Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Beautiful Aberration 2 - Coltrane Again

The more we know a musician's work, the more fascinating it can be to hear them do something they don't normally do. A musician stepping outside the area they normally inhabit is a risky undertaking, and these efforts are not always crowned with success - in jazz, think of the many dreadful attempts by musicians from an earlier era to make fusion albums in the 70's in an effort to catch a zeitgeist that they had no real feeling for and probably didn't even like.

Changes in musical direction are always risky, but one is usually on safer ground with changes in repertoire or changes to approach in your own repertoire. In a previous post "Miles and Trane - Two Beautiful Aberrations' I wrote about two instances in which both Miles and Trane played repertoire which they normally didn't play, both recorded in live performance situations. In these situations it's always interesting to speculate as to why they might suddenly play something different. And now I find myself speculating on another of these intriguing moments, again involving Coltrane.

It's no news to anyone in the jazz world, and many outside it, that a new, never before issued studio album by Coltrane's legendary quartet has just been released. Of course I bought it immediately - the version with the alternate takes - and have been listening to it a lot. Apart from hearing a new Trane original, which is fascinating in itself, the track that stood out for me is 'One Up, One Down'. And the reason it stood out for me is because it is arguably the only time, at least with the quartet, that Coltrane did what can clearly be seen to be an arrangement in the traditional sense.

Now of course Coltrane did arrange his pieces, with intros, altered changes (in the case of standards), and occasionally bass lines etc.. And he did create larger structures such as 'A Love Supreme', but in general his music with the quartet was largely developed through the improvising. In general the melody is played and then the quartet improvises. It could be argued that an earlier album, "Africa Brass", is also arranged, but it is a large group and the arrangements were apparently done by Eric Dolphy. With ''One Up, One Down', we are listening to a very unusual piece in the Coltrane recorded canon, a piece in which what will happen, and what order these things will happen, has clearly been decided by Coltrane in advance.

The first thing to notice on this track is that there are drum breaks. This is very unusual in the quartet's recorded output, in fact I thought it might have been unique, but the great drummer and true jazz scholar Eric Ineke pointed out to me that this was done on 'Blues to You' on Coltrane Plays the Blues, recorded three years previously. The second thing you notice is that rather than the breaks occurring at the end of the piece in the traditional way, they occur throughout the tune. And when you listen to how this works, you can quickly hear the arranging logic in how it's done.

Coltrane doesn't improvise for the drum break sections, he has created a little motif, a kind of shout chorus, to set up the breaks, and he uses the breaks passages themselves to set up the next solo. The breaks happen before the piano, bass and drum solos respectively, and again after the drum solo to set up the melody. So the structure of the piece is as follows:

1. Melody
2. Tenor solo
3. Shout chorus with drum breaks (3 cycles)
4. Piano solo
5. Shout chorus with drum breaks (2 cycles)
6. Walking bass solo
7. Shout chorus with drum break (1 cycle)
8. Drum solo
9. Shout chorus with drum break (1 cycle)
10. Melody

I find it fascinating to speculate on the way the number of shout/break chorusses diminishes as the piece goes on. Was this accidental or deliberate? A function of improvising, i.e just the way it happened on the day, or part of a predetermined plan on Coltrane's part? Knowing what we know now about Trane's meticulousness and interest in numbers and structures, I would be very surprised if the reduction in the number of cycles was not predetermined. But if it was a deliberate plan, then what was the underlying reason for it? Fascinating to speculate.

Another speculation of course, is why did Trane decide to do this quite elaborate arrangement, and why only this one time?

A further speculation, where did he get the drum break interlude idea from? Here's some speculation on my part - from an album released in 1962 under Elvin's name called 'Elvin!' This is one of the few albums with the three Jones brothers on it, and Thad's arranging fingerprints are all over it. Thad is of course known for his big band writing, but I love small group recordings under his name or in which he has a hand in arranging, they demonstrate that brilliant arranging can enliven recordings of any band, regardless of size.

On two tracks on this album, 'Lady Luck' and 'Pretty Brown' the drums are used in many different ways - for intros, and also interspersed between melody statements and solos. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine that Trane with his insatiable musical curiosity, and respect for other musicians, checked out the albums of his sidemen. Could he have perhaps checked out Elvin's album and made a mental note of how Thad used the drums in the arrangements, and a year later used that idea himself in his own piece? We'll never know, but I think it's a decent guess. Here are the tracks I mentioned from Elvin's album (which is all great by the way!)

