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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Generation


Over the past several years when talking to musicians of my own age, from many different countries, I’ve been intrigued to discover how often it turns out that when we were younger we were all listening to and very influenced by a lot of the same albums. Of course we all listened to different things too, and were influenced by different music, but I’ve noticed a consistent thread of albums – or maybe groups of albums would be a more accurate description – that come up again and again as favourites and influences for musicians from a wide background, and of many nationalities.

Most of these albums were made in the 70s and 80s, which makes sense, as people of my generation would have been in their teens and early twenties when this music appeared. Of course we were all also listening to classics from earlier periods too – the usual diet of Bird, Miles, Trane, Monk and the various leading players on our respective instruments. But the recordings and music I’m talking about were being released at a time when we were all learning our trade, so it was brand new and had a profound effect on us. It was new, it was different and it was exciting.

The following list is of course not completely comprehensive, and there would be omissions to the list of influences and favourites of every musician I’ve spoken to, and indeed omissions from my own list. But I think this roster of recordings does represent a significant body of work for musicians of my generation.

The Jazz-Rock Phenomenon: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Weather Report.



Of course we all listened to the classic electric Miles albums, but it was the offshoots of this music, created mostly by members of those classic ‘In A Silent Way’, and ‘Bitches Brew’ recordings, which had a huge impact. The Miles albums came out when we were for the most part either just getting into jazz, or not involved in it at all. When Bitches Brew came out for example, I was only 12 years old. But the rash of albums from what was then known as Jazz-Rock (the word ‘fusion’ came much later) made a profound impact on me and many of my colleagues. And contrary to the revisionist dogma that ‘nothing was happening in the 70s’, put forward by the Crouch/Marsalis/Ken Burns orthodoxy, these recordings were not only deeply original, but very different from each other.

The Mahavishnu’s ‘Inner Mounting Flame’ and ‘Birds of Fire’ (my own favourite) married incredible virtuosity with such unheard of things as odd metres. Headhunters showed how deep funk grooves could be put at the service of sophisticated jazz improvisation. ‘Chameleon’ was the big seller, but I’ve found that most musicians, including myself, prefer ‘Thrust’ and/or the wonderful live album ‘Flood’. Weather Report produced a series of great albums that had a compositional and sonic sophistication that was unique at that time, and at its best still is. ‘Mysterious Traveller’, ‘Tale Spinnin’ and of course ‘Heavy Weather’ are three great examples of the depth of original work produced by this band.


The ECM Albums:



Again the depth of invention and breadth of music released on the ECM label in the 70s gives the lie to the ‘nothing happening’ fable put out by the jazz neo-cons. ECM has an image of quiet introspective ‘coffee table jazz’. The received wisdom is that ECM is as much about image as music, and sonically uniform featuring a kind of wistful broodiness (I once heard the Maj7+5 chord described as the ‘ECM I chord’). But that’s not true at all – for example, classic albums that many of us were listening to from the ECM label included John Abercrombie’s incendiary organ trio album ‘Timeless’, Enrico Rava’s witty and very Italian ‘The Plot’, Kenny Wheeler’s compositional and improvisational masterpieces ‘Gnu High’ and ‘Deer Wan’, Richie Beirach’s beautiful (and often burning) piano trio album ‘Elm’, the muscular Abercrombie/Holland/DeJohnette Gateway trio, and of course the classic Jarrett Scandinavian quartet albums ‘Belonging’ and ‘My Song’.

Dave Holland, Steve Coleman and the M-Base movement



At the beginning of the 80s a really new sound was coming out of New York and it centred around two people – Steve Coleman and Dave Holland. Coleman and his colleagues formed a loose collective movement they called M-Base and a stream of innovative and fascinating albums began around 1984 and continued on into the early 90s. For me I’d date the real flowering of this new music to be represented by Dave’s ‘Seeds of Time’ recording (again on ECM!) and Steve’s ‘Sine Die’ recording. Neither of these were the first recordings by their respective leaders but I think they represent a maturity of conception that embodied the virtues of this movement. Later important albums included Dave’s ‘Extensions’ recording and Steve’s ‘Rhythm People’.

The music was very innovative in its use of rhythm – which was particularly driven by the originality of Coleman in this regard. His own 5 Elements band incorporated driving odd metre funk rhythms with very dense and sometimes very chromatic music. This approach was leavened on Dave’s albums by his folky kind of tunes (‘Homecoming’) and by Kenny Wheeler’s harmonically sophisticated pieces such as ‘The Good Doctor’. I remember being blown away by these recordings - intrigued by the originality of the ideas, and how they constructed the pieces. And talking to my colleagues now I realise that they were affected in very much the same way. This music was largely responsible for creating the current fascination with all things rhythmic that we find in so much contemporary jazz. And echoes of these rhythms with the often angular melodies can be heard in the Downtown movement of a decade later. Truly important music.

