Buy Renaissance Man - my new recording featuring John Abercrombie, and String Quartet!

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….

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Karnataka College of Percussion at 50!

(T.A.S. Mani)

Next year the Karnataka College of Percussion is 50 years old. Founded by the great Mridangam player T.A.S.Mani in 1964, it was, and is, a unique institution in that it organized lessons in a school format in a music that was traditionally always taught on a one-to-one basis in a guru system. Mr. Mani's forward thinking, desire to spread the knowledge of his instrument, and Carnatic music in general, and his generosity in sharing his skill and genius, has meant that hundreds of people have had a chance to study and perform this amazing music and appreciate its subtleties and intricacies.

In undertaking this groundbreaking work in India Mr. Mani was ably assisted by his wife, the brilliant vocalist R.A. Ramamani, and the two of them together have been a major force in spreading this incredible music, not only in India, but also abroad, particularly in their collaborations with jazz musicians.

(R.A. Ramamani)

My own experience with these great musicians began through another musician who had himself studied with Mr. Mani and went on to become one of their closest collaborators, the great percussionist Ramesh Shotham. Ramesh and I first met during a trio project with the pianist Simon Nabatov and became fast friends. At that time I was beginning my immersion in the world of rhythm and had become fascinated with the rhythmic techniques of Carnatic music - Ramesh was a mine of information on this subject, having studied with, and later performed extensively with Mr. Mani and Ramamani.

At this point I was already aware of KCP and the Manis through their ECM recording Jyothi, with the legendary saxophonist Charlie Mariano. As well as making Carnartic music more accessible to a bigger audience, this recording introduced the wider jazz world to the composition of Ramamani - a unique body of work.

These compositions were crucial in increasing the possibilities for jazz musicians to work with Indian classical musicians and find a common ground in which both can contribute while maintaining their own identity.

Carnatic music uses structures that are unique to it, and the responses of the musicians while they improvise are governed by a set of rules (ragas, talas, jatis, tihais, korvais etc) which take a very long time to learn, and for the western musician, are difficult to relate to unless you've done a lot of study. The same could be said of Carnatic musicians - they often don't understand the structures of jazz performances, and the result of this mutual incomprehension is that many collaborations between jazz musicians and Indian classical musicians are often stiff and directionless.

Ramamani's compositions provided a bridge between these traditions - they use Indian ragas and talas for the melodic and rhythmic material, but simplify the song form structures, which provide space for the jazz guys to improvise in and to grasp the overall structure of the piece. Here is one of Ramamani's tunes, 'Varshini', (wrongly titled in the video as 'Mr Mani'), played in Germany in 1995

It was on this tour that I finally got to meet and play with the Manis, and what a thrill it was! The band included Ramesh on percussion. We did about 20 concerts and were joined on some by Charlie Mariano, who had a long relationship with KCP, and by the Dutch pianist Jasper Van't Hof. The material was mostly Ramamani's compositions, and a few traditional Indian pieces. Working with the Manis was wonderful - they were both really nice people, easy to travel with, very patient with the inevitable delays and hanging around that touring involves.

And then of course there was the playing…… both are supreme masters of their art, technically flawless and can play with the kind of intensity that only the finest musicians can access.   I remember several alaps (non-metered introductions) that Ramamani did that were stunning, and I also remember one particular night in Vienna when Mr. Mani's end of concert Mridangam solo went beyond even his extraordinary level, driven no doubt by Mani's knowledge that there was a tabla player in the front row of the audience who needed to be shown who was the boss!

We concluded the tour in Turkey where we were joined by the Irish guitarist Mike Nielsen and the legendary Turkish percussionist Okay Temiz and there we made a really nice album called 'Mishram' for a small Turkish label. I always regretted that this had such a limited release, because I think it really achieved a convincing blending of the Indian and jazz elements in the music, producing something quite unique. Here's one of Ramamani's compositions from that recording, dedicated to her husband, 'Mr. Mani'

After that tour I played with the Manis several more times, and it was always a pleasure, their adaptability to other musicians outside their own tradition is extraordinary and very unusual in Indian classical musicians. This was demonstrated again in the biggest thing we did together - a project called '5 Cities'. This was a unique event that brought together jazz musicians, Irish traditional musicians, and Indian classical musicians. For this project I wrote an extensive suite that featured everyone at various times, and since we toured it in five cities in India, it was given the '5 Cities' title.

It was a challenge to write a piece in which each tradition could be discerned and yet work as a whole, but having such great musicians in this project, from all of the various traditions, made it a lot easier. It was quite a big undertaking to make it work musically and logistically, but work it did and we toured India with it as well as playing it in Ireland. A fly-on-the-wall documentary was made of our Indian tour and the final concert in Dublin was filmed too. Here's the last movement of the suite, with a great demonstration at the end of the Mani's amazing rhythmic dexterity, along with Ramesh, and also how much fun this project was!

Playing with the Mani's and KCP has immeasurably enriched my musical life - they are great people, and great musicians and they have done so much both to promote the amazing music from their country, and to foster ways in which people from different cultures can callaborate. Fifty years of doing anything is amazing, but fifty years of musical invention, innovation and skill at the highest level is something we should all be thankful for. Here's to the lots more great music from the Manis - I hope I get a chance to play music with them again!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hancock's World

I’ve just finished Herbie Hancock’s autobiography ‘Possibilities’, (co-written with Lisa Dickey). It’s an interesting book, as you would expect with someone of Hancock’s pedigree and history, and reading it reminds you just how much music he has been involved with, some of it groundbreaking, and all of it graced by his amazing pianism and creativity.  Hancock is one of those guys who has been around, at the top of the jazz tree, for so long you can almost take him for granted. But reading this book sent me back to some of the music he’s done over the years, and it was an instructive lesson in just how great a jazz musician he is.

