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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Singer and the Song

There’s a very brilliantly observed and funny moment in the American series ‘Modern Family’ when one of the characters goes to see the ‘Four Seasons’, thinking it’s the vocal group, and is horrified to discover that he’s bought tickets for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. ‘Just instruments!?’, he wails despairingly. I found this line particularly funny because it nails a truism about the general public and music – people love singers and are less drawn as a general rule to purely instrumental music. This is not to say that there isn’t an audience for instrumental music, but it’s dwarfed by the popularity of vocal music.

Again, people love singers – but can the same be said about contemporary jazz musicians - do they love singers?

In nearly every genre of music around the world, the voice is the primary ‘instrument’, and the singers are the biggest stars. Classical music, pop and rock music, Indian classical music, Arabic classical music, Brazilian music – the biggest stars in those different firmaments are singers, and are arguably the most respected artists – Placido Domingo, Bob Dylan, Lata Mangeshkar, Om Kalthoum, Caetano Veloso etc. etc.

(Om Kalthoum)

While a similar argument could be made in jazz for Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, it’s worth noticing that both of those artists, and the other giants in that field, were at the height of their powers as contemporary artists over sixty years ago. But where, in the contemporary jazz world, are the vocal artists who are both the biggest stars in that world, and universally respected by all jazz musicians?

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say at this point that this not a criticism of jazz singers; on the contrary, I believe that contemporary jazz has what might be called a dysfunctional relationship with singers, and it is to the music’s artistic and commercial detriment that this is the case. While there are great vocal artists in contemporary jazz, there is a jaundiced view of singers among many jazz instrumentalists, one that places singers in the role of second-class jazz citizens.

If you’re a jazz musician, you’ll have heard the ‘singer jokes’, there are many of them, and all of them represent singers as lesser musicians than everyone else - and Prima Donnas into the bargain. OK, they’re jokes, and every instrument has a set of jokes assigned to the foibles of the players of those instruments. But underneath these singer jokes lurks a definite prejudice coming from instrumentalists against singers.  Where does this come from? Why in jazz does the instrument most lauded in every other music get landed with a bad rep?

I think there are a combination of factors here. Up to the late 1950s, most jazz harmony followed fairly conventional cyclical movements – II-V-I/IV-V-I/III-VI-II-V, cycle of fifths etc. This kind of harmony is relatively easy to hear your way through – these kinds of harmonic movements have been around for hundreds of years and are very familiar to the listener. In jazz, singers as improvisers have been around since its inception – Louis Armstrong being one of the earliest recorded artists to do this, and one of the greatest singing improvisers in all of jazz. As jazz developed, singers were part and parcel of that development, and right into the bebop era, there were singers who could improvise in a very convincing way in this new language. The singers were an integral part of the contemporary scene, and it’s good to remember that singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Betty Carter – giant icons of the past as they appear now - were contemporary singers of their time. And they were respected as such by the instrumentalists.

(Betty Carter)

Coming to the end of the 50s, the music began to change, especially in the harmonic sphere. Melodic Minor harmony became more common, chromatic harmony techniques and practices began to be used extensively, root movements of chords became more oblique. Add to this the great complexity of the rhythmic language that was popularized by Miles and Coltrane, and the ‘free’ experiments of Ornette and Cecil Taylor, and the result is a jazz landscape that is much harder to navigate through for the improvising singer. The kind of harmony that developed, and started to become mainstream in the jazz world at this time is generally not intuitive to the ear. You have to learn it in an intellectual and tactile way - study it and practice it on your instrument for a long time before it becomes in any way familiar as a sound. Instrumentalists definitely have an advantage here - they can play it on their instruments and help themselves to negotiate very difficult harmony by a combination of intellectual process and consequent tactile connection. This can lead, after a long time, to being able to hear this kind of harmony. 

For a singer however, unless they are really good pianists or players of some other instrument, (good enough to able to take solos), it's terribly difficult to get a handle on this kind of harmony by ear alone. Often the root movements are unpredictable, and the harmony on top is complex. Melodies often contain wide-interval leaps and a lot of non-sequential note patterns. With jazz composers trying to outdo each other in 'originality', and less and less songs based on standard formulas with familiar melodies, the jazz landscape, post-1960, became ever more impenetrable for singers. 

This had the effect of gradually marginalizing the singers from the contemporary jazz mainstream. Instead of being an integral part of the contemporary scene as Ella etc had been in an earlier time, they became outsiders - unable for the most part to jump into any musical situation, and often derided and seen as being a brake on creativity by instrumentalists. In previous eras singers and instrumentalists were performing pretty much the same material, the singers would sing the lyrics to the same songs the instrumentalists were playing. As the 60s and 70s passed, the instrumentalists and singers began to inhabit worlds that were further and further apart. Heightened instrumental virtuosity, more complex harmony and rhythms, and less naturally singable melodies drove a wedge between former comrades, creating two different musical worlds. Jazz became primarily an instrumental medium, with singers on the periphery, only grudgingly included, (if at all), by many musicians.