As was all the music I mentioned here – not just for me, but for many musicians of my generation. Each generation of jazz musicians are moved and moved forward by the influence of a particular body of work that is particular to the era and is emerging at around the time the aforesaid musicians are making their own way into the music. For me, these recordings made up a huge part of that body of work - one that had a lasting impact on me and my generation.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

It's Over!




I was in a HMV record store on a recent Saturday in Toronto – the usual three-floor superstore, with lots of floor space etc. I went up to the classical department and then the jazz department, spent some time browsing in both and eventually bought $40 worth of CDs. I spent an hour in the jazz department and in that hour I was a) one of only six people there, and b) the only person who spent any money at all. There must have been over 1000 titles in the jazz section, and one guy behind the counter looking after it.

Even someone with the most basic grasp of economics (me!) can see that this level of sales is totally unsustainable. Remember that this was a Saturday – the busiest day of the week – and the $40 I spent in the jazz department was $40 more than anyone spent in the classical department in the time I was there. If you figure that the store took $40 an hour in the jazz department, then over an eight hour day they would have taken in $320. If you then factor in the cost of rent, light, heat, wages and the cost of buying the stock, you can see that this just isn’t going to work for much longer.

But it wasn’t just the minority musics that are suffering – as an experiment, on my way out I had a quick look at the ground floor, where all the popular stuff is kept – movies, DVDs, mainstream pop music etc. This was around noon on a Saturday, in a big city, in a shop in the city centre, and there were only twenty five people on that huge shop floor. When you take a live sample like that and add to it the recent bankruptcies of large chains like Tower it demonstrates that record shops are in terminal decline, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re gone, at least in their present form.

And what will take their place? I have to say I have no idea where the recording industry is going. Record companies are going bankrupt, as are record distribution companies. In the ‘current economic climate’ (to use the current popular phrase), this will only get worse. So, if the record shops go, and the record companies go, and the record distribution companies go – how will recorded music be sold. Or more to the point, at what stage will it just become uneconomical for musicians to record music?

We’re already heading that way – and I can’t understand why people can’t see it. There’s an incredible amount of support, both overt and implied, for the free downloading of music and free file sharing. Every time a file sharing website is taken to court by record companies, or movie companies, the media always portray the file sharers as the David versus the big bad Goliath of the record/movie industry. Just today a heavy sentence was placed on organizers of a website called ‘Pirate Bay’ and the report in the Irish Times headline says – ‘Pirate Bay may be dented but its ship sails on for more battle’. The language used - ‘sails on for more battle’ is typical of the media’s way of portraying the file sharers as swashbuckling underdogs, and the language in the main article uses more of the same. There is no space given to even the possibility that the file sharers and the people who use the sites are involved in theft. No, it’s the big bad record companies denying the ordinary man in the street the right to free music.

But where does the idea that there IS a right to free music come from? Does nobody see that if music becomes something which you can access in the same way that you can access water from a tap, it will eventually lose all its commercial value? If it reaches the point – and we’re getting there already – where there is no commercial value to making a recording, and where it actually costs you to make one, then musicians will simply stop recording.

Take the economics of small scale jazz recording for example. To produce 1000 CDs costs a minimum of between €2000-€3000, depending on what kind of art work you get, what kind of insert you use etc. The actual recording/editing/mastering will cost another €2000. So on average to produce a CD will cost the artist or record company about €5000. Since the record companies are going to the wall thanks to the decline of CD purchases, why would any jazz musician put up €5000 of their own money to make a CD when the public refuses to pay for recorded music anymore?

Musicians just won’t do it – it’s hard enough to make a living as a jazz musician without paying your own money to make recordings that can be stolen by those plucky people at Pirate Bay and their ilk and passed on for free to a public who feel entitled to use your work for their own entertainment without feeling any necessity to pay for it.

The free downloading of commercially produced music is wrong – it is theft. It is morally wrong, and it will kill the very thing it is exploiting. It makes no sense on any level, except that of greed. At a time when people have more disposable income than at any previous time in history, they demand that hard-pressed musicians give them their work for free. If you posit the idea that file sharing is wrong, the apologists for downloading always answer this with the response 'but you can't stop it', or 'everyone's doing it' - but these are answers to different questions! The fact that everyone is stealing your work doesn't help the musician whose work is being stolen, or make it any less immoral. This is still theft, no matter how many people are involved, and it's still morally wrong.

