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

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Salt, Sugar, Fat: Food, Music and Things We Like




There's an artist whose music I believe to be hugely overrated - definitely a case of recognition deserving of wider talent - but who is very popular with a certain section of the listening population. Although a newcomer to his music would probably hear nothing remarkable in the heard-a-thousand-times chord progressions, simple melodies and stock song forms that make up his oeuvre, he has nevertheless built a mythology around himself, a mythology that suggests his music represents some kind of deep genius, despite this same music providing no evidence to back this up. But because he has been deified by lazy critics, by people who believe lazy critics, and by nostalgia buffs, it's a given that if you express an opinion suggesting that said artist is not at all the genius he is made out to be, you will receive blowback. And I have, many times. Most recently it was pointed out to me by a defender of this god-like artist, that if I was right, and he wasn't very good, then how come so many people liked him?

I have a one-word riposte whenever I'm presented with that line of argument - McDonalds




The idea that the popularity of something must have a direct correlation with the quality of that something, is an idea that not only doesn't hold water, but leaks like a sieve. McDonalds - the fast food chain that the word ubiquitous could have been created to describe - is the biggest individual retail seller of cooked food in the world. It trounces everyone else in terms of the sheer volume of food it sells, and the popularity of its brand. But even the people who eat McDonalds would be unlikely to argue that it is the greatest food in the world. It is mass produced, has no variation, is made to a formula, and requires no culinary input from the individual sellers working in the McDonald's restaurants that sell the food. So why is this mass produced, bland food so popular all over the world?

Salt, Sugar, Fat.

Human beings are hardwired to like salt, sugar and fat, and Mc Donalds' food is loaded with all three. We have a fairly primal positive response to all three of those food elements, and food that is high in salt, sugar or fat content is an easy sell for the purveyor. One or more of these constituents is an integral part of all processed food in general and that, along with the ease of mass production, (and the concomitant cheapness that goes with that mass production), explains the popularity of such food, despite it having no nuance, subtlety or variety. Eating such food provides an instant hit to receptors that are primed to welcome them.

There is a correlation to this in the music world, certain musical constituents that evoke an almost immediate response in most people. These responses and why they have this effect on people is extensively detailed in 'The Music Instinct (how music works and why we can't live without it)' by Phillip Ball, a wonderful book that goes into evolutionary history, psychology and many other aspects of how we're wired towards certain musical responses and resist others.




In the book Ball shows how there are musical elements that could be described as being the equivalents to salt, sugar and fat - consonance, repetition, simplicity and predictability. He shows how popular melodies are nearly always contained within the intervallic scope of a fifth, contain ascending and descending scale steps, have very little dissonance and are structurally simple. Now even a limited observation of very popular music can see that simplicity and predictability are the stock in trade of this genre, but what Ball shows is how these elements are not just the product of taste, but have evolutionary origins - in other words we are hot-wired to respond to these things, in the same way that we are to the food elements mentioned earlier. You'd really have to read the book in order to get a fuller explanation of these musical responses, but it's fascinating to read for example how wide interval leaps are generally not positively responded to by most people, and Ball shows how very few hit songs have had any wider intervallic leap than a major sixth, and how intervals such as the tritone or minor sixth, (which flirt with dissonance), are rare in popular music.

So the obvious lesson from this is that the more you load your music with the elements that fire the receptors in the average listener, and keep away from the elements that are not universally appreciated, the more likely it is that your music will be popular with large numbers of people. In fact, the analogy that can be made between global commercial fast food and global commercial pop music are very striking.

As an example, I'm going to take the third paragraph of this post and repeat it, but replace salt, sugar and fat, with consonance, simplicity and predictability, and replace the word food with music, and McDonald's with commercial pop music -

Human beings are hardwired to like consonance, simplicity and predictability, and commercial pop music is loaded with all three. We have a fairly primal positive response to all three of those music elements, and music that is high in consonance, simplicity and predictability is an easy sell for the purveyor. One or more of these constituents is an integral part of all commercial pop music in general and that, along with the ease of mass production, (and the concomitant cheapness that goes with that mass production), explains the popularity of such music, despite it having no nuance, subtlety or variety. Hearing such music provides an instant hit to receptors that are primed to welcome them. 





The music of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Spice Girls, Ed Sheeran etc. are all loaded to the gunwales with enough musically consonant saccharine to give you diabetes, are as predictable as night following day, and are devoid of all but the most simple structures. In fact their music meets all the criteria for attaining the kind of mass following that they have. Of course there can be other factors in play in deciding why a listener might choose one over the other, but the bottom line with all their music is that they follow the simple recipe of consonance, simplicity and predictability, that guarantees they will alienate as few listeners as possible.