The singer was often seen by instrumentalists as virtually a cabaret artist rather than a creative improviser. Singers for their part often gravitated towards standards with both singable melodies and good lyrics, rather than the gnarly world of contemporary instrumental jazz - and who can blame them? So a divide opened up that, despite the work of some great contemporary singers, is still there and still felt by both singers and instrumentalists.

And I don't think any discussion of singers in jazz can ignore gender issues either. Most singers in jazz are women - I don't know what the percentage would be typically, but in my school we have nineteen singers and only one of those is male. Without getting into the whole 'women in jazz' thing which is way too big a subject for this post, I think it's fair to say that women in jazz have to negotiate social issues that their male colleagues don't have to, and in my opinion when it comes to developing as an artist in the jazz world, women have more difficulties placed in their path than men do.

If you add these difficulties to the prejudicial singer stereotypes mentioned above, you have a combination that can make jazz singing a very difficult and sometimes forbidding environment for an aspirant jazz singer. For example, if a male bandleader is very specific about what he wants from his band, he is seen as decisive. If the bandleader is a female singer and makes the same kinds of demands she can often be seen by the band as fulfilling the stereotype of the pampered Prima Donna singer who doesn't know as much about music as the male colleagues she's ordering around. When you add the fact that most of the public focuses on the singer first, and the instrumentalists second in live performances, the resentment of the instrumentalists is often even more keenly felt.

Of course there are exceptions to this scenario and no two situations are the same, but I think it's safe to say that in general the singer in contemporary jazz operates on a less level playing field than an instrumentalist does.

And I think the music is the poorer for this. I am an instrumentalist, not a singer, but I have to admit that the human voice is the ultimate instrument, coming as it does without the intervention of the instrumental middle-man, emanating from the person themselves. At its best there is nothing more profound than listening to a great singer. And in jazz, the instrumentalists who are most revered - Armstrong, Parker, Miles, Trane etc. - all have a celebrated vocal quality to their playing. I've been very lucky to play with several great singers - Norma Winstone, Kristina Fuchs, Maria Pia De Vito, Sarah Buechi, R. A. Ramamani, Marie Seférian - and with all of them it was a very different experience than playing in an instrumental group. Working with a great singer is unique - the human voice, especially when used by a top of the line artist, is so powerful and fundamental. Of course with a singer you get the option of lyrics as well, which can be fantastic, (as long as the lyrics are good!). 

Some contemporary singers have developed the kind of phenomenal technique that allows them to negotiate the shark infested waters of contemporary jazz performance, and it is amazing when you hear that. These are singers who seem to relish every technical challenge, every non-idiomatic impediment placed in front of them, and really are pioneers in the 'voice as improvising instrument' approach to singing. The brilliant Lauren Newton is a pioneer in this area, and has done some extraordinary work which really stretches the boundaries of the what the voice can do in an improvising context. Theo Bleckmann is another one who springs to mind in this area.

Here's a great example of a singer taking on something that one would think would be off-limits because of the technical challenges - this is Sarah Buechi, with Izumi Kimura on the piano, singing a piece of mine that was originally written for the soprano saxophone, and negotiating the ferocious vocal technical difficulties with ease

Artists in Residence (I) by jazzer4

There are several of these kinds of singers on the contemporary jazz scene today and what they are doing for voice is really admirable and takes tremendous work. But is this the only answer for contemporary jazz singers in order to be included in the same world as instrumentalists? For all the singers to develop the kind of hyper-techniques that would enable them to be as agile as a saxophone or a guitar? For me the answer has to be no, this is not the only way. First of all not everyone is born with the kind of innate physical facility to develop this kind of technique, and secondly the jazz world needs to embrace the idea that singing a song well, and deeply, is in itself worthy of inclusion at the top table of the music.

And this is not about the welcoming of a clichéd standard jazz approach into the ranks, just for its own sake. We really don't need any more faux-jazz cabaret versions of ' Summertime' and 'My Funny Valentine', (though let's face it, the contemporary improv, voice-as-instrument, has its own clichés; that stuttering repetition of a word, as if the singer gets stuck, like an old-school damaged LP, is as clichéd and as exasperating to listen to as any doobie-doobie-do scat singing), but we need to find a way to include song as being an organic part of contemporary jazz.

And there is valuable work being done in this area - Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding, Susanne Abbuehl, Christine Tobin, Cassandra Wilson, and in a more traditional format, Diane Reeves and Kurt Elling. All of these place the song front and centre of the music, but have arrangements and use improvisation - either themselves or other band members - that are an indispensable part of the whole and stamp their music as clearly being part of contemporary jazz. Here's Gretchen Parlato in what I think is a particularly good example of this approach

I believe that if jazz could find a more consistently positive engagement with the voice and with singers it would be good for the music both aesthetically and commercially. Jazz education has a role to play in this. There's no doubt that through institutionalised jazz education jazz singers are better all-round musicians than they ever were before, and it's right in my opinion that singers should be expected to have the same high level craft and knowledge that instrumentalists do. But does insisting that they should be able to improvise over 'ESP', in the same way that a saxophonist would, really make sense? Of course if a singer wants to do that they should be encouraged, but shouldn't we find a way to encourage high level improvising that is maybe more idiomatic for voice, rather than making them do exactly the same as the instrumentalists? There's definitely a discussion to be had here for jazz schools.