Websites like Pirate Bay, Napster and Kazaa are thieves, and the people who use their services to illegally download commercially produced music are thieves. And the thieves are bankrupting the people from whom they’re stealing - the musicians. Because ultimately it's the musicians who will and are paying the price of this theft - not the record companies. There never seems to be a recognition in this 'brave file-sharer versus evil record companies' scenario portrayed in the media, that ultimately it is the musicians who are being stolen from, and who are paying the ultimate price for the theft. Unless something changes, unless mealy-mouthed journalists stop being cowardly cheerleaders for theft, unless the public stop seeing themselves as being entitled to take the work of others for free, and conveniently ignoring the immorality of what they’re doing, then in the near future it’ll be all over.

Straws in the Wind



Flicking through the TV (always an unwise thing to do on a Saturday night…), just came across one of those dire ‘talent’ shows which feature Simon Cowell on the panel. If there is anything that tells us that our civilization is probably doomed in the not too distant future it is the fact that someone like Simon Cowell is allowed to judge anything at all, never mind whether someone has talent or not. Anyway, on this occasion instead of the usual wannabe Beyonce/Robbie Williams candidate, there was a saxophone player! Yes, a soprano saxophone player of all things, on a mainstream talent show. But though I had a moment of hope when I saw that an instrumentalist was being featured on the show, it was swiftly dashed when I heard what and how he was playing.

He played ‘There’s a Place for Us’, an admittedly lovely tune from West Side Story, and played it using the hideous comb and paper tone popularised by the awful Kenny G, in a saccharine crocodile tears-laden rendition complete with over the top synth string accompaniment. The performance was undertaken accompanied by lots of soulful looking into the eyes of the audience by the performer, and the whole thing was as saccharine and schmaltzy a confection as you would ever hear from Kenny G himself. Just listening to it for a couple of seconds of it could put your blood sugar through the roof.

And what was the reaction from the panel of ‘experts’ to this trashy reworking of an already trashy genre, first mined by Kenny G from his bottomless pit of tasteless schlock over twenty years ago? ‘

'It’s rare that we hear anything as special as that on this show’

‘I’ve never been moved to tears by a saxophone before’

And, from the mighty multi-millionaire Simon Cowell?

‘This show was set up to find extraordinarily talented people who need a break’ (pause for dramatic effect), ‘I think we’ve found that person!’

Cut to audience cheers and tears…………

We’re doomed!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Drum Crazy!


I was sent an amazing clip of Fred Astaire playing drums as part of a song and dance routine from a movie, (not sure of the name of the original movie - maybe someone can enlighten me?). As usual with Astaire the sheer technical skill of the dancing is incredible - playing the drums while dancing and miming to the soundtrack. And if you look at the clip, in a four minute section there are only about four camera angle changes, so at the most there are four edits - extraordinarily few for something as technically difficult as this.

You can see the Fred Astaire clip here

The song and dance guys of this era, at the pinnacle of popular culture, had the most amazing technical skills, and it's educational to compare them to their counterparts today. I always see Robbie Williams referred to as the 'great entertainer', but even allowing for the total change in style and music in the intervening years, it's clear that Williams couldn't even get close to this level of song and dance expertise - the technique just isn't there. But lack of technique in music isn't a bar to stardom any more, the technology available today compensates for the general lack of true technical skill in performance across all the performing arts.

The ability to edit and manipulate film by computer, and the ability to edit and manipulate sound via Pro Tools and the like, has had a profound effect on the technical skills of popular artists. Whereas in the pre-computerised era it would be impossible to have a career as a singer unless you could sing, or as an instrumentalist unless you could play, that's now all changed. You can be made to sound good and look good, aided by a battery of music and image computer editors, whose technical skill ironically is usually of a far higher level than the people whose work they are editing - or enhancing would be a better word perhaps.

I always notice when listening to or watching old video footage of earlier pop and rock groups, that the people creating the music are actually playing the instruments and singing in tune. To have a music career in that era demanded an ability to be able to sing or play. That's not the case now of course - as was proven when the huge selling Milli Vanilli had their Grammy revoked in 1990 when it was shown that they didn't sing on their own records and mimed in their live performances. How shocking! But of course the reality is that much commercial pop music of recent years is so heavily manipulated by computers both in the studio and on stage that the performers' claims to being the originators of the sounds that the audience are hearing doesn't stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny.

But does this matter? Only if you care about the fact that this kind of audio/visual sleight of hand allows the marketeers to burrow even deeper into the lives, pockets and subliminal psyches of millions of people. They do this by creating stars in an image they believe will sell most merchandise, (of which the actual music plays a very small part), and feeding their creations to the audience, irrespective of the performers' abilities as musicians. In this Wall Street driven, marketing-created world how you look is everything, and how you sound doesn't matter - that can be fixed by the real talent in the organisation - the producers and editors. Of course movie and record companies have always tried to do this, but the technology available now have given them the ability to create whatever kind of musical Frankenstein monster they want.