And here is 'One Up, One Down'. The arrangement really works and creates a concise piece with a powerful forward motion. And of course the playing.... Elvin is just incredible on this - the power, the fearlessness, the swing! I wish Trane had tried this experiment a few more times, but I feel lucky to have had the chance to hear it at all.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

11 Great Bass Solos!

Several years ago I wrote a post about bass solos, called 'When Drums Stop, Big Trouble', which referenced a well known joke about bass solos and got into some discussion of bass soloing. I more recently wrote about the electric bass culture of virtuosity that has appeared in more contemporary times. To complete the now stereotype/cliched trilogy, here's a post which just simply celebrates great bass solos. I chose them in no particular order, and there are of course many more, both by the people mentioned here and many other great players.

Because it's a piece about bass solos, I've started some of these tracks at the solos themselves. But I would of course encourage you to listen to the pieces in full.

Eddie Gomez - Autumn Leaves

One of my favourite recorded bass solos. Gomez' style of playing is somewhat out of favour these days (though not with me...) - a lot of high register playing, and a low action. But I love his lyricism and the individuality of his sound - you'd know him anywhere. On this track he displays a ferocity of attack that's not often associated with him, but was a feature of his earlier playing with Evans. This track is a tour de force. Drummer Marty Morell's accompaniment is model of how to accompany a bass solo - intense, swinging, but not too loud.

Renaud Garcia-Fons - Baja De Guía

Renaud Garcia-Fons has created a bass language and sound all his own. Playing a five-string double bass, combining Spanish and Middle-Eastern influences in a very personal way, and applying his ideas to a superhuman technique on the instrument (the intonation!), he really is a one-off. Here he gets into a full blown Buleria for solo bass. Just extraordinary - listen to how he keeps the Buleria clave with his feet.....If you don't know him check out his music - he has some other great videos on Youtube.

Paul Chambers - Softly as in a Morning Sunrise

The difficulty with PC solos is which one to pick... Every solo he played defined bebop bass soloing. The time feel, the lines, the articulation. In my mind he is to bebop bass soloing what Sonny Stitt is to bebop saxophone, representing a kind of perfection that distils all the qualities of the genre into every solo.  I could have picked any of the dozens of recorded PC solos and had as good a representation of great jazz bass soloing as is represented by this. One of the all time greats.

Dave Holland - Mr PC

One of my biggest influences and of course one of the greatest living jazz bassists. The list of his achievements in bass playing and music in general is really phenomenal. Among those achievements would be the development of the idea of solo bass performance - both live and on record.  I wrote previously about 'Emerald Tears' , the ground breaking solo album he made in 1977 - it demonstrated a whole new concept of the bass as a solo instrument in its own right, one that didn't have to mimic a saxophone in order to have credibility in soloing. This is a live performance of 'Mr. PC' a piece dedicated by Trane to Paul Chambers and here given a classic Dave Holland workout where the whole instrument is used, the time is flawless and technique is pushed to the limit. Another giant.

Anders Jormin

Anders Jormin is another giant - literally and figuratively. Yet though he's a big man who plays a big instrument, he does it with extraordinary delicacy and finesse. His technique on the instrument is effortless and his playing has such an elegance to it. You can see it here, taken from this wonderful concert in the forest with Bobo Stenson's trio, where from the opening false harmonics to the beautiful chordal passages and deep lyricism, he sets up the following waltz beautifully. And what a sound.....

Michael Pipoquinha  - Incompatibilidade De Gênios

If you've read my post about current trends in electric playing you'll know that while I admire the extraordinary technique that's been developed by the younger generation of bassists, I'm often left wishing they'd play some decent music in which that technique is put at the service of the music. The young Brazilian bassist Michael Pipoquinha is someone who does exactly that. A phenomenal technician he also is a great improviser whose playing always reflects joy in every note he plays. I love this video, taken at a soundcheck somewhere, with the great Romero Lubambo, playing a classic Joao Bosco song. Incredible bass playing in every sense.

Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen - Oleo

NHOP redefined what was possible technically on the bass when soloing in the traditional swing idiom. When he developed his right hand, three-finger technique he raised the technical level of upright bass soloing to undreamt of heights. In this video, recorded with Sonny Rollins and Alan Dawson, in 1965, NHOP more than holds his own with these two giants despite being only 19 years of age! He hadn't developed the three-finger technique yet and in a way I prefer this period where his youth and exuberance was allied to an already incredible technique, but not to the point where the technique distracted from the music. Completely burning!

Jaco Pastorius - Havona

There's not much more to say about Jaco that hasn't already be said. In his tragically short career he created a completely new way to play the electric bass and created great music to go with it. 'Havona' is one of the classic tracks where the instrumental playing and the subsequent music are of the highest calibre. It's a track known by pretty much every electric bassist worldwide for the past thirty years. All Jaco's great qualities are here - the sound, the groove and the fluid technique. Allied to these qualities are the lyricism which he so often displayed, (and is often unremarked upon), and his sense of humour. I've always loved the sneaky Stravinsky quote at the beginning of the solo.

Ray Brown - Things Ain't What They Used to be

Like Jaco - there's not much new you can say about Ray Brown at this stage. And when he's playing something like 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be', there really is nothing to say - it's all here in the music - the sound, the swing, the groove, the power......... (I said it anyway!)

Linda May Han Oh - Power Ranger

One of a clutch of great bassists on the contemporary jazz scene, I saw her play live recently for the first time, playing with Pat Metheny, and was blown away by the completeness of her playing. She really is the complete package for a modern jazz bassist and is a particularly strong soloist. What I love about her solo here is the way she deals with rhythmic motifs. The bass in jazz is ultimately a rhythm instrument and to use this aspect of it in soloing should be more common than it is. I really admire the way she takes this element and runs with it to create a really powerful solo. I know, having been lucky enough to have had the experience myself, that Joey Baron is one of the greatest drum accompanists to a bass solo, and you can hear that here too.

Mingus - Tensions

This may seem an odd statement, but I do think that Mingus is underrated as a bassist. His achievements as a composer and his notoriety as a controversialist has I think distracted from his incredible bass playing. I think the album 'Blues and Roots' has an unparalleled collection of great bass solos on it - these are in my opinion not just some of Mingus' finest solos, but some of the finest jazz bass solos ever recorded. Particularly the solo on 'Tensions' which has so many extraordinary features, like the way he pulls the string off the neck in the intro, accompanies his own solo, and finished with that great series of glissandos. Mingus was a bass giant, and let's never forget it!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Beauty of Ambiguity

I love ambiguity. I love it in art of all kinds and in most situations in life. Looking at something, or listening to something that can be preceived in more than one way is something that's very attractive to me. I would much rather have my perception challenged rather than constantly confirmed, would rather be made to think about what I'm seeing, or listening to, or sometimes even what I'm eating, (food can be as ambiguously multi-layered as music or theatre, or literature), than knowing about it in advance. Certainty has its attractions of course - one doesn't want any ambiguity when one is getting on a plane for example, certainty wins hands down in that case, every time.

In general humans are more comfortable in a known environment than in an unknown one. There is a feeling of safety in the known, and in finding your comfortable place in any social situation. This is an evolutionary facet of our humanity and is a construct of our pack animal instincts. This also manifests itself in music, where the known is in general much more popular than the unknown. For much more on this subject, you can read this fascinating book - 'The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Live Without It', by Phillip Ball.

Much music that's popular around the world has little or no ambiguity in it. What you see, or in this case what you hear, is what you get. Which is fine for those that want that, but music which is not obvious gets a very raw deal these days. To some degree it always has, but currently the marketplace has such a stranglehold on popular music that even the limited amount of ambiguity and nuance that previously existed in popular music, has been eradicated as the A&R men and record labels of old have been replaced by institutions that have zero interest in the quality of the product that they host - such as Apple and Spotify. Never has the lowest common denominator been lower than it is now. When something as bland, predictable and dull as Ed Sheeran's music is feted by multitudes, then you know we are definitely in the era of the ordinary, where the obvious is lavishly consumed, and music that has any individuality and danger to it is resolutely pushed to the margins.

But despite its current unpopularity, ambiguity in music should be defended, and resolutely defended! Nuanced thinking, and listening is important, perhaps never more important than it is in these days of lies, spin, mindless consumerism and addiction to technology.