And isn't it about time many instrumentalists gave up their long-held prejudices against singers and, (for example), stopped seeing the appearance of a singer at a jam session as being automatically a drag, (all that whining from the instrumentalists about weird keys and having to play a ballad....)? It's definitely time for jazz to wake up to the possibilities of making the music a more welcoming and inclusive environment for singers, and to really explore the possibilities of what can be done when the beauty and power of the human voice meets the sophistication and creativity of contemporary jazz. There's a brave new world of vocal jazz out there, we just need to have the imagination to explore and enjoy it to the full.

Monday, June 22, 2015

'Hands' - My new CD featuring Dave Binney, Chris Guilfoyle and Tom Rainey

I can remember, in 1987, getting my hands on the first commercially released album I was ever on - 'In Two', an LP, (remember them?), of duo recordings with Simon Nabatov. It was such a thrill to see it and have it as a physical entity. To have an LP - something which for me before this was a medium for listening to other people - in my hands with me on it! An amazing thrill.... Since then, I've been on many recordings, but it's still wonderful to take possession of a new one, and especially when it's your own release.

These days many musicians question the usefulness of releasing a physical CD - CD sales are in the basement, everyone buys Mp3s or streams from rapacious sites like Spotify, so why go to the trouble and expense of releasing a CD? I think of it as being akin to an artist having an exhibition. Artists create new work over a period of time and every now and then have an exhibition to show the work as a whole. In organising the exhibition a lot of thought is given to the framing of the individual works, and in what order the paintings are hung, so that the visitor is taken on a journey as they walk around the gallery and look at the paintings in order. In a similar way I think serious, professional, creative musicians should treat CDs like an exhibition. Showing your work as a whole and in the order that you want the listener to experience the music in, with some art work to frame the music, and to have a physical, tangible entity that represents your work, is important for the serious musician, and despite the inevitable lack of financial return, I think it's an investment in yourself as an artist.

(Tom, Dave, myself and Chris at Systems Two)

Which brings me to 'Hands', my new CD with Dave Binney, Chris Guilfoyle, and Tom Rainey. We recorded it in New York last year at the renowned Systems Two studios. After a typically short but efficient NY rehearsal at Michiko Studios, we recorded the album in two 4-hour sessions. Systems Two is a pleasure to work in - fast, efficient and with a great sound. I'd recorded there in mid-90s with Steve Coleman, and recording 'Hands' there reconfirmed all my positive memories of that session. The music on this recording is challenging for the players, but at this level of musicianship even the most daunting of challenges is surmounted with ease and we were able to get straight to the music.

I've been in interested in extended form in jazz composition for more than 20 years now, and three of the pieces - 'In Fairness', 'Close Call', and 'Hands' -  all come under this heading. 'Hands' in particular has an interesting history - originally a bass figure I improvised in a studio recording, I later transcribed it and expanded it into the first movement of my 'Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra' in 2012. Here's I've gone in the opposite direction and re-transcribed the first movement of this big piece for the the more intimate setting of the quartet. It's been interesting for me to see how much can change and evolve as you keep adapting the same piece for different formats and I think 'Hands' comes off as a very unusual piece in this context.

(Dave gets set up)

The other pieces are simpler - 'Sneaky' and 'Telemachus' are groove pieces, 'Krystal' a lyrical ballad, and 'Nod' a burning blues to finish it off. We really had fun in the studio and the standard of musicianship was extraordinary. I know Tom for over twenty years and love playing with him - he's an incredibly creative drummer who always places his brilliant technique at the service of the music. The same can be said for Dave Binney, with whom I've also worked before, and it's no accident that he's at the forefront of the contemporary New York jazz scene. My son Chris was making his recording debut here, and though he was in heavy company, he was completely undaunted and played the music, both written and improvised, with a skill and maturity well beyond his years. As I knew he would. I encouraged him by telling him that if he made any mistakes he was out of the family!

Listening to the album now, a year after the recording, I'm very happy with it. Though the pieces were composed at different times, and sometimes for different settings, I chose them carefully with a view to creating a coherent sound and concept that would make the album have both a personal and unitary identity, and I feel it does that. I also feel it represents something I've been working on for years - the combination of composition and improvisation as being equal parts in a creative whole.

(Tom in action)

The recording is available directly from me, and digitally in the usual places - CD Baby should be your first port of call, but it will also be available on iTunes, Amazon and Google - though not Spotify - I'd rather give it away than have anything to do with them!

And I've also decided to self-release this album, for all sorts of reasons. The record companies, the few that are left, have become impossible to deal with. The demands they make on you are ridiculous - you have to record, edit, mix and master at your own expense, then agree to buy a certain amount of CDs off them before they'll even consider releasing the recording. A more recent scam is looking for half the publishing rights to your original compositions! It's only a matter of time till they'll be wanting one of your kidneys, or a first-born child....... And in the end, what do you get after jumping through all those hoops? A couple of reviews and some distribution. These days, with CD sales being what they are, it's just not worth the hassle of dealing with the record companies, you're better off doing it yourself, keeping control of your music, and at least not feeling like a supplicant to some miserable independent jazz record label.