Thankfully there are people who don't want to eat a diet completely comprised of sugar, salt and fat, and there are people who want more from music than constant consonance and bland predictability. I was lucky enough to be brought up on a nuanced musical diet, and in the same way that someone is brought up eating a wide range of foods, it has remained with me for the rest of my life. I do enjoy sugar, salt and fat in food, and I do enjoy consonance in music and simplicity, but in both food and music, those naturally endearing elements have to be balanced, contrasted, and even contradicted by different elements at various times. Sometimes those elements have to be absent for a considerable time in order for them to be all the more welcome when they do return.

And to be fair to the artist I mentioned at the beginning, he's not the musical equivalent of McDonald's. More like a Domino's Pizza perhaps.....


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Blog Is 10 Years Old Today!




It's hard to believe, for me anyway, but this blog is 10 years old today. In that time I've covered a lot of ground musically, learnt a lot about the online life - both positive and negative - connected with some great people, got a chance to interview many great musicians, and had the opportunity to write about many more. The act of writing about music has meant that I've had to distil my thoughts on many subjects and tease things out in my own mind before putting it into electronic print. I've learned about the power of words, how they can be empowering, and how, in the online world, they can be used against you by people who do not wish you well. I've been touched by the generosity of people who have contacted me, and sometimes been repelled by the cowardly malice of anonymous commentators.

So it's been a steep learning curve, but overall a very positive experience for me.

I started it having read Ethan Iverson's great blog 'Do The Math', (still the gold standard of jazz blogs in my opinion). Seeing how well he wrote about music, I felt that it was important that more musicians wrote about what they do, rather than leaving it all to the critics, many of whom, however well intentioned, often knew little or nothing about the realities of making music and playing jazz. So this prompted me to start writing, and once I got going I found that I really enjoyed it, and it also had a beneficial musical effect on me, making think deeply about things before committing to write about them.

I think what surprised me the most was the interest people had in reading the blog. I thought it would be read by a handful of people, and though it's all relative, (I wouldn't be in the same universe as some bloggers in terms of readership), it never ceased to surprise me just how many people did read it. Looking at the stats as I write this, I can see that people have accessed and read the blog 611,816 times, which probably means that somewhere between 250,000 - 500,000 people have read it. That staggers me! I would never have thought that it would have had that kind of reach, and am pleased and of course flattered that it has.


Dave Liebman

I've written about many things in the jazz sphere, from technical things to composition, from stuff that is out and out jazz, to thoughts about music and society, composition, and interviews with great musicians such as Dave Liebman, Kenny Werner, Steve Coleman, Eric Ineke, and Jim McNeely. I've looked back at the music of my heroes, and great figures in the music, and speculated on the future of the music.

I can never predict which posts are going to attract the most attention - sometimes I think a piece will be of interest to many people but it attracts relatively few viewers, and other times something I casually put up there takes off. If I look at the stats, these are the top five posts according to the number of views:

1. '21st Century Bebop?' - the relevance of teaching the music of the jazz tradition in the 21st century
2. 'Six Reasons Why I Love Jazz' - no explanation needed
3. 'Steve Coleman on Rhythm' - again, no explanation needed
4. 'The Singer and the Song' - some thoughts on the position of the singer in contemporary jazz
5. 'When Drums Stop, Big Trouble!' - on bass solos!

I have had my ups and downs with keeping up with regular posting, and sometimes when things are very busy in the rest of my life I find it hard to find time to write. And there are definitely fewer jazz blogs these days than there were ten years ago, and some discussion about the continued relevance of blogs. But for me, I do enjoy writing about music, and hopefully people still enjoy reading about music, so I'll keep going.

A very sincere thanks to all who have read the blog and especially to those who have taken the time to comment in an engaged and constructive way. Here's to the next ten years!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Rhythm Geekery 1


In this post I’ll show some of the structural underpinning of an improvisation I did on the old standard ‘There Will Never Be Another You’. I made a video of this improvisation and explained a little of what I was doing at the beginning of the video. However I’ve been asked several times to explain in more detail what is going on, so for those who like to be able to have a look under the hood, here is a score of the structure of the subdivisions I used for the improvisation. This gets a little bit rhythm geeky, so if you’re interested in that kind of thing then read on, and if not then just have a listen to the video performance and hopefully you can enjoy it on pure musical terms.

In this improvisation I set out to use asymmetric structures of 5 and 7 and layer them across the very symmetric structure of this well known standard. This creates constant movement of tension and release as the asymmetric structures cross the changes which are grouped in the conventional 4s and 2s. 

