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

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Listening again to ‘Emerald Tears’

I was teaching bass today and brought a few great bass recordings to the class to play for the students. Among them was Dave Holland’s solo bass masterpiece ‘Emerald Tears’. I remember hearing this a year or two after it came out in 1978, and being enthralled by it, though I had very little idea what the hell was going on technically – either in terms of the playing of the bass or the musical concepts underpinning the recording. Coming as I was at that time from a very bebop oriented background, a lot of the music on the recording sounded very free to me, and free music (or what was known in one catch-all phrase by beboppers such as myself as free music) was not something I usually had a positive reaction to. But this was different - although I didn’t understand the structures or musical modus operandi of this recording it struck me forcibly that each piece had a tremendous sense of forward motion. And despite my lack of understanding of it, for reasons I couldn’t explain, listening to it made always me want to go and practice – it still has that effect on me!

Much later I had the chance to study with Dave Holland – by this time I was much more au fait with more open styles of playing and much more into it as an improvising concept too. So to have the chance to study with Dave was both exciting in the anticipation, and revelatory in the detail. Dave was a great teacher and what really impressed me was the way he organised his materials, both as a teacher and as a player. I knew he was a great straight ahead player and I guessed that he would have a lot of concrete suggestions to make concerning playing within changes and form – and indeed he did. What I wasn’t expecting however was how he took exactly the same approach to more open playing. I was expecting him to be more vague about this, maybe to do the ‘it’s just a feeling’ kind of thing you sometimes hear from ‘free’ players. But not a bit of it – he had a slew of suggestions to make, lots of devices and strategies for developing motifs and ideas in the more open waters of music that he swam in so comfortably. By this point I was very familiar with Dave’s playing and recordings, but even so this revelation of being able to apply such methodical ideas to apparently open form music was a serious eye-opener for me. Armed with this knowledge, the forward motion sensation I had felt instinctively when I first listened to Emerald Tears made intellectual sense – I could now hear the application to the music of the kinds of things Dave talked about in his classes. So I could appreciate it all the more now and get into it in a way that had not been possible before.

But despite my evolving appreciation of this recording, it was a while longer before yet another aspect to Emerald Tears became apparent to me – its place in the history of the evolution of jazz bass. I guess this ‘long view’ is something that becomes more apparent as you yourself spend a longer time with the music. It’s now almost thirty years since I first heard Dave’s masterpiece and the hindsight that spending this kind of time with the music can bring has allowed me to see the importance of this recording and its place in the history of the bass.

This is a revolutionary recording – it revealed a new way to play the bass, a way that was both in the tradition yet innovative in all kinds of ways. First of all the idea of a solo bass recording was in itself incredibly forward thinking. If you’re going to make a solo bass recording, and you’re not going to use any studio/multi-tracking/electronic techniques, then you’d better have a lot of creative and technical weaponry to bring with you! Because you’re armed with just four strings, your technique and your imagination. And Dave more than rises to that challenge – Emerald Tears is a tour de force of both technique and imagination. But even leaving aside this fantastic musical achievement, another thing that’s really interesting about Emerald Tears from a bassists point of view, is that Dave charted an individual course between the two major streams of modern bass playing - one which was independent of, yet referential to both.

In the early 1960s the tradition of bass playing in jazz split into two major streams – one following in a direct line from Jimmy Blanton and including players such as Ray Brown, Paul Chambers and Ron Carter. The other stream was instigated in the late 50s and early 60s by Scott La Faro who showed a generation of bassists a whole new way of playing the instrument and interacting with the other musicians. After La Faro’s premature death this tradition was continued by such players as Gary Peacock, Chuck Israels and Eddie Gomez. Bassists who appeared in the mid-60s and afterwards would usually identify with one or the other school of bass playing, and the influence of that school could usually be clearly heard. But what Dave Holland did was show another way – one that used the rhythmic power and resonance of the traditional school, while exploiting the innovations of the later one.