I've called my record company Portmanteau Records, and I think I'll release other things under this label - stuff I've never issued, sometimes free giveaways etc. So, watch this space!


Here's a taster - excerpts from various tracks. Hope you enjoy the music and if you're one of those people who, like me, likes having something tangible alongside the music itself, then I hope this recording will become part of your collection.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jack Bruce - Things We Like

Jack Bruce is probably the reason why I play the bass. Although I was raised on jazz at home, and have spent my musical life in jazz, it was hearing Bruce’s great bass lines with Cream that first made me think of how much I liked that sound, and how this could be something I’d like to check out for myself. At one point I obsessively listened to Cream, really focusing on the bass playing and it inspired me to buy my first bass.

Although I migrated fairly rapidly to jazz, I was always checking Jack Bruce out and hearing how different and individualistic his music was – on his solo albums, and with Lifetime, with Mike Gibbs etc. His own background was jazz and he took what he knew into the rock world and did some revolutionary things, as well as writing some of the great rock classics such as ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ and ‘I Feel Free’.

Years later I had the extraordinary experience of meeting him. I was playing with Alan Skidmore at Ronnie Scott's Club, and Jack came in to see Skid - they were old mates from the 60's London scene. At that time I'd developed a very fluent plectrum technique on the bass, (I gave up the plectrum in '93 when I got my new bass as I didn't like the sound, thereby halving my technique overnight, and probably halving the number of Youtube followers I would have 25 years later....), and coming off the stage at the end of a set, a shadowy figure loomed out of the darkness and asked, in a very heavy Glasgow accent, 'How the fuck do you play the bass with a plectrum like that!?' I was a little taken aback at this sudden question from a stranger and muttered something in response, and then, as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, realised, 'holy shit - that's Jack Bruce!'

Skid arrived and they hugged and chatted, with me just standing there gawping at Jack, a bit overawed to be in the presence of the guy who'd started everything for me on the bass. Skid and Jack decided to go for a drink and Jack invited me to join them - I didn't need asking twice.... So off we went to the Dog and Duck down the road from Ronnie's, and apart from it being a great thrill for me to be in his company, I found him to be a great guy – very funny and warm with no ‘superstar’ vibe about him – a real musician, and I still am thrilled to have had the chance to meet him and spend a little time with him.

Listening to him now, and the work he did with Cream in the 60's, you can hear why he was the leading bassist of the rock era, his bass lines are so much more than the usual one-note thump so typical of bassists of that time. The bass lines are virile and active, and really grooving, and you can hear the influence of his jazz background. His musicianship and versatility allowed him to play beyond the boundaries of rock, and his collaborators included such luminaries as Tony Williams, Carla Bley and Mike Gibbs. And although he was disparaging of his time studying classical music, there's no doubt that his abilities on cello and piano helped him to express the full range of his song writing talents on the many solo albums he made after leaving Cream.

When he passed away last year, it made me think about him again, and I wanted to do a project based on his music and great songs. So I’ve put together a band to play his music at the legendary JJ Smyth's in Dublin on the 18th of June, and had a great time going through his enormous songbook and picking tunes I love and trying to find a way to do them that are both respectful to the songs while allowing myself to respond to them in a personal way. The ones I've chosen so far are from the Cream canon - 'Sunshine of Your Love', 'I Feel Free', 'We're Going Wrong', and White Room', as well as the great pieces from 'Songs for a Tailor' - 'Never tell Your Mother She's Out of Tune', and 'Rope Ladder to the Moon'

We'll also be playing 'Things We Like' from Jack's out and out jazz album with John McLaughlin. I've had a liking for this simple little counterpoint-driven them. It has a kind of Ornette-ish innocence about it and will give us a break from the quite complex arrangements I've written for the other pieces.

I’m lucky to have a great band with me – Margot Daly (vocals), Michael Buckley (saxophones), Joe O' Callaghan (guitar), Izumi Kimura (keyboards), and Brendan Doherty (Drums) are ideal musicians for this, with the incredible range of skills necessary to do justice to one of the great musicians of the 20th Century.

Shortly after his passing last year I recorded a little improvisation for him, and we'll also be doing this piece in tribute to him. If you're around on June 18th in Dublin, come down to JJ's and join us in the celebration of his music. R.I.P. Jack - your music lives on....

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Killing it - The Virtue of Virtuosity

Killing it. Burning. Carving it up. Playing the shit out of it - all jazz euphemisms for one of the most enduring jazz values - virtuosity.

Jazz has been a virtuoso music since its inception. From the earliest times jazz has admired, and even demanded virtuosity. Although we have no way of verifying it, Buddy Bolden was considered a virtuoso, but we have clear examples of the virtuosity of those who followed him - King Oliver, Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, and this man - Jabbo Smith. This was recorded in 1929, when Smith was only 21. Recorded 86 years ago, the brilliance of the playing remains undimmed

So from its earliest years, virtuosity was a virtue and has been a true jazz tradition. Jazz is a music studded with extraordinary virtuosos - Hawkins, Tatum, Parker, Mingus, Clifford Brown, Coltrane, Miles, Shorter, Tyner, LaFaro, McLaughlin, Corea etc. and which continues to this day with the likes of Mehldau, Rosenwinkel, Ambrose Akinmusire etc.