The challenge is two-fold:

1. To hear the relationship between the 5s or 7s and the underlying 4, and hear how they move around each other

2. To make the voice-leading work over the changes while using the asymmetric groupings

Here's how the groups of 5 work over the tune. If you do the maths, the two patterns meet every five bars of the 4/4 meter. But of course the changes are based on eight-bar groupings, and the tune is thirty two bars long - a number not divisible by five without using decimals. So your ear has to be attuned to the many different ways the 5s relate to the changes as the tune goes on.

For example the form of this tune is ABAC, both A sections having the same changes. Well because of the asymmetry of the 5s, the subdivision will be different for the two A sections.  Here's a comparison of the first four bars of both A sections:

So here is the full tune, with the subdivisions of 5:

And here is the same tune, and same principal, this time with groupings of 7:



And here is the video I made which explains this a little and then demonstrates it. I want to stress that this is an improvisation, the notes I chose were not worked out in advance, I just practiced this a lot to enable me to hear the voice leading. I intersperse the 5s and 7s, with regular choruses and finish by improvising various combinations of 5s and 7s. Big fun!



Saturday, January 19, 2019

Jazz Shorts 3 - Billy Harper


In an era where globalisation is cutting a swathe across everything, including culture, uniqueness is a scarce commodity these days, both in life and indeed in music. Billy Harper is one of those unique treasures, a sui generis master who is not even close to getting the type of recognition he deserves. He has that quality of uniqueness and genuine individuality which is at a premium in contemporary jazz. Like all great tenor players before him, he can play just one or two notes and you know it's him.

Harper is from Texas and he has the sound that defines the Texas tenor. Listen to Arnett Cobb and especially Booker Ervin and you will hear the classic sound of Harper's antecedents, a dark, powerful wail, the signature tenor sound of a sonic tradition for which he has been a flag bearer for more than fifty years.

In addition to his sound, Harper is a saxophonist of formidable power and technique, and one who plays with the kind of intensity only found in players of the generation who came to the fore in the late 60s, and were around New York when the post-Coltrane ferocity was at its height. But another thing I love about Harper's playing is the soulfulness and indeed spirituality of it. There's a powerful cry in all his playing and he writes extremely direct and grooving pieces, perfect vehicles for his blend of power and passionate forward motion.

One of my favourite Harper albums, one I bought on LP as a Japanese import many years ago, and long unavailable, is 'Soran Bushi', and here he is on the opening track "Trying To Get Ready" where, after the typical Harper declamatory melody, he hurtles into a ferocious solo, riding the crest of the waves created by TWO great drummers - Horacee Arnold and Billy Hart. Check out the 2nd solo where he takes on both drummers single-handedly, and wins!

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Jazz Shorts 2 - Andrea Keller



I'm guessing that any Australian reading this will know who Andrea Keller is, and others from elsewhere may not. If you don't know her music, then getting to know it will be one of the better things you will do this year. Andrea is a pianist and composer, living in Melbourne, who is rightfully lauded in her own country as being at the forefront of jazz and creative music in Australia. Her output is prodigious and encompasses many different formats from conventional quintet, quartet and trio formats, to more unusual instrumentation and various solo piano approaches, including looping.

I first met Andrea in an almost accidental way on a gig in Scotland in the early 2000s where she was part of a collaborative project put together by two jazz resource organisations, and I loved playing with her and playing her compositions. I asked her to send me a recording of her music and she sent me 'Thirteen Sketches', which blew me away and I've been a diehard fan ever since. A couple of years ago I had the good fortune of having her play on my 'Shy-Going Boy' project, and again it was a great experience.

Andrea's music is multi-faceted and multi-layered. Her playing and writing has a freshness about it that shines through in every project she undertakes. As a pianist every note she plays is genuine and musical, and there is not one lick or superfluous gesture. She makes a beautiful sound on the piano, is lyrical and her music is both completely informed by the jazz tradition while moving outward from that into all kinds of other sound worlds.

It's great for Australia that they have her as part of the scene there, but while showered with awards there, it's a shame, due to the geographical distance between Australia and the other major jazz scenes in the world, that her music is not better known elsewhere. Her output is quite prodigious, so it's hard to suggest a place to start (you could start anywhere frankly), but as a taster I could suggest the sublime solo piano album of Wayne Shorter's music that she made, or the 'Thirteen Sketches' album I mentioned earlier. Here's 'Blue Arsed Fly' from that recording.