There are so many examples in art of ambiguity, features that make you think, that leave it up to your own imagination and personal outlook and experience as to the meaning of something. Neither in nor out, black nor white, happy or sad - it's this in-between world that is the most fascinating to me. When something can be seen in many different ways. Think of Kubrick's '2001', or David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas'. Or any art in which allegory is used. In any true world of ideas, ambiguity has to play an important role.

I was raised listening to modern jazz, and classical music written around 1880 and onwards, and I was exposed to ambiguous music from an early age, and I didn't hear pop music until I was 13 or so. I've been primed since a young age to appreciate music that could be heard in many different ways. Music can be ambiguous in several ways, but the most common would be harmonically or rhythmically.

Western art music has had ambiguity as part of its makeup even in its earliest manifestations as church music, and some of the harmonies from medieval times can be startling to the ear accustomed to the later codification of harmony in the baroque and classical periods. In the late 19th century the use of dissonance and clouding of key centres came to the forefront of contemporary classical music via Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok. I'm not sure about including someone in this list that might seem to fit the ambiguous bill - Schoenberg. For me Schoenberg's most celebrated works move outside tonality to such an extent that the ambiguity is lost. In the same way that relentlessly consonant music can become cloying after a while, constant dissonance can become aurally monochromatic. For my taste you need the contrasting worlds of both consonance and dissonance in order to allow ambiguity full play in the music.

Here's a fantastic example of the unsettling effect that ambiguous harmony, and in this case tonality, can have on the listener. This is Bela Bartok's 'Boating' from Volume 5 of his Mikrokosmos. The naive childlike three-note figure of the opening is immediately questioned when the right hand plays in a completely different tonality to that of the left. Suddenly we are in a different world, where nothing is certain and one can hear the music in many different ways.

The nursery rhyme opening quality of the opening is challenged almost immediately and the result is unsettling. Of course this kind of ambiguity has long been used by film composers for horror and suspense soundtracks - a childlike song given ominous overtones by the use of dissonance in conjunction with consonance. Film composer's are no fools and have always appreciated the effectiveness of using musical ambiguity to create emotional nuance.

In this next example Coltrane takes the simple song 'Chim Chim Cheree' from Mary Poppins and takes it into a world never envisaged by the Sherman brothers who composed it. The opening see-sawing chords played by McCoy, and the polyrhythmic carpet created by Elvin set the scene for a glimpse of a much darker aural landscape than is the norm for this piece. And in blending the familiar with the unfamiliar in this way Trane allows us to experience a mysterious atmosphere that is just not available in the very consonant original.

As Trane's music evolved in the 60s he moved further and further away from any form of traditional consonance and again, for me, the ambiguity and mystery gets lost as the dissonance increases. We move from a world of either/or, to one of certainty - though admittedly the certainty that Trane was  proclaiming in his final years was far from traditional.

Another aspect of ambiguity that is found in this piece is that of rhythmic ambiguity. Elvin is  suggesting an underlying pulse of two and three simultaneously, while placing a triplet based tattoo on top of that. This polyrhythmic ambiguity is one that originates in much West and North African music, and is a feature of nearly all African-American music. But it is not always as explicitly stated as it is in 'Chim Chim Cheree', and this rhythmic nexus provides the listener with an additional enigmatic musical landscape to explore.

The three and two polyrhythm can be extremely unsettling at times. Here for example Karim Ziad - a drummer originally from Algeria, now living in Paris - performs 'The Joker', a piece based on the dance rhythms of North Africa and which uses this 3/2 contradiction to great effect, both in the underlying groove to the melody, (which itself always has a slightly off-kilter relationship to the groove), and in the drum breaks that open the piece and punctuate the melody. As listener you are constantly torn between the two rhythm and the three, and the way the three rhythm is subdivided and accented adds to the tension between both rhythmic poles.