Here is Mehldau, upholding the virtuoso tradition seventy one years after the Jabbo Smith recording

The reason this is on my mind is because recently I've seen a lot of young bands, allegedly playing jazz, who apart from the fact that their music and their approach to it would make me question their connection to the jazz tradition under any musical heading, show no signs of being able to play their instruments beyond a very ordinary level of competence. The ability to play your instrument at the highest level has always been a sine qua non for jazz players, and as far as I'm concerned, remains so.

I do believe jazz to be a broad church, but not to the point where absolutely anything can be termed jazz regardless of content or approach. For me, two essentials for any music which could be considered as being part of the jazz tradition are group improvisation, and a connection to the African-American rhythmic tradition. A third one would be virtuosity.

What is virtuosity? Often it's glibly thought of as being the ability to play fast, but it's much more nuanced than that. There are different kinds of virtuosity - rhythmic, harmonic, improvisatory, timbral. There is much more to virtuosity than mere velocity, just like there is much more to intelligence than the ability to pass an IQ test. The narrow classical music definition of virtuosity is too limiting for jazz, since jazz is a music which depends on individuality in a way that is much broader than anything found in classical music performers.

In jazz, just as there are many kinds of intelligence, there are many ways in which a player can be a virtuoso. Tatum would be considered as the supreme instrumental virtuoso, and he terrorised even such brilliant classical instrumentalists as Vladimir Horowitz in his time, but Thelonious Monk is also a virtuoso, a virtuoso of rhythm and timbre. John Mclaughlin judged by any criteria, is a guitar virtuoso, but so is Jim Hall. Hall doesn't play at the dazzling speed of McLaughlin, but his timbral variety, rhythmic creativity and ability to juggle motifs is an example of high virtuosity placed at the service of the music. Scott LaFaro did things on the bass in his all too short career that are still physically impossible for most bassists, but Ron Carter, on the face of it a much simpler player, has an ability to control the direction of any band he's in by manipulation of his rhythmic position in relation to the beat, and his note choices over changes. This too is a form of virtuosity.

Tatum, Monk, McLaughlin, Hall, LaFaro, Carter - all of them are musicians of the very highest level and all of them are virtuosos in their own way. And if you want to operate at any kind of high level of jazz you have to be a virtuoso too. You need a total command of your instrument, of rhythm, of pitch. You need the kind of knowledge of your instrument that allows you to turn on a dime creatively, that allows you to instantly, instrumentally respond to your every creative impulse, and the creative impulses of others.

These days there seems to be a suggestion that bands are the be-all and end-all of what's needed in the jazz world. It's all about the bands apparently. But, although the history of jazz is illuminated by great bands - Hot 5's, Ellington, Basie, Miles, Trane, Weather Report, Mahavishnu etc. - every one of those bands were also populated by great virtuosos. There has never, in the history of jazz, been a great band that had members who didn't play the shit out of their instruments.

And the same is true today - if you want to be part of the jazz tradition, or make any claims to be a part of it, band or no band, then you need to be a great player. As an example of how this is still true today, two bands that are highly rated in the jazz world would be Snarky Puppy and Kneebody. They're very different to each other and Snarky Puppy could also be considered more of a funk band than a jazz one, but all the members are great players of their instruments, and in Corey Henry they have a true virtuoso. As are all of Kneebody. Kneebody have created a true band identity, but it couldn't be created unless all the players were at the very highest instrumental level.

I recently saw a concert by the Bad Plus, another highly rated band, with the addition of Tim Berne, Sam Newsome, and Ron Miles, playing the music of Ornette Coleman. It was a brilliant evening of music, illuminated by the absolutely top of the line virtuosity of every musician on the stage.

If you have aspirations to be a jazz musician there are no shortcuts - you will need to put in the kind of hours and years necessary to be a true virtuoso.  Here's an example of Kneebody in action - very contemporary, a true band identity, but all encased in that indispensable jazz virtue - virtuosity.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Charlie Parker - 'Kansas City Lightning'

I just finished Stanley Crouch's 'Kansas City Lightning', a biography of Charlie Parker. Crouch of course is best known as part of a double-act with Wynton Marsalis in putting forward a particular view of jazz and its history, and is generally seen as being a conservative commentator on the music. Initially Crouch's views used to annoy, and sometimes enrage me - his comment that Scott LaFaro's playing conception would have been fine if jazz had been invented in Europe, I found particularly inaccurate, with the implication that LaFaro doesn't swing, and is less profound in consequence. I could go into all the reasons why I think that is completely wrong, but that's not really the point of this post. His part in the lopsided Ken Burns Jazz series where the last 40 years of jazz is contained in one episode, while earlier decades get one episode each, confirmed his conservative bona fides.