Another sad aspect of this is that genuinely talented people can be denied a career in popular music because they don't look right. If you look at Astaire in this clip, he was physically unremarkable in terms of what would be considered glamorous good looks, yet he was a huge star because of his talent. A modern day Fred Astaire, looking the way he did wouldn't have a hope as a front line star - the most he could hope for would be a part in the backing dance troupe to some company-manufactured mannequin. And of course allowing the suits to decide who should succeed in pop music and what kind of music they should play has helped to make the pop scene the sterile musical joke it has become. Brave New World!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Music Plague Continues!


Here in Toronto last night, I was a bit short of time so went into the nearest restaurant to eat. It was called 'Milestones' and it was one of these big cavernous affairs which was full of young-ish people - i was probably the oldest person there by about twenty years. Anyway, you couldn't call what this place had 'background music' since it was seriously foreground! They were pumping out dire House music at a volume that demanded any conversation be conducted in a bellow - which exacerbated the noise caused by a lot of people being a in a high-ceilinged room with hard surface walls. The word cacophony could have been invented to describe the noise in this place.

I was kind of stuck there because I didn't have time to go anywhere else, but why anyone would voluntarily go there to eat is beyond me. It's frightening to think that people have become so inured to noise that they even want to eat in a place where they have to shout to make themselves heard. I guess if they're not bellowing at each other they don't feel they've had a night out....... Scary stuff.

As to the food - well as could be expected in such a place, the culinary arts are not a priority (I think you could safely make it an axiom that the louder the music is in a restaurant is, the worse the food will be). The best that could be said for my 'Thai Red Chicken Curry', was that it didn't taste as bad as it smelled.


(See also The Music Plague)

The Psychology of Perfection



{If you’re interested in more context on this post, have a look at
A Question of Status}


In a recent discussion about the relative status in society of jazz and classical musicians, Lindsey Horner made the following very astute observation:



“The other part of the issue is why classical artists (mere interpreters) get far more respect, (not to mention money and fame) than their comparable jazz counterparts. I think some of that is the fault of jazz artists and how we have presented ourselves and our music. I won't name names, but I have heard even some of the great jazz musicians give lackluster and even just plain lousy performances on any given gig. I have never heard, nor can I imagine ever hearing, Alfred Brendel, Izthak Perlman or the Tokyo String Quartet sounding any less than very, very good, ever”


I completely agree with Lindsey’s observation – I too have seen some great jazz players give less than their best at times. I remember seeing Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette give an extraordinarily disappointing performance at the IAJE several years ago. Nobody, with the exception of DeJohnette, seemed interested in even trying to lift the music above the ordinary and it seemed to me like an exercise in coasting on reputation alone without any apparent feeling of need on behalf of the trio to actually live up to those reputations. It was depressing. And I’ve been stung several times by equally hallowed jazz names turning up and ‘phoning it in’, so to speak.

Yet anytime I’ve seen top rank classical performers (Menuhin, Gary Karr, Jorge Bolet, Ivo Pogorelich) they’ve always given first rate performances. Of course it could be that as far as their own standards were concerned, the performances were uneven – I have no way of knowing that - but even if that were so in their own minds, the performances were never shoddy, unconcerned or flippant at all. All the music was approached and played with the utmost seriousness and application, and a clear desire to serve the music and audience as well as possible.

So if it’s true that sometimes top class performers in jazz seem lackluster and uninterested, while their colleagues in classical music never take that approach, can there be an explanation as to why that should be? Are jazz musicians just more congenitally lazy artistically? Are classical musicians congenitally more serious?

Ever since reading Lindsey’s post about this I’ve been thinking about it and while there can never be any definitive answer to a question like that, I think there are elements at play here which are interesting and pertinent to the whole jazz/classical divide in terms of approach. I believe the different environment in which both musics are learned and are played has a very strong influence on differences in approach, one by-product of which is the aforementioned lapses into apathy sometimes seen in jazz performances. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I also believe the nature of the two musics has a part to play – as follows:

Classical music (with the exception of recently written works) is a known quantity. The huge canon of great music written in this tradition is known inside and out, by performers, critics, and the public. If one plays Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata or a Mozart concerto, or Ravel’s ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’, one is dealing with something that has a performance history and, within certain parameters, an agreed approach to performance. Every note of these pieces is known intimately, sometimes over a period of hundreds of years, by everyone concerned with or interested in classical performance. The scores of these great works are like the scripts of Shakespeare’s plays – they are cultural and artistic totems, the performance of which is seen as being the pinnacle of the art form. Given such an atmosphere of past history and artistic reverence, the reputation and status of the artist can stand or fall, be enhanced or be crushed, by his or her ability to do justice to these works.