But not only did he draw on these two traditions, he also brought a bunch of original things of his own to the bass playing table – extended arco techniques, extensive use of motifs, and an incredibly developed rhythmic sense. In this latter regard, the use of rhythm on Emerald Tears is extraordinary - at times, in a kind of extended recognition of one of its major functions in jazz, the bass is almost used like a percussion instrument. I’ve never heard a more powerful exposition of the rhythmic possibilities of the bass in creative music than on Emerald Tears. Small motifs are developed, extended and mutated through the use of rhythm, and the rhythmic possibilities of an instrument with such a large body and long string length are exploited to the full.

And this is one of the things I enjoy most about Emerald Tears – it is a BASS recording! So often bassists try and emulate other instruments in terms of soloing – the bebop masters who translated Charlie Parker’s language for the bass, the modern electric players who are as fleet as any guitarist or saxophonist. But this recording could only have been made by a bassist – huge amounts of it are untranslate-able to any other instrument. On Emerald Tears Dave Holland not only puts together a great programme of music that holds the attention of the listener for all of its 40+ minutes, but he also makes a recording that celebrates the bass as a unique instrument with qualities and characteristics that can only be found on the bass. For that alone all jazz bassists should be grateful.

If you haven’t heard/got it already, check it out -

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Wayne Shorter - again!

Just saw this great quote from Wayne, regarding creativity:

'What I'm doing is pounding at the door of creativity. That takes curiosity and courage to turn the handle and go through it. I want to let people know the door is there.'

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Question of Status II - Miles quote

(See the 'A Question of Status' post for the context of this one)

Accidentally stumbled across this quote (in a blog by somebody else), from Miles Davis, from his autobiography. He's talking about the difficulty he and Gil Evans had with the 'Sketches of Spain' sessions. His dismissal of classical musicians goes much further than I would, but it was interesting to read his thoughts on something that I'd been thinking and writing about only recently -and of course it's put in the kind of colourful way that he was always such a master of.

...Legit drummers can't solo because they have no musical imagination to improvise. Like most other classical players, they play only what you put in front of them. That's what classical music is; the musicians only play what's there and nothing else. They can remember, and have the ability of robots. In classical music, if one musician isn't like the other, isn't all the way a robot, like all the rest, then the other robots make fun of him or her, especially if they're black. That's all that is, that's all the classical music is in terms of the musicians who play it - robot shit. And people celebrate them like they're great. Now there's some great classical music by great classical composers - and there's some great players up in there, but they have to become soloists - but it's still robot playing and most of them know it deep down, though they wouldn't admit it in public.

Friday, March 27, 2009

What is Jazz?

This is actually an older essay - I did it several years ago, but I think it's still a relevant question - at least for me!

What is Jazz?

This question has not only been asked ever since the J word was associated with an emerging musical form, but is also almost certainly guaranteed to raise a groan from the reader of any essay which uses 'What is Jazz?' as a title ‚ myself included. However, in these days of the post modern/eclecticism/all inclusive philosophy on the one hand, and die hard conservatism/neo classical/preservation of the 'pure' tradition, on the other, - the question of what is jazz, is a valid one for everyone who loves this music, plays it, or teaches it.

Why? Well identity for a start ‚ if we're to develop and sustain a life in creative music, in the music we call 'jazz', I believe it becomes ever more important to identify what exactly are the musical and philosophical values that make us what we are ‚ jazz musicians. And more than ever, we need to understand our motivation, because jazz is quite marginalised in society today. Unlike the mainstream American jazz of the early to mid-20th Century, which grew directly from the community and society that surrounded it, jazz today is not the music of the society that surrounds it ‚ in some ways. In many ways I believe jazz today does not directly reflect the society in which it finds itself.

This itself was a problematic conclusion for me to come to. In the conservative‚ v -innovative debate, I'm firmly on the side of the innovative argument. I believe that to try and recreate the music of the past is a false aesthetic for a creative musician to follow, since a truly improvising musician must reflect their direct influences, most of which must come from the society that surrounds them and the music of that society.

So, if I believe that, how can I also hold the seemingly opposed view that jazz is not a direct outgrowth of the society it finds itself in? Well I extricate myself from that particular contradiction by the following reasoning ‚ jazz today is in some ways a product of the society it find itself in, and in other ways far outside it. Let me explain.

First of all ‚ how is jazz today reflective of society?

Jazz today, or what is called jazz, shows a bewildering array of influences ‚ rock music