But later I read an interview with him on Ethan Iverson's blog, and enjoyed it quite a lot, and had a lot more respect for him as a thinker and jazz scholar. While I would still disagree with his view of the overall history of jazz, there's no doubt that when he's writing about what he loves, he's an astute commentator and writer, and there's also no doubting his love and passion for jazz.

So, probably to the surprise of my earlier self, I bought his Parker biography and gave it a go, and I must say I really enjoyed it. It's a very unusual biography, and indeed I've seen criticism of it along the lines that a huge amount of the biography is not about Parker at all, but about the Kansas City of the 30s, about various peripheral characters, and even about the esthetic approach to the music itself taken by those who made their living playing it, and lived the life of the itinerant jazz musician of that time.

For my taste however, these seeming diversions work very well. Rather than create a linear biography in the conventional manner, Crouch's method of flitting from topic to topic, person to person, builds up a fascinating composite picture of a time and place, and more importantly, of a people. What Crouch does brilliantly is to bring to life the jazz scene of the 1930s, both in Kansas and New York, and the people who created that scene. It is primarily, and properly, focused on the African-American musical community and Crouch reveals a multi-layered society, with hierarchies, successes and failures, night people, principled people, unprincipled people, innovators and imitators, leaders and hangers on.

In general I found his ability to bring the African-American society of the time to life to be the most fascinating part of the book. He really gets inside the lives of people, and examines their motives, and their coping techniques in dealing with the reality that being black in America at that time meant. He also explores the drive to play this music, and what playing this music meant to the people who played it. Throughout the book Crouch uses the now discarded term 'negro' when referring to African-Americans, and though this is not a term one would normally see used in contemporary times, it would have been very prevalent at that time, and Crouch's decision to use it does help in giving a period feel to the descriptions of life as lived by African-Americans in that era.

It's also quite a literary book, Crouch colours his narrative using a particular style of writing that combines his own stylistic quirks with the slang of the time and the speech patterns of the people he is writing about. For example, in describing the young Parker's reaction to losing his closest boyhood friend, Robert Simpson, to TB, Crouch describes it as follows: 'For Charlie Parker, confronting Simpson's death was like drinking a cup of blues made from razor blades'. There is quite a lot of this kind of writing in the book, and in the early stages of reading it I wondered whether it would start to become an irritant. But I ended up enjoying it and the connection to Crouch the writer that it gave, but I could also imagine that it might it irritate others or put them off.

The music scene as described in the book, really emphasises the survival of the fittest nature of the jazz world of that time, and the weight given to being able to play opponents off the stage or humiliate them in musical battle. The players, and bands, were like gladiators, taking to the stage in front of different factions and being proclaimed winners or losers by popular vote - this vote was based on the acclaim either of the musicians themselves, or the dancers they primarily played for. This ferocious competitiveness had a practical application - work. The better a player or band you were, the more work you got. In this take no prisoners world, visiting soloists to Kansas would take on all-comers, and local virtuosos would be dragged from their beds in the middle of the night to take on some interloper who thought he had what it took to put the locals in their place. A wonderful quote from the great Harry 'Sweets' Edison, describing the Count Basie band's ability to defeat all comers on the bandstand gives a flavour of the prevailing attitude, and the book, as it discusses this aspect of the musical scene: "....(we) went out there and sliced up so much ass with that Kansas City swing there was ass waist-deep all over the floor'

(Buster Smith)

The young Parker doesn't come out of this book very well as a person. Self-absorbed, spoiled by his doting mother, incredibly selfish and often unfeeling to his young wife and child, showing all the callousness of a junkie, combined with the immaturity of the teen he was when he both married and became addicted to drugs. It's clear that his genius didn't appear immediately he started to play, there were many humiliations along the way including the infamous Papa Jo Jones cymbal-throwing incident. But alongside his selfishness and narcotics addiction, there existed the kind of obsession with music that drove him forward, (along with his innate talent of course), into the thousands of hours of practice it takes to be a musician at the highest level. The debt he owed to the influence of the saxophonist and composer Buster Smith is clearly outlined, as is the influence on his developing musical language of the sessions he undertook with the guitarist Biddy Fleet. This latter association was one I was only vaguely aware of and it was very interesting to read about the extent and nature of the practice these two did together.

Although the book opens with Parker's triumphant entry into New York on his second visit, with Jay McShann's band, it primarily deals with Parker's early years in KC, and his first visit to New York before he became well known. I believe Crouch will write, or has written, a second volume of this biography which will presumably deal with the the better-known part of his life and eventual death. With this book he has done a service to people interested in Parker by fleshing out his early life in Kansas, and in particular by outlining the environment in which such a talent could emerge. What shines through clearly in the book is the immense pride and seriousness that jazz was held in by the people who played, developed and created it. That a people who were dealt such a terrible hand by history could produce such an incredible music that then went out from its homeland and changed the whole musical world, and the lives of millions of people, is really a triumph of the human spirit.

Here is the subject of this book, in full flight with some of his greatest colleagues, showing how 'Kansas City Lightning' is a very apt title......

