nana was a master at them. It was the kind of competition where you had to write a few hundred words describing how you would deal with a year in a foreign country. What the challenges might be, how you would deal with them, what you would bring to a “cultural exchange”, what you think you might take from it. Kind of thing. I worked at it over several nights with my mum, drafting and redrafting my answers, writing them out neatly to fit as much as I could into the boxes on the form. No online applications back then; no word processors.

I was invited to London for an interview. My dad and I flew down first thing and made our way to a tall, thin terraced house in Kensington where we were welcomed by a friendly middle aged professional couple. I remember I was wearing a pastel yellow shirt and grey chinos bought for the occasion. There was a girl there, a year or so older than me – Susan something? They interviewed us separately, posing various scenarios and what ifs, much like the application questions: Would you miss your family. How do you cope with boredom. How do you deal with disappointment. It was all very friendly, very relaxed, but utterly terrifying – my first ever interview! Dad and I flew back later that evening after a trip to Piccadilly Circus and a mooch around the shops. It was already the most exciting thing I’d ever done.

I learned a week or so later that I’d been unsuccessful. I had made a good impression but ultimately I was considered too young – I was only 15 after all – and not mature enough to cope with the emotional demands of living so far from home with a family of strangers. Perhaps I could consider applying again next year but there was no guarantee the scholarship would be available.

Turns out I coped poorly with disappointment. I was crushed. I had a horrible life at school, every single day was an unpredictable gauntlet of relentless, merciless bullying from every quarter, and this seemed like an opportunity to escape. I’d had a glimpse through the door of another life beyond all that. In those few weeks I had built up the scholarship to become a real thing in my mind, more than some magical adventure or fantasy.

And then, a few weeks later, there was a twist of fortune. My dad’s employers, a global engineering brand, were funding five YFU scholarships throughout their operations across the world. Someone, in Japan of all places, had withdrawn from the programme and suddenly a scholarship had become available – was I still interested?

My first month in El Paso was a blur, a roar, a flurry of sense impressions. I’d learned about “culture shock” in my three day orientation before I set off, but here I was living it. Everything was new. My relatively young, immature and impressionable, still developing brain was inundated and overloaded with new sounds, smells, sensations, flavours, people, places, conventions – right down to the unfamiliar alloy of the coins. Every orienting device, every familiar face, every recognisable trace of my life hitherto was thousands of miles away. Even language – a supposedly shared language – was untrustworthy. I don’t think I spoke more than five words that first month.

I do remember arriving in El Paso. I flew Glasgow to London, London to New York, and a rendezvous under the swooping Googie vaults and arches of Eero Saarinen’s gorgeous TWA pavilion at JFK with a cadre of seersucker-suited YFU reps lined up on the walkways to guide us onward. A brief walk outside in the summer heat – to see New York! – was like being punched in the chest with a steaming hot fist of air. From New York to Dallas and more blue-striped seersuckers. I fell in with a group of Spanish students who spoke a more easily comprehensible variety of English than my teenage-mumbled Scottish accented mouth music, full of gulped down vowels and bitten off consonants, stuttered out at roughly Mach 2 at low volume. Nobody had a clue what I was saying.

I made myself understood eventually to be directed to an airport hotel, and woke the next morning with the sun rising red and dry and low from my bedroom window, ready to take the last leg of my journey across the desert to my new home in El Paso. I had no idea what was waiting for me.

There’s a photo of me stepping into the arrival lounge, all crewcut hair and Lennon shades – fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked and utterly gobsmacked. Everyone is there. There’s the marimba band. The Bel Air Taco Band. There’s a bagpipe band. I learn later the school I’m going to attend had been requesting a Scottish student for years – their mascot’s the Highlander – and I was the first there’d been on the YFU programme, so they sent the full welcoming committee to greet me off the plane. Even the pilot comes over and asks – me, a Scottish person – if I know his cousins in Perth and he gives me a pair of souvenir TWA wings. There’s the school head teacher, the cheerleaders, the dancers. There’s the Payans, the family I’m going to stay with. There’s the YFU people, and there’s Carol. It’s crazy.

But beautiful. And something I need to celebrate more in my life.

Bel Air Scottish Highlander mascot
Bel Air’s highlander mascot

My recollections of El Paso are mostly positive. But I think back to that day at the airport and the hopes of the family and the school who welcomed me into their community. I think about my family back home, sending me off into the wild blue yonder with hopes for my future. I think about the values of the YFU project, and being accepted as an ambassador for my culture. And I have to ask myself if I ever lived up to any of that. Did I share enough? Did I learn enough? Did I do enough to add to the stock of understanding in the world?