In his early days with Miles and others he demonstrated all the attributes that made him such a major figure so quickly. He somehow combined the harmonic sophistication of Bill Evans with a swinging right hand that rivaled Wynton Kelly’s, especially at medium tempos. He was also a virtuoso, on a par with anybody when it came to playing fast tempos effortlessly, and he could imbue anything with a bluesy sensibility . Very much the complete package, these attributes and his high profile gig with Miles ensured that he, (along with McCoy Tyner, the pianist in the other gold standard band of the 60s), became one of the most influential pianists in jazz. In the 70s he went on to form Headhunters, create one of the biggest selling jazz album of all time, and pushed into the electronic world with enthusiasm and imagination. He’s still out there, after a career of over fifty years, still playing great and still boundlessly enthusiastic about music and excited by whatever his latest project is.

As to the book itself, it’s very interesting in a lot of ways and a bit puzzling in others

It’s interesting to read about his childhood and time in college, the fact that he went there originally to study engineering, and ended up changing his Major to music. His background in engineering did have a lasting impact on him however, in that it drove his fascination with music technology, which is something he’s still obsessed about to this day, and there is much description in the book of his various encounters with new technology, and how he would push the inventors of these technologies to stretch the capabilities of what they could do.

He describes his racist experience with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a young man, and his discovery by Donald Byrd and subsequent move to New York in the early 60s at age twenty. His stories about Miles and how that band began are fascinating and there is much here for anyone interested in the gestation of this great ensemble, its psychology, development and ultimate dissolution. He then goes on to describe the innovative ‘Mwandishi’ band, and then Headhunters and Hancock’s emergence from the limited exposure of the jazz world into the bright lights of the pop world. I found the whole Headhunters and Mwandishi story to be fascinating and also the technological advances that lead to such hits as ‘Rockit’ etc. Herbie always had a feeling for a good groove that would appeal to many people, something proved by ‘Watermelon Man’, which was a huge hit from his first album while he was still an acoustic jazz musician.

(Headhunters live in Germany in 1974)

This is a very honest book in lots of ways and Hancock does not shy away from describing the lows of his life, (such as his addiction to crack cocaine in the 90s), and the flaws in his character as he sees them. He also is scrupulous about giving credit to people that helped him with various things, such as his story about how Joe Zawinul gave him the key advice on how to write for three horns that lead to the masterpiece album ‘Speak Like a Child’. In general he is self-deprecating, and someone who didn’t know his music but had just read this book, might be forgiven for not suspecting just what a great musician he is. In general he comes over as being a nice guy, affable, and good with people in an everyday setting.

So these are the aspects of the book that I found very interesting, but there are also some aspects of this book that I find strange.

The first one is that he gives almost no sense of what it must have been like to be a young pianist, on the scene, in New York in the 1960s. This was in many ways a golden era for jazz and in the early 60s you could see everyone from Louis Armstrong to Cecil Taylor in New York – the entire past, present and future of the music all in one place at the same time. Yet Hancock makes no real mention of the scene, of what that was like for a young pianist. There is no mention of Monk, of Rollins, or even of Coltrane. Trane was the other Big Beast in the world of jazz at that time and Hancock must have seen him play, and Trane was almost certainly at some of the Miles gigs that Hancock played at, yet there is no mention of him at all apart from Hancock stating that he played in some clubs with Miles that Trane and other famous musicians had played at. There is no mention of Rollins, whom Hancock recorded with at that time, or of Ornette, or even of the great albums of Wayne Shorter that Hancock played on at that time.

(With Miles Davis in 1967)

There is no colour in the 60s NY scene as told by Hancock, in the way that there is colour in the NY of the 40s and 50s as told in the Monk biography. Hancock concentrates on the Miles band and his own recordings, and then we’re into the 70s. I felt a bit short-changed – surely the scene there must have had an influence on him at that age, yet very little is mentioned. A pity.

The other strange thing about this book is Herbie’s obvious love of the showbiz life. He’s still star-struck and delighted to be included in big awards ceremonies and being admitted to VIP areas, and surrounded by beautiful women. One would imagine that after all these years he’d be used to being at the top table and would have at least some feeling of deserving to be there. But no, he’s still besotted by the glamour of high-end celebrity and there are moments in the book when his wide-eyed delight at being at this event, or being spoken to by that celebrity really feels strange when you consider how great he is in his own right, and how long he’s been mixing with these kinds of people.

An example of this comes late in the book, when Herbie is describing his surprise at winning his umpteenth Grammy, for ‘The Joni Letters’, for which his competitors were the Foo Fighters, Amy Winehouse, Vince Gill and Kanye West. Of this Herbie says ‘These artists made for some rarified company, so I was happy just to have been nominated’. So, the musician who made some of the greatest music of the 20th century with Miles Davis, broke the mold with jazz funk and music video, had scored movies for Antonioni and Tavernier, and was one of the world’s most influential jazz pianists, felt lucky to have been included in a list that included a mediocrity like Kanye West!? It’s baffling that he should a) be still so Star-struck after so many years at the top, and b) have such a low opinion of himself and his achievements that he should feel lucky to be included in such a list……….

This book is not anything like as good as the aforementioned Monk biography, or of Wayne Shorter’s biography ‘Footprints’, but it is an interesting read nevertheless. And as I mentioned at the beginning, it does send you back to the music, and when you see playing like in the clip below it makes you glad that Herbie is still with us.