If you walk onto the stage (or ‘concert platform’ as they call it in classical music!) and play Brahms’ Piano Concert No. 1 with a good symphony orchestra, the artistic stakes are very high. Nearly everybody in that room – musicians, critics, public – knows every note of this piece. In such a milieu, there is no room for any kind of off-hand approach, any shoddiness or lack of preparation. Technical perfection is usually required at the very least, then on top of that are all the elements of interpretation which play such a big part in the perceived success or failure of a performance of one of these classic pieces. This is why classical musicians will, in learning a piece, or studying it with a teacher, endlessly discuss tiny details at length and in a way that no jazz musician would contemplate. There is a demand in this music for perfection – perfection of technique, of intepretation, or performance.

The fact that perfection – even if it can be agreed what that means – can never be achieved doesn’t alter the demands for it made by audiences and critics alike. The technical perfection of recordings, and the perfection demanded by competitions, has ratcheted up these demands even further in the past forty years or so. This adds a definite nervous edge to classical performances. If there is any failure on the part of the performer to reach the expected technical standard, everything – the silence in the hall, the spotlight on the figure of the soloist, the pre-knowledge of the piece by all in the auditorium - conspires to expose that failure. It’s merciless, and the classical soloist knows it. At the highest levels – the Brendels, Ashkenazys etc. – the pressures and expectations are even higher. A sloppy or ill-prepared performance is not an option for them, unless they want their reputations in the mud.

I’m not suggesting that the reason that such wonderful musicians give such great performances is because of fear, but I do believe that the tradition of playing incredibly well known pieces in public does concentrate the mind a lot. The rules in a classical performance are very clear – the soloist knows them, the critic knows them, and the audience knows them. In such an atmosphere the task of the soloist is clear, the preparation is geared towards that and poor technical and/or attitudinal performances are kept to an absolute minimum.

Jazz musicians operate under a very different tradition – one of improvisation. In this milieu the music performed is not known, the tasks are much less clearly defined or generally agreed, and the performer has much greater freedom both in deciding the shape of each piece and the shape of the programme in general. The player has to create the music on the spot with his or her colleagues, decide the type of music played, the length of the solos the order of the pieces etc. etc. With the responsibility of coming up with the complete musical goods laying much more heavily on the jazz performer, any tiredness or lack of inspiration will automatically have consequences for the music.

In the case of the classical performer, even if they are tired, there is a clear musical road map laid out for them in the form of the score and the performance history and traditions of the piece – the jazz musician does not have the same assistance in the event of tiredness or lack of inspiration. This is not to say that any lacklustre performance by a great jazz musician is automatically because they feel tired or uninspired – of course laziness on the night, and maybe a lack of care on the night could contribute, but I do think the fact that the jazz musician is responsible for much more of the creation of the music than his or her classical counterpart does play a part.

It’s an interesting conundrum – on the one hand it could be seen that with known repertoire and such a demanding audience, the performance stakes are higher for the classical musician. But on the other hand, with so much more responsibility for the totality of the music laying on the jazz musician, the artistic stakes could arguably be said to be higher for them.

The second thing I think can be taken into consideration when examining the sometimes differing performance outlook of classical and jazz musicians is the environment in which performances of the two musics take place. In general classical musicians play in an atmosphere of quiet and respect. The cynosure of all eyes, they perform in environment where the full focus of everyone in the room is on the performer(s). They usually play in good listening conditions too, with no competition from audience chatter, no sound of cash registers, no doors banging or people getting up and down during the performance. And never a sense of the music being in any way treated as subservient to anything else going on in the room.

Jazz musicians on the other hand – all of them, from the totally unknown to the now incredibly famous, have all at one time or another experienced this feeling of having to battle other elements in order to perform their music. The psychological effect on the performers of this can easily be underestimated in my opinion. If the audience don’t care what you’re doing, if they’re not interested in how you’re performing the music, then why should you care?

A very illuminating example of the effect of this lack of audience interest on a great classical musician, when encountering it for the first time, can be found in a fascinating article about an experiment the great Amercian violinist Joshua Bell took part in recently.

This experiment was fascinating in itself, and I would encourage anyone interested in music to read it. In fact it also relates to another post I’ve done on background music –

The Music Plague

It describes an experiment where Bell anonymously went into a Washington Metro station and did some busking, to see if anyone would pay attention to, or notice the difference between one of the world’s greatest violinists and any other busker or street entertainer. You can read the article

Here

But leaving aside the main thrust of that article and returning to the main thrust of this one, there’s a very revealing quote from Bell about one aspect of his experience of playing outside the hallowed walls of the concert hall, where he is a revered performer, playing revered repertoire. Here’s the passage:

"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

". . . ignoring me."