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Music Stand Plague

It was only when I realised the importance of Youtube in terms of how people currently access music, and started to video my own concerts and performances, that I realised how visually crap a lot of jazz performances are. And a huge part of why they looked crap was the number of music stands all over the stage, and all the musicians staring at them rather than making any eye contact with the audience or with each other. It's particularly horrible for the audience when a musician raises his or her stand almost to eye level, blocking the view of both player and instrument.

If you look at Youtube videos of performances from the past, you see hardly any music stands on stage, and everything looks the better for it. For an example of how a music stand might adversely affect the visual aspects of a performance, look at any video of Miles' band, or Trane's, or Monk's, and imagine that same video with Wayne, or Herbie, Elvin or McCoy etc. looking down at a music stand. It would look terrible, and doubtless we wouldn't have had the same performance if the musicians had all been reading.

Now I know why written music is more necessary on stage these days than it was then - more original compositions, (which are often complex), and less gigs and rehearsals in which to memorise and internalise these compositions. So unless we have a photographic memory, or the music is very simple, then it's probably going to be necessary to read it. But we should always be aware that we are playing for people who would probably rather see as much of the musician as possible, rather than just the top half of their face and the bottom of the instrument, with all the central aspect blocked out by a stupid music stand. People come to see us playing, they like to see hands and physical movement to correspond with what they're hearing.

For myself, I've learned from my own videos, to lower the music stand as much as possible if I can't memorise the music - and I do try and memorise it when possible. It really does help how things look to minimise music stand clutter, allow the audience to see you playing, and get some eye contact going. The same goes for having cymbal cases and gig bags thrown all over the back of the stage - it looks crap! I mean, jazz musicians generally do little enough thinking about the visual aspects of our performances (compare that to pop musicians....), so the least we can do is actually let people see us playing, and not just the bits of us that stick out from behind a music stand. People come to see a performance, not a group of people staring at something on a stand.

Let's try and get rid of the damn things! Or at least make them inconspicuous..........

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Extraordinary Mr. Copeland

Last year I interviewed the great drummer Keith Copeland about his life, (you can see the three parts here, here and and here), and apart from the fascinating interview itself, it was great to reconnect with Keith after a few years in which we hadn't had an opportunity to speak in person. For all these reasons I was very happy to have spoken with him, but I never realised that this would be my last chance to do so - Keith passed away last week, taking a huge piece of jazz drumming history with him and leaving those of us who knew him, and were lucky enough to spend time with him, feeling the loss keenly.

Keith was not only a great drummer, but he was a great man too - warm, friendly and always ready to go the extra mile for his family and friends.

For me he was a friend and a mentor, and I learned so much from him musically. We first met when he attended the Dublin IASJ meeting in 1991, thought at that point we didn't play together. However, he and I, and Tommy Halferty, were together on the Jordanstown Summer School in Belfast in the summer of 1995 (which we did again for the following three years), and we had such fun playing together that Keith invited Tommy and I to become the other two thirds of his trio - a signal honour for us of course, and the beginning of a wonderful period of music and learning for us also.

With Keith we recorded three albums for Steeplechase, 'The Irish Connection', 'Round Trip', and 'Live in Limerick' and later we recorded together again on Tommy's 'Breathing the Air'. Playing with Keith was for us, a direct link with the swing tradition - the real deal. His time was amazing, absolutely rock solid, and he could play in so many styles within the African-American tradition - Brazilian, backbeat funk, swinging brushes, Elvin burnout - you name it, he could do it, (and if you look at his history it's not hard to understand why he could do everything). And he played SO intensely! He was physically very strong and he expected you to be as well, if you got on the stage with Keith you had to be ready for what was coming, because you knew it was going to completely burn, and that the drums were going to get some serious treatment over the course of the two sets. We played together all over Ireland, in France, in Spain, we played as a trio and as a rhythm section (with Benny Golson among others), and not only was the music always swinging, Keith was always generous, warm and funny - a pleasure to be with both musically and personally.

He was one of the great teachers too, really serious but also funny - his threatening of his students that he would unleash 'Dr Beat', (his metronome), on them was always both hilarious, ('you don't want to mess with Dr Beat - he's mean!'), and deadly serious. He always told students the truth about what they needed to do, and never sugarcoated it. Some students found his honesty about their shortcomings too much to deal with, but the really serious ones always responded well to it. As well as being forthright with his students he was also incredibly generous with his time and energy - at the Belfast summer school he used to record his lessons on cassette and then make copies for all the students so they could take them home with them! The list of great players who studied with Keith, (Terri-Lyne Carrington, Bobby Sanabria, Tom Rainey, Kenwood Dennard etc etc) is extraordinary and a testament to his brilliance as a teacher and generosity as a person.

Keith was amiable, generous, warm, and funny, but he didn't take any shit of any kind, from anyone. He was a proud man and woe betide anyone who tried to mess him around in any way. A few times I did see him get really annoyed with people and I always remember being glad it wasn't me that was on the receiving end of it! For an example of how Keith responded to being messed around, read the section in Part 3 of the interview I did with him, about his time with Stevie Wonder. Keith didn't care who you were, he expected to be treated properly and would call out anyone whom he felt was not doing the right thing.