Miles Davis was of course the king of mystery and ambiguity. And I think this reached its apogee in his music in the second great quintet, with Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony. And in the recordings of that group, 'Live at the Plugged Nickel' probably represents the pinnacle of this way of playing. But I'd like to use an example from one the studio recordings that ably demonstrates how well they used both rhythmic and harmonic ambiguity. This is 'Footprints', now of course a classic tune, almost cliched in how often it's played, and often badly played at that. But here it's at its freshest, and is creatively light years away from the usual repetitive, boring versions we are condemned to hear so often at jam sessions. It is after all a simple 3/4 minor blues, (albeit with a haunting melody), but here the quintet not only, via Herbie's comping and Miles and Waynes' solo lines, show a huge range of harmonic colour and contour, but also move between a three pulse and a four pulse with great agility, and sometimes are playing both at the same time, in a spectacular demonstration of how imagination can creatively expand even the simplest material

This period of jazz, with Trane and Miles, and others from this time, is for me the era where the full flowering of the use of ambiguity in both harmony and rhythm was at its peak. The fierce contradictions so often found in this kind of music became less pronounced in later decades, 80s fusion music definitely had a deadening harmonic effect on it, and the Young Lions movement harked back to the Hard Bop era where the music was perhaps more obvious. Perhaps the harmonic and rhythmic tensions in the music of the 60s and 70s was more appropriate to the political and social ferment of those times, and is less representative of the control freakery of our times. I must admit that I do find that a lot of contemporary jazz, while it has explored rhythm in new ways,  is often very dull harmonically - lots of static melodic minor harmony or else indie-rock influenced two or three-chord plodding. In the 70s we seemed to be at a point where harmony was pushed to chromatic breaking point, and sometimes did get broken and explode into the atonal. That moment where the tension between tonality and atonality, and between seemingly competing rhythms, becomes almost unbearable, this is where the beauty of ambiguity shines through the most.

I'm very conscious of this in my own music and here is an example of that. This is a through-composed piece, with no improvisation, based on a Chorinho - a Brazilian song form which is very consonant and based on typical cyclic chord movement. Performed here by Izumi Kimura, the Chorinho melody is repeated over and over, while a commentary takes place in whichever hand is not playing the melody. This commentary is completely at odds with the bouncy diatonic melody. The counterpoint to the melody is both rhythmically and harmonically at variance with the main theme throughout, and ones ear is drawn in different directions all the time.

That pull between the two polarities of consonance and dissonance, between the various rhythms, is the quality of ambiguity that appeals to me so much in music. Either or, this or that - we need more mystery in our lives, in our art, and definitely in our music - I'm searching for it all the time.....

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Music of John Adams (for Jazz Musicians!)

I have a feeling young jazz musicians don't listen to classical music as much as did previous generations.  In talking to young musicians I find a lack of awareness of classical music which is quite different from people of my generation and earlier.  Jazz players have traditionally had a good knowledge and relationship with great composers. 20th Century music particularly appealed to the modern generation of players, Bird loved Stravinsky, Miles admired many composers, everyone loved Bartok.... You can hear the piano music of Ravel, Debussy and others informing the pianism of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. etc. etc. And of course there was the so-called 'Third Stream' which attempted a fusion between the modern wings of both musics.

So it's an interesting phenomenon to see the relative lack of awareness of classical music among young jazz players these days. Of course some are listening to it, but in general I've found there to be a downturn in the classical listening habits of young jazz musicians in recent years.

Which is a pity, because there is so much great composed music out there, ready to inspire and elevate anyone who cares to listen. The purpose of this post is to introduce people, particularly jazz musicians, who care to check it out, and who may be unaware of it, to the music of the great American composer John Adams

Adams is an incredibly successful contemporary composer with a vast output, and one that happily is increasing every year. He has a huge expressive range, from taut minimalism, to opulently orchestrated pieces, many operas and oratorios, concertos, and chamber music of various kinds, the latter having been greatly expanded in recent years.

In 2007 I had the good fortune to be asked to be Artistic Director of that year's RTE Living Music Festival and had the wonderful task of programming a weekend of music whose main theme was Adams' music. I listened extensively to his output at that time and put together a programme that featured many of his works paired with jazz pieces. I felt this was particularly apposite given the nature of his music and the overtones, particularly rhythmic, of so many contemporary music styles which are contained within his compositions. Adams is a completely equal opportunities guy when it comes to the influences he welcomes into his music, and I can hear jazz sensibilities in much of his music along with other vernacular American styles.

This is not to say that Adams composes jazz music - he doesn't. Nor does he compose those dreadful hybrid pieces which stick what the composer imagines to be 'jazzy' passages onto his or her 'serious' work. These pieces are usually a dog's breakfast, with none of the rhythmic vitality of jazz or any of its improvisational flair. To me it always feels like the composer is slumming it, or 'letting their hair down' for a minute, and putting the serious work away in order to get down with those dissolute jazz guys. It always smacks of tokenism and condescension. And the music is usually dire too.