Bell is laughing. It's at himself.

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ."


It’s clear that this sudden realization of his own, what we might call musical mortality, came as a real shock to Bell. But this environment he describes where people are ignoring the performer or may even resent their presence is one that will be familiar to jazz musicians of any stripe. Herbie Hancock or Sonny Rollins may never play in environments like that these days, but they did at one time.

And I believe this experience of sometimes awful playing environments does have an effect on the jazz musician, even when their careers may have risen to the point where they don’t have to endure it any more. If you’ve spent a lot of time playing in less than ideal performance environments, it’s hard to see the performance space as being a temple to music, and the act of performance as a being a ceremonial act in that temple – in the way that classical musicians do. If you add to this the more informal milieu of jazz performance, the greater freedom to take many different approaches from night to night, the lack of audience pre-awareness of the material that will be played and the greater responsibility on the performer to provide the bulk of the musical material I think you have conditions in which an occasional sub-par performance will occur. This is less likely occur in the narrower, goal-driven, more tightly focused, tradition-obsessed world of classical music.

Of course there can be variables in all of the scenarios I’ve put forward – John Coltrane was famous for the unremitting intensity with which he played his music night after night without exception, and there are also known examples of great classical musicians occasionally deviating from the performance straight and narrow. But if we look at the differences in performance practice, history, and playing environments of the two musics, I think we can see how even the great jazz musicians would have occasional lapses in their performance standards in a way that would be rare for a great classical musician.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Music Questionnaire 1 - Ireland


I admit I lifted this idea from Ethan Iverson, but I really enjoyed reading the answers to the questionnaire he sent to musicians he knows. Naturally he did this with exclusively American players, I thought this would be an interesting thing to do with Irish or Irish based musicians too.

Sean Óg (Reed player)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:

1. Melody:

I have been studying the melodies of Hildegard von Bingen recently. A piece like Ave Generosa is facinating in the way it sustains a (strictly speaking) non-repeating melody for over 4 minutes without any lag in beauty and without the help of harmony or accompaniment of any kind.

2. Harmonic language:

Again looking back a few hundred years and enjoying the harmonic rollercoaster of Carlo Gesualdo. You can get a real sense of the excitement of what happens when you move beyond Gregorian style polyphony and an overload of rich, lush colours are weaved into the music.

3. Rhythmic feel:

Not an obvious candidate, but, Captain Beefheart and his magic band circa 1970 really had some interesting approaches to rhythm. Verging between sounding like people who have little to no musical training to tightly scored odd meter grooves, Beefheart manages some of the other-worldly time feel of Thelonious Monk.

4. Classical piece:

Kodaly's 'Nights in the Mountains' a suite for wordless female choir. Hindemith 'Das Marienleben' a song cycle of Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry for soprano and piano - the 1923 version is something I listen to a lot.

5. Jazz album:

Tony Malaby 'Adobe'. Arve Henriksen 'Sakuteiki'.

6. Book on music: (No response)

7 Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:

Miles Davis 'Nefertiti'.

8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very underrated:

Rudi Mahall - bass clarinet.


Ariel Hernandez (Guitarist)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:


1. Melody:

‘Interplay’ – ‘Donna Lee’

2. Harmonic language:

Stella by Starlight - Falling Grace

3. Rhythmic feel:

One note Samba

4. Classical piece:

Bartok Quartets

5. Jazz album:

Coltrane Plays the blues - Bill Evans: You must believe in Spring

6. Book on music:

No Response


7 Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:

Jim Hall - Bill Evans: Undercurrent


8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:

Bach


9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very underrated:

No Response


David Lyttle (Drummer)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:

1. Melody:
 
Bernhard Hermann's score for Hitchcock's 'Vertigo', Stephen Sondheim's 'Sweeney Todd' musical and Danny Elfman's score for Tim Burton's 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' all come to mind for having moving and interesting melodies. 'Moon River' and 'Pure Imagination' are among my favourite jazz standards.


2. Harmony

See Question 1

3. Rhythmic feel:
 
It's difficult to answer this one as there are so many...
 
4. Classical piece:
 
Again there are so many but Bartok's 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta' comes to mind, as well as anything by Debussy, especially his piano works.
 
5. Jazz album:
 
Of the more recent albums I've listened to, Brian Blade's 'Perceptual', Terence Blanchard's 'A Tale of God's Will' and Eric Revis' 'Tales of the Stuttering Mime' are the most memorable to me.

6. Book on music:
 
'Bird Lives', the Ross Russell biography of Charlie Parker and 'Straight, No Chaser', the Leslie Gourse biography of Monk.

7. Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:
 
Pianist Vince Guaraldi's 'A Boy Named Charlie Brown'. Guaraldi's music from the sixties animation 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' was what got me into jazz. He may not have pushed any boundaries but he still produced some beautiful music (mostly piano trio), and got many people into jazz.

8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:
 
The composers I mentioned above (Hermann, Sondheim, Elfman) would probably be the most surprising of my influences. I'd also have to add Elmer Bernstein into this category.

9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very underrated:

No Response



Simon Jermyn (Guitarist/Bassist)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:

1. Melody:

All the melodies on Eftir Pogn (After Silence) by Oskar Gudjonsson and Skuli Sverrisson. Tommy Potts-The Liffey Banks.

2. Harmonic language:

John Dowland's lute songs. Bulgarian Womens choirs. Andrew Hill. Christian Walumrod. Tim Berne.

3. Rhythmic feel:

Q Tip (from the "The Renaissance") the songs ‘You’ and ‘Life is Better’. Charlie Haden/ Ed Blackwell on the Ornette Coleman record "Friends and Neighbours"on the tunes Lets Play and Long Time No See.Ethiopiques Vol 5 (the amazing clapping on 2 and 4 and then adding the triplet eight note before 2 and 4). Richard Davis with any drummer on an Andrew Hill record.

4. Classical piece:

Paul Hindemith-Marienleben 1. Morton Feldman Coptic Light.

5. Jazz album:

Geri Allen Trio-Etudes. Chris Cheek-Guilty. Paul Bley-Footloose

6. Book on music:

Modus Novus by Lars Edlund.

7 Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:

Reid Anderson-The Vastness of Space. Jim Black-Alas No Axis+Habyor. Chris Speed-Emit+Swell Henry.

8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:

Michael Jackson-Bad (the album). Both of Slash's guitar solos on Sweet Child O'Mine by Guns'n'Roses (especially the second one).

9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very underrated:

On electric bass-Skuli Sverrisson, Stomu Takeishi, Tarus Mateen and James Jamerson.
On guitar- Marc Ducret, Hilmar Jensson, Nels Cline, Ben Monder and Derek Bailey


Ronan Guilfoyle (Bassist)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:


1. Melody:

JS Bach - “Largo“ from Concerto for Flute and Strings in G Minor (extraordinary non-repeating melody), ‘Falling Grace’, by Steve Swallow (brilliant circular melody that feels like it has no beginning or end)

2. Harmonic language:

George Russell - ‘Jazz Workshop’, Kenny Wheeler - ‘Deer Wan’, Gyorgy Ligeti - ‘Piano Études’

3. Rhythmic feel:

Elvin Jones on Wayne Shorter’s ‘Black Nile’ - the epitome of polyrhythmic swing, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters ‘Thrust’ - savage grooves, Steve Coleman and Five Elements ‘Rhythm People’ - funk meets odd metres, meets chromaticism.

4. Classical piece:

Bartok String Quartet No.4 (though I could have chosen any of the six), Henri Dutilleux ‘Symphony No. 1, J.S. Bach ‘Brandenburg Concertos’

5. Jazz album: John Coltrane ‘Transition’, Keith Jarrett ‘My Song’, Charlie Parker ‘Complete Savoy Sessions’

6. Book on music:

‘Louis Armstrong, an Extravagant Life’ by Laurence Bergreen, ‘The Rest is Noise’ by Alex Ross, ‘History of Jazz’ by Ted Gioia, ‘From Swing to Bop’ by Ira Gitler

7. Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:

Dave Holland ‘Emerald Tears’, Miles Davis ‘At the Plugged Nickel’, Steve Coleman ‘Black Science’, New and Used ‘Souvenir’

8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:

Jack Bruce’s bass playing with Cream, and the melodies of Burt Bacharach.

9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very underrated:

George Duvivier, Tommy Williams (bassis with the Jazztet), Steve Swallow

Mark McNight (Guitarist)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:

1. Melody:

Dave Binney's Welcome to Life album, track #4 Frez. Great album, this tune contains two very different but equally amazing grooves both of which have really interesting and appealing melodies.

2. Harmonic language:

Brad Mehldau's reharms during his solos on pretty much any standard tune but especially ballads from the Art of the Trio era (Blame It On My Youth, Bewitched, etc).

3. Rhythmic feel:

Jesse Van Ruller, anything he's ever done but if I had to pick one album would probably go for Circles, some great compositions on that record. One of the bounciest swing feels I've ever heard.

4. Classical piece:

No response

5. Jazz album:

Brad Mehldau Art of the Trio Vol 1

6. Book on music:

The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrick, great and thought provoking resource full of ideas which could be generalised to any instrument.