The reason we had such an opportunity to be with Keith was that he moved to Europe in the early 90's, taught in Koln and Mannheim, and met and married Ute, his wonderful wife, to whom he was devoted. In the mid 2000's Keith had a brain seizure which put him in a coma for weeks, but from which, to the astonishment of his doctors, he made a complete recovery, going on to do gigs and record and tour - an extraordinary achievement which was a testimony to his strength and resilience. But he didn't escape a second time and he passed on last week, to the sorrow of all of us who were lucky enough to know him and lucky enough to play with that massive groove.

I'll miss him very much - he was one of the greatest drummers I ever played with, and a great man. I feel lucky to have had the chance to play with him and to know him. I'll leave you with an example of the kind of swinging music we played in Keith's trio. I'll really miss Keith and always be grateful to him for the opportunities he gave me - we won't see his like again. Rest in peace Keith.

Friday, January 30, 2015

'Chasin' The Trane' - Another Listen

Chasin’ the Trane…..

How many times have I listened to this? It must be in the hundreds by now, I know nearly every note of Coltrane’s solo as well as much of what Elvin and Jimmy play too. But listening to it again in the car the other day brought a new understanding of why this is such a great recording, and such an important piece of music in the jazz canon.

On the face of it – three musicians playing a blues – there’s nothing remarkable about it. It doesn’t do anything new structurally, nor reinvent the wheel as far as the 12-bar form of the blues is concerned. There is no standout theme as such – Trane plays a simple descending line and off they go for over fifteen minutes. So, three guys playing a blues with a skeletal theme, bright tempo, regular key (F), normal form – nothing remarkable in any of that. But of course it is remarkable, it remains one of the best-known recordings of Coltrane’s, and is recognized as one of the great recorded blues performances.  So what is it that makes this stand out? Even in Coltrane’s roster of recordings, (which contains so many classic and influential pieces), this is acknowledged as a landmark performance. Why?

Because this recording shows three great musicians, at the apex of the culture they come from, taking a musical form which evolved in their culture, (and one that is implicit in all forms of American jazz), and playing it at a level that both respects the structure and ethos of the form, while at the same time creating what can only be described as high art.

These are virtuoso musicians, at the height of their powers, at the forefront of their tradition, playing a song form that is vital to that tradition, and playing it in a city (New York), and at a place, (the Village Vanguard), synonymous with the greatest players and creators of this art form. Coltrane, Garrison and Jones, playing the blues at the Vanguard, is Rostropovitch playing Shostakovitch in Moscow, Ali Akbar Khan playing Raga Marwa in Delhi, Willy Clancy playing jigs and reels in Clare. It represents the highest manifestations of a musical culture, one that takes something vital from that culture and renews and honours it in live performance.

There is something ritualistic about ‘Chasin’ The Trane’. Although the band, and especially Coltrane, are stretching and pushing at the edges of the blues form, there is no breaking of it, no deconstruction or reconstruction. Unlike the Miles Davis group of the same era, Coltrane’s classic quartet, (at least in this period), did not engage in perilous experiments with form, which stretched pieces to breaking point and beyond. Instead, as in this performance, they set out with a certainty of where they were going. Yes, they were improvising and pushing their creativity, but within the clearly defined structure of the blues – one that can be clearly heard throughout this piece.  

The declamatory nature of the blues is also contained within Coltrane’s marathon solo here too – he always was a great blues player and here again he demonstrates it. Elvin propels everything forward and is extraordinarily responsive to every twist and turn of Coltrane’s line, sometimes working alongside it and answering it, at other times almost contradicting it. Garrison remains at the centre of everything – powerful, immovable, reinforcing.

Dynamically it remains fairly constant throughout – it starts at a bright mezzo forte, and stays constant with that level, only raising the heat a little as the piece goes on. This performance does not have the usual rising dynamic arc of the contemporary jazz solo, it maintains its opening dynamic throughout, but increases the intensity by the sheer accumulation of power over the 15 minute length of the piece. Like so much great jazz, it is not only about what is played, but also the way it is played. 

Despite the fact that this is a twelve-bar blues and Coltrane is playing quite chromatically at times, there is also a trance-like quality to the piece, and the repetition, the ticking-over of the twelve-bar form, combined with the power and cohesion of the three players, makes for a listening experience whereby the listener is inexorably drawn in as the performance continues. To the point that, when Coltrane abruptly finishes, it comes as a complete surprise, and indeed a wrench to the listener.

Coltrane’s solo, and this whole piece, feels to me like it has no beginning, middle or end – it is one complete statement, declared at the beginning, and repeated and reinforced as the music unwinds. But in a way his solo cannot be taken in isolation, since the power of the piece is the result of the common purpose of all three men as they create, declaim, proclaim and exclaim - and of course, to use a technical term, swing their asses off!

If it's possible that you've never heard this then please do you yourself a favour and check it out as soon as possible. If it's been a while since you've listened to it, then get back to it. And if you've listened to it recently, then do it again! Great art never gets old….