But Adams is different. In 2007, as part of that festival AD gig, I got to meet him and hang out with him for an hour or so. In talking to him, (and in reading his autobiography later), it became clear that here was someone who genuinely listened to, and had a knowledge and admiration of jazz, and rock, and bluegrass and many other American musics, as well as music from other parts of the world, and this widespread listening found its way into his music in many ways, and always in a very organic way. I admire him hugely as a composer and as a person - he is one of the most erudite musicians I ever met and if you look at any interview with him you will see someone who is both witty and knowledgeable about all kinds of things, not just music. His music is all of a piece with him as a person, and this clear connection between the man and the music is one of the characteristics that one so often finds in jazz. Despite the immense control of the music and the technical detail that he has, the music somehow always feels natural and organic and with an air of spontaneity about it. I think the reasons for this relate to how he has absorbed all his influences both from classical music and the many other musics he enjoys, and fused all of that into a personal language that is immediately identifiable.

As I said, he has a huge output, but I wanted to focus on some pieces that I know, as a jazz musician myself, will appeal to other jazz musicians. I've trawled Youtube to try and find good examples of these pieces and have not used the original recordings in order to stay on the right side of copyright law, and to stay on the right side of my own beliefs. If you see something here that you enjoy, please do buy the commercially available recording, it will help the serious music industry at least a little, will support the work of a great composer, and of course the sound will be one hundred times better than on the crappy Youtube compressed version you're listening to here!


A massive groove piece for orchestra! As a bassist I love the deep riffs he uses throughout this piece. Check out the typically brilliant orchestration too.

Eros Piano

This is an interesting piece, not one of his better known ones - composed after a hang with the great Japanese composer Takemitsu and the discovery of their shared love for the music of Bill Evans. It's a very reflective piece with some gorgeous voicings in the piano and beautiful textures in the orchestral writing.

John's Book of Alleged Dances - Dogjam

This is a movement from his composition for string quartet and pre-recorded prepared piano accompaniment. Although this clip isn't great visually, it had the best balance I could find between the recorded accompaniment and the live playing. Great off-kilter grooves in this composition and great string writing. I listen to this work a lot!

Saxophone Concerto - 2nd Movement, arranged for piano and saxophone

To be honest I find classical saxophonists' tone difficult to live with aurally. It always sounds closer to some form of oboe than the extraordinarily expressive instrument we know from jazz, and with the huge range of tone of its great players. The video here is of the 2nd movement of Adams' Saxophone Concerto arranged for piano and saxophone, and although the saxophone sound is the aforementioned classical one, there's much here to enjoy for the jazz musician - for example the sheer virtuosity of the playing and the very hip rhythms that inhabit the piece throughout.

Gnarly Buttons - Clarinet Concerto, 2nd movement

Another example of Adams' brilliance at coming up with titles for his pieces, and another favourite of mine - fantastic writing for a very unusual instrumentation that includes electric keyboard and banjo! This clip is good, but do check out the commercially available recording for a proper listen to the intricate detail of the orchestral writing and the properly gnarly clarinet part! Adams was himself a clarinetist at one point and you can hear the knowledge of the possibilities of the instrument shine through in the writing


And finally a piece that has, as far as I know, not been commercially recorded. This audio comes from the concert given at the 2007 RTE Living Music Festival by the London Sinfonietta. I deliberately programmed this piece because I think it's a fantastic piece, full of groovy rhythmic complexity and I know jazz guys will recognise the kinds of things that go on in contemporary jazz these days in that netherworld between funk, jazz and mathematics. And check out those electric guitar and bass parts - killer! I've only included a minute or so of this, because it's probably not legal to have it on here, but hopefully RTE and Adams and the Sinfonietta will forgive me for my 90 second transgression - as I said the work is not commercially available (I wish it was....), and I do it with the best possible motives!

There's so much more great music from Adams, not all as immediately connected to jazz as these pieces, but always brilliantly written and very profound in so many ways, and if this is your first exposure to his work, I hope it will serve as the gateway to many happy hours of listening pleasure and inspiration

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

21st Century Bebop?