7 Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:

Brad Mehldau Art of the Trio Vol1, never get tired of this, or any of the others for that matter.

8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:

Many singer/songwriters, to keep it Irish I guess the music of people like Fionn Regan or Foy Vance would be good examples. For me when music in this genre is done well the constant primary concern of the performer/composer is the emotional impact upon the listener which is always a great reminder to me of what I want to do with music.

9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very underrated:

I probably haven't heard of him/her yet! So many great guitarists all over the place.....maybe Tim Miller, seems like not so many people know about him yet.


Michael Buckley (Saxophonist)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:


1. Melody:

One I love that is not a well known melody is UMMG (Upper Manhattan Medical Group) by Billy Strayhorn .

2. Harmonic language:

Everything by Duke Ellington and Steely Dan

3. Rhythmic feel:

I love funk – back beat grooves, so Herbie’s Headhunters is great. For swing feel, ‘Miles Smiles’ , and ‘Four’ by Joe Henderson

4. Classical piece:

Mahler's 5th Symphony

5. Jazz album:

Joe Henderson ‘Four’ and ‘Tetragon’ - 'Coltrane Crescent', 'Ballads' - Rollins ‘The Bridge’, ‘Saxophone Colossus '

6. Book on music:

In my opinion Mark Levine’s Theory Book

7 Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:

‘The Bridge’ Sonny Rollins

8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:

Woody Shaw

9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very underrated:

Craig Handy



Joe O Callaghan (Guitarist)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:

1. Melody:

`My one and only love` (Coltrane and Johnny Hartman) ; `Bye
Bye Blackbird` (Miles) ; ‘4;15 Bradford Executive` (Allan
Holdsworth - Magnificent melodic guitar solo) : `1 4 U `(John
McLaughlin, Floating Point - Great simple melody and fantastic flute solos).

2. Harmonic language:

Marilyn Crispell – plays freely with an amazing logic.

3. Rhythmic feel:

Mind Ecology (Shakti - wonderful groove and sound). Anything with Coltrane/Elvin ; ‘Thrust’-Headhunters.

4. Classical piece:

Bartok’s Violin concerto No.2 (Henryk Szeryng,violin - incredibly beautiful and intense), Villa-Lobos 5 preludes for guitar .

5. Jazz album:

Miles Davis Heard `Round The World.(It`s got everything!!), Transition-John Coltrane (Power, intensity, beauty)

6. Book on music:

Effortless Mastery-Kenny Werner (a life-changing book), Bob Dylan –‘Chronicles’, (very well written), ‘An Extravagant Life’ (Louis Armstrong story...entertaining and what a great man)

7 Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:

Out on his own - Louis Stewart, A love Supreme - Coltrane .

8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:

Jimmy Raney – great understated player, very inventive and fluid.

9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very
underrated:

Allan Holdsworth..doesn’t seem to be recognised by the jazz
community…..a very unique voice on guitar and technically
magnificent, wonderfully melodic. His playing on the Synthaxe at times is breath-taking.


Francesco Turrisi (Pianist)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:

1. Melody:

Round Midnight, Retrato em branco e preto (Jobim), Beatriz (Chico Buarque)

2. Harmonic Language:

All the music by Guinga, late 16th century music (DeMacque, Gesualdo, Luzzaschi) late Brahms piano music, Scriabin...Messiaen

3. Rhythmic Feel:

Most Monk tunes, the Atomic Basie band, Tira Poeira

4. Classical Piece:

Too much choice...Chopin Ballade n.1, Stravinsky Rite of Spring, Ligeti Atmospheres

5. Jazz Album:

Coltrane and Monk at Carnegie Hall, the early Jimmy Giuffre trios

6. Book on Music:

Rough Guide to World Music

7. Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:

Bremen and Lausanne by Keith Jarrett

8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:

John Coltrane

9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very underrated:

Dunno if he is underrated but he def. should be more recognized...Paul Bley
...and not on my instrument...John Ruocco of course...



Aoife Doyle (Vocalist)

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting:

1. Melody:

Zingaro - A.C. Jobim, Deluge - Wayne Shorter

2. Harmonic language:

No response

3. Rhythmic feel:

Balkan Gypsy music

4. Classical piece:

Flute and Harp concerto in C Major. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

5. Jazz album:

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane 'In a Sentimental Mood'

6. Book on music:

Sri Chinmoy, Man Perfection in god satisfaction. Chapter 9: Music and meditation, Sound and silence

7 Name a great recording by someone that has influenced you:

Sarah Vaughan 'At Mister Kelly's'

8. Name someone whose music has influenced you, but that people who know your music would probably be surprised by:

Elvis (Not a joke!)

9. Name a player on your instrument whom you think is very underrated:

Esperanza Spalding