A few months after I returned from my year in El Paso, I was given another amazing opportunity to attend a week-long residential seminar at the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg. The theme of the week was about asking how YFU can better use the media to achieve its aims. While I was there, I got to know one of the organisers, a Belgian journalist called Patrick, himself a YFU alumnus and who in fact had spent his year in El Paso. He recognised my Bel Air letterman jacket and he knew Carol. It was like we were related. We took a photo, with the intention of sending it to Carol, which I have in an album somewhere. Who knows if a copy ever made it to Carol.

I googled Patrick, who’s still working as a journalist, and was curious to note that – some forty years later – he still includes the year with YFU in his professional biography, whereas I have erased all trace of that experience from my CV. He even proudly lists being, as I am too, an Hononary Citizen of El Paso.

IMG_3828
Becoming an Honorary Citizen of El Paso in 1988

There’s nothing of that in my life, no mention of my scholarship, my year of study at a foreign high school, anywhere publicly. I might say to people when I get to know them a bit, but otherwise it’s like I’ve tried to bury the memory. Even my photo albums are squirrelled away in my dad’s attic, unopened for at least a decade.

It’s a startling realisation. But writing this, I want to change how I feel about that year. I want to embrace it and celebrate it again. YFU was part of the continuum, rather than an exception, of who I am now: the far-travelled me, the curious me, the me who writes, the me who adapts, who bends, who shapes himself to circumstance. Resilient. Resourceful. Independent. But also, bullied, bruised, El Paso - Scotland YFU exchange studentnever quite comfortable in my own skin. It is also part of the ‘me’ who continually has to go outside of himself, to lose himself, in order to find himself again; who permanently carries around a sense of displacement, of unbelonging – and ironically, my experience of going to school in the town I grew up in gave me that much more than travelling halfway across the world ever did.

I can’t speculate on the kind of person I might have become if not for that year; the best I can do is to embrace the person I am today, who exists as he is because of these people, my mum and dad included, Carol, the Payans, everyone who made that year happen, and to thank them for the privilege.

Breakout & Morning Dance

Spiro Gyra

BreakoutI first heard these guys at a downtown street festival in June 1988 during my last days of a year long cultural exchange programme in El Paso. I was with my Bel Air High ‘homies’ – Ralph, Chris, Margot and a bunch of others. School was out, summer was hitting its stride, and my looming departure was taking every emotion to greater and greater heights.

The grid of streets around the downtown area of the city was blocked off, bands on every corner. Spiro Gyra were the headline act. They played a kind of electric jazz pop full of joyful melody and good energy on a massive stage with a big arena-busting rig, and instantly had a whole block full of people dancing, including us. I loved the sound they made, never heard anything like it. Total happy-making music. One of my friends – Ralph, I think – gifted me his copy of “Breakout”, their latest album, as a leaving present, and those tunes indelibly marked that period of my life following the inevitable headlong crash of my homecoming with a painful kind of nostalgia.

That gig, that cassette, was the beginning of a love affair with 80s big-hair smooth RnB type jazz that took shape when I got into David Sanborn, courtesy of a mix tape another El Paso pal sent over. Back home in EK, I joined a few bands, acquired a sax from one of them (the Perth TA band) and started trying to play jazz myself.

But snobbery follows jazz as flies follow shit. I remember talking up this band to a few guys I’d been hanging out with, older jazzers, not quite realising that Spiro Gyra were considered beyond-the-pale shit. Noodlers. Widdlers. Popsters. Not Real Jazz. Disposable – “Biro Giro”, one quipped. I got the gist pretty quickly. I clearly had a long way to go to train my ear, but the implied insult in the knowing laughter and sideways glances I was getting still stung. Embarrassed and ashamed of my ignorance, I relegated my cherished tape and nascent jazz fusion enthusiasms to the bottom drawer.

Morning DanceListening back to them again, they’re obviously not the worst of the pop-jazz-rock stuff that was around at the time, nor are they particularly outstanding – I suppose the word you’d use is ‘safe’. It seems the biggest crime they committed in the ears of the True Jazzers was that of tunefulness. Tunefulness in jazz can often be equated with simplicity, naivety; True Jazz is supposed to be spiky and difficult, and isn’t taken seriously if it’s dancable or hummable. I don’t remember where I bought “Morning Dance”, but whatever else it might be, the title track is a fabulous tune and remains one of my favourite things to play on the alto.

Spiro Gyra and the whole jazz fusion idiom were, in a sense, rehabilitated for me years later when I was playing in the Strathclyde Arts Centre Big Band – a pretty serious & heavy-weight junior outfit that has given the world a whole bunch of amazing players – and the guy who was joint leader brought out an arrangement of ‘Morning Dance’. As well my delight at my tune belatedly receiving the kind of True Jazzer approval I lacked when I was starting out, the piece made my spine tingle just the way it did when I heard them all those years ago in El Paso.

Train the ears, but trust the tingle.