A jazz schools question - should we be teaching traditional jazz skills and repertoire in the 21st-century? This is an endless subject of discussion wherever jazz educators foregather. In February last I was asked to give a short talk on this subject at the Association of European Conservatoire's Pop and Jazz Platform conference in London. This post is an extension of some of the ideas that I talked about on the day.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills - playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn't been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past? The question is particularly asked in Europe, and other schools outside of the USA. The vast bulk of traditional jazz repertoire comes from the music and the experience of the African-American community in the United States. As Europeans, (or Asians or Australians etc.), why should we learn this music, that grew out of a set of social circumstances a long time ago, in a far away country, and from a society of which we are not part? What is the contemporary artistic relevance of learning music created by people from a different culture, from a different period in time? What is the professional relevance of teaching students rhythms and repertoire from music that has little currency on the contemporary professional music scene?

I used the word 'bebop' in the title here, and this word was also used in the title of my talk at the AEC, but in using that word I don't mean to limit the music under discussion to the period of the 1940s, but rather to look at the broader field of the jazz tradition - the one that contains both Broadway songs and jazz standards, the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter etc. etc.

For myself, I really do believe in the relevance of teaching this music, and the importance to any programme, that uses the word 'jazz' in its title, of giving the students access to the skills and ethos required to play music from the jazz tradition. I don't think there is any one reason to continue to teach this repertoire in jazz schools, but many reasons. I would list the value of working with this repertoire for aspirant professional performers under three headings - as a portfolio of skills, as a connection to a musical tradition, and as exposure to some of the highest levels of musical thinking and musical philosophy of the past hundred years.

As a Portfolio of Skills

The traditional skill set required to play jazz contains many varied yet interconnected skills that are of immense benefit to any aspirant young musician who wants to learn the craft of music performance. This skill set is eminently transferable  - skills acquired in the study of jazz are, in one way or other, of use in almost any music you care to name. In order to improvise over changes, in an ensemble, in the jazz idiom, you need a command of a wide variety of skills. You need a very good technique on your instrument, you need a thorough knowledge of harmony, you need to be able to read music, (notation and chord symbols), you need really good ears and an ability to identify and process aural information in real time. You need very good time, a thoroughly developed sense of rhythm and rhythmic nuance, and an ability to create rhythmic phrases that make instant sense both to you and to your bandmates. 

In order to improvise convincingly over the progression you need to develop a sense of form, to know where you are in the tune at all times. Allied to this is the ability to develop musical memory, to be able to keep large amounts of musical information in your mind and spontaneously use it to create music of the moment. You need to be able to listen deeply and respond instantly to musical cues and information created by your ensemble colleagues. Allied to the learning of these skills are the tangential skills often taught as part of a jazz programme - arranging, theory, transcription, composition etc.

So - technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

If a jazz school were to remove the requirements to learn this repertoire, then, from a professional skill-set point of view, what would they replace it with? I cannot think of any other form of musical training, including classical training, that provides such a range of transferable skills.

Sometimes the question is asked, 'why are we training students to be bebop players when the music has changed so much?'. Well the answer to that is - we're not! Four years in a jazz school will not turn you into a bebop musician - like any deep tradition, the skills necessary to become a master of this idiom require many years of training, experience and immersion. Four years of jazz school will only allow you to scratch the surface of what it takes to be a convincing bebop player. Anyone who thinks that teaching bebop skills to students will turn them into bona fide bebop players within the time span of an undergraduate programme has a complete misunderstanding, and probably lack of respect for the jazz tradition. What we can give them, via bebop,  are the tools for the professional performance world, we can't turn them into convincing bebop players - the decision to undertake the years of extra work needed to achieve that is completely the students' decision, and will happen after school, if at all.