Check her out!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

NHØP - Still A Giant





Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen, NHOP,  passed away in 2005. With that passing the jazz world, and indeed the wider music world, was deprived of one of the greatest players of the double bass who ever lived. That last statement is not hyperbole, it's just a simple statement of fact. NHOP played the instrument at a technical level that has perhaps never been equalled. His intonation, finesse, speed, lightness of touch, sound - all were of the very highest level. In addition to that he had fantastic time, harmonic knowledge and could swing as hard as anyone. Yet these days, among the younger generation of jazz musicians in particular, he's often a forgotten man. How could it be that such a giant of the instrument, who performed at the very highest level with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, have so soon become almost a marginal figure?

Niels was born in Denmark in 1946 and became that rare thing in jazz - a child prodigy. He began playing and studying the bass at the age of thirteen, but only two years later, at the age of fifteen, was already playing professionally on the Danish jazz scene, accompanying great players from that scene, as well as with leading visiting jazz musicians. In terms of a teenager playing with the very greatest players, and more than holding his own, perhaps only Tony Williams is comparable in jazz. Here is Niels, at the remarkably young age of 16, playing with one of the greatest ever jazz pianists, Bud Powell. Although there is no solo in this, the great note choice and time feel is already there. Hard to believe that Niels was only playing for three years at this point!





It's worth taking a look at this point at a particularly Danish aspect of bass technique that undoubtedly helped Niels to become the virtuoso he was, and to play the way he did. One of the giant figures of Denmark's jazz and broader music scene was the extraordinary bassist, producer, and force of nature, Erik Moseholm. I was lucky enough to get to know Erik in his later years and he was an amazing man, and someone who studied bass with a legendary Danish bass pedagog called Oscar Hegner. Hegner had a method that involved unorthodox left hand fingerings, using a cross-stringing technique that was closer to modern bass guitar technique than to traditional classical double bass techniques such as Simandl. Erik Moseholm adapted this technique for jazz playing and when Niels' father was looking for a teacher for his prodigy son, rather than take him on himself, Erik recommended he study directly with Hegner. Hegner's method undoubtedly contributed to the stream of wonderful bassists who came from Denmark and Scandinavia (Jesper Lundgaard, Mads Vindig, Anders Jormin etc.) and there's no doubt that Niels benefitted from this revolutionary teacher.

Here's NHØP three years after the Powell video, age 19, in very heavy company - with Sonny Rollins and Alan Dawson, soloing on Oleo and already showing the beginnings of the ability that was to go on to make him one of the greatest bass soloists in jazz.





At this point his right hand technique is more conventional than it later became. Shortly after this video was made, he adopted a very unusual three-finger approach for pizzicato, starting phrases with the ring finger, followed by the middle and then index finger. It's a technically difficult technique to master, especially in trying to have a good time feel and give equal weight to each note. But it's one he mastered early on, and here he is again with Rollins, (with Kenny Drew and Tootie Heath - more heavy company!), just two years on from the previous video, and the three-finger technique is in full flow.





At this point, at the age of only 21, he was probably the pre-eminent bassist in Europe in the field of playing with great American masters of the tradition, the number one call in Europe for such giants such as Rollins, Ben Webster, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, etc.

Given his virtuosity and comfort with the standard tradition, it was probably inevitable that he would end up playing with the biggest public name in that traditional world, Oscar Peterson. Originally hired as a last minute replacement for Ray Brown he played as a regular member of Peterson's trio from 1974 till 1987, and given the kind of marquee gigs that Peterson commanded, his time with Oscar gave him his greatest public exposure.

Although the music created by the meeting of two such virtuosi could become a little glib at times, in this next video, from 1974,  you can see how suited Niels' technical brilliance and great time feel was to Peterson's world. Oscar doesn't even give him a chance to warm up, and Niels barely has the bass in his hands before Oscar launches into the quicksilver arrangement of 'Just Friends'. I don't think there was any other bassist of that time who could have played something this difficult, this relaxed. Check out the great walking time too



Around this time he also formed a duo partnership with Joe Pass and this was also a very popular pairing ensuring a lot of representation on Norman Granz' Pablo label, and copper-fastening him as one of the leading mainstream jazz bassists in the world.

And this was where his musical world was largely situated - in the standard repertoire, with swinging tunes and great players from that idiom. He made several albums under his own name, mainly for the Steeplechase label, and they did show some other sides of him, but he never strayed far from his traditional swinging jazz roots. Apart from his gifts as a straight ahead bassist, he also showed himself to be a great melody player and could play beautifully on ballads and Danish folk songs, (which he liked to play from time to time)

Here he is playing an exquisite version of 'Old Folks' with Joe Pass - his delivery of the melody is sublime in its lyricism, and the whole performance shows two masters playing as only masters can





So since he was such a giant of the instrument and the music, how is it that he is such a marginal figure now? When I was young, myself and all the bassists of my generation would have named him immediately if asked to name the top five bassists in the world at that time. If you did the same today with young bassists, not only have many not heard him, but have never even heard of him!