It Connects Students To A Tradition

The argument is often made that if you're playing improvised music influenced by jazz, but are not American, or not African American, or weren't born in the USA between 1930 and 1970, you can claim to not be part of the jazz tradition. I've heard this, or variants on it, so many times - 'I wasn't born in Chicago in 1950/I'm from Berlin/I don't play standards' - all used to explain why the jazz tradition, as commonly understood, has no longer any relevance for the musician making the statement. However, to imagine that because you were born outside the USA, or at a different time to the common practice period of jazz, means that you stand outside the tradition is an argument that doesn't stand up as far as I'm concerned. If you're playing in a group that has bass and drums in it, and the group improvises, you are fundamentally connected to the jazz tradition, since the concept of the rhythm section (i.e. at least in its most pared down form - bass and drums), evolved in jazz groups. That alone connects you, as does improvising over moving harmony in a rhythmic format influenced by the African-American rhythmic tradition - i.e grooves of any sort. The social nature of group improvisation is also predicated on jazz traditions and practices - when the band are collectively improvising, you are connected to the traditions and practices of jazz.

(John Adams)

I think there's a corollary to this argument about whether a non-American can be connected to the jazz tradition, and that's in classical music. Although classical music is an art form that developed and evolved in Europe, American composers have created a huge body of work that is immediately identifiable as having a vernacular all of its own. Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Conlon Nancarrow and John Adams have all produced music that is quintessentially American, and that would never have been written by European composers. Yet their music is unimaginable without the great tradition of European classical music that preceded it. Their music is resolutely American, yet part of the larger classical music tradition. In a similar way a European musician (or a musician from any other non-American country), can produce jazz music that is representative of their background and culture yet remain connected to the jazz forms that preceded it.

And what is the benefit to the student of being part of that tradition - of feeling part of it? Well first of all, let's face it, the desire to play improvised music in contemporary society makes you almost an automatic outsider. Contemporary society is a very hostile environment in which to try and be a creative improvising musician. Isn't it reassuring for a young person coming into this music to feel part of something bigger, that stretches back into the past, encompasses some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century and provides a context in which they can feel that they are contributing to a continuum? I grew up in Dublin in the 1960s yet feel completely connected to the jazz tradition and its something I'm proud to be part of. I find it reassuring that the work I do has a connectedness to the work of other musicians spanning a hundred year period and across many countries, races and nationalities. To put it simply I feel very fortunate to work in an idiom that contains giants like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, as well as Europeans such as Django Reinhard and Jan Garbarek, Canadians such as Oscar Peterson and Paul Bley, Abdullah Ibrahim from South Africa and Danilo Perez from Panama.

It Exposes Students To Deep Musical and Philosophical Thought

I often think that jazz schools spend too much time explaining jazz history as a linear construct, ('and then in 1945.... etc.), and not enough time exploring, with students, the aesthetic and philosophical thought that underpinned some of the greatest music created in the 20th Century. The men and women who created the jazz tradition were largely an underclass, second class citizens in their own country, and yet they created one of the great musical art forms and shared it with the world. Sometimes, unfortunately, there is an unspoken belief that these musicians were producing this music without any analysis or musical/philosophical underpinning for what they did. However, even cursory research, reading of interviews etc. reveals people for whom the aesthetic and the seriousness of what they were doing was all-important. The giants of the music were deep thinkers and full of wisdom about music and its importance in their lives, and by extension, in the wider world of thought, art and ideas. Over the years there has been so much great thinking expressed by these musicians that is both inspiring for young musicians to read, and extremely helpful to them in charting their own course in  the bumpy ride that is creative music. The way the ideas are put are sometimes mysterious and sometimes opaque, but this adds to value of these utterances since the reader is called upon to make their own judgement of what is being expressed. In order to interpret some of the utterances delivered by the jazz greats, critical thinking is called upon - another valuable process for the young musician to be involved with.

Here is a sample of some of the musical wisdom imparted by some of the great musicians of the jazz tradition over the years -  very valuable thoughts which all young creative musicians should be exposed to as part of any jazz programme

'Invest yourself in everything you do. There's fun in being serious' -  John Coltrane

'A note can be as small as a pin or as big as a universe - it depends on your imagination' -  Thelonious Monk

'It's not what you play, it's how you play it' - Mary Lou Williams

'There's wrong notes that sound good, and then there's wrong notes....' Thelonious Monk

'Don't play the saxophone, let it play you'  - Charlie Parker

'Don't play what's there, play what's not there'  - Miles Davis

'I'm not in the nostalgia business'  - Wayne Shorter

But I'll leave the last quote to someone who was not a jazz musician, but this great quote sums up the reasons why any jazz programme should help young musicians towards an awareness of the richness of the jazz tradition......

'Tradition is not worshipping ashes, it's preserving fire'  - Gustav Mahler