In thinking about this I've come to the conclusion that his chronological situation in arriving when he did acted against him when it comes to the view of him for jazz posterity. Niels came to the forefront at an amazingly young age and was immediately playing with the great masters of jazz, all of whom were in their late maturity while Niels was in his teens. He played with them extensively as a sideman, but over the next twenty years or so they all passed away, leaving him playing more with his peers. But by the time this happened, in the late 80s/early 90s, the music itself had changed hugely, and Niels was not someone with the experience, (or probably desire), to play in more free environments, (though he did play with both Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler), in the post-Miles electric/fusion world, in the ECM leaning European jazz scene, or in the more complex rhythmic music that was gaining a toe-hold in the early 90s. He was in some ways a man out of time with his age.

If we look at the age group of other prominent bassists who came up around the same time we can see that many famous bassists were around the same age as Niels but played completely different music. Niels was born in '46, and here are the birth dates of other prominent bassists who dominated and developed contemporary bass playing for many years in the same period that Niels was most active:

Dave Holland ('46), Miroslav Vitous ('47), George Mraz ('44), Eddie Gomez ('44), Stanley Clarke ('51), Jaco Pastorius ('51)

This is a list of great contemporary bassists who covered a huge range of music between them, and even the most straight ahead of them - George Mraz - played with John Abercrombie's Quartet and with Dave Liebman's groups. Niels on the other hand played in a narrower stylistic area, and when the great figures of that music passed on, in some ways his role as the super sideman to the giants disappeared too and I think he struggled to find something new and relevant to do in his latter years. If you've played blues and rhythm changes with Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster and Count Basie, how do you keep your interest and motivation playing that same material when they've all gone?

And his association with these great players as a sideman meant that he never really got involved in the contemporary jazz of his own time, nor recorded a groundbreaking album of his own, nor was part of a groundbreaking recording in the way that the other bassists mentioned above were. So when he passed at the shockingly young age of 59, his legacy passed with him in some respects. And since his recorded legacy is mostly as that of a sideman, his phenomenal playing is unfamiliar to those who weren't lucky enough to see him play while he was still around.

That's my theory for what it's worth.

But he should never be forgotten, because he still is one of the greatest jazz bassists of all time and played the instrument at a technical level, in the tradition, in a way that still hasn't been surpassed.

To finish, here he is in a casual masterclass situation, playing that hoariest of old chestnuts, 'Autumn
Leaves' - the intro alone would be enough to ensure his place in the pantheon of the greatest instrumentalists in jazz




Friday, December 28, 2018

Jazz Shorts 1 - Jimmy Hopps

Jazz Shorts - a series of short posts about various jazz things




I wonder how many people reading this know who Jimmy Hopps is? Not many I'd guess, and it's a pity. Hopps was a great drummer who was very active in the late 60s and early 70s with people like Pharoah Sanders, Roland Kirk, Stanley Cowell, and later with Sun Ra. But I know him particularly from the albums he made with Charles Tolliver, the great trumpeter, who is still performing today.

My favourite recordings from this 60s/70s period are 'The Ringer' and 'Live at Slugs', both of which also feature Cowell, and either Steve Novosel or Cecil McBee on bass. Hopps' playing is so dynamic and forceful, he drives the music onwards and deals the cards throughout. There's nothing slick about his playing, but it has the drive and raw power typical of this period in jazz, and an intensity that's sadly missed these days. Both of the aforementioned albums are hard to get, but worth the effort.

Considering 'The Ringer' was recorded in '69, and given the normal lifespan of jazz musicians of this period, it's amazing that all are still alive and, with the exception of Hopps, still playing. Hopps withdrew from music and was last heard of traversing the Sahara with the Bedouin. How's THAT for a career change!




Saturday, July 28, 2018

Beautiful Aberration 2 - Coltrane Again




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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


Sunday, January 28, 2018

11 Great Bass Solos!


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

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


Eddie Gomez - Autumn Leaves

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




Renaud Garcia-Fons - Baja De Guía

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






Paul Chambers - Softly as in a Morning Sunrise

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






Dave Holland - Mr PC

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







Anders Jormin

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






Michael Pipoquinha  - Incompatibilidade De Gênios

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






Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen - Oleo

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





Jaco Pastorius - Havona

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





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

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





Linda May Han Oh - Power Ranger

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




Mingus - Tensions

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


Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Beauty of Ambiguity



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

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





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

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

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




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

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

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




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

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




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

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

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





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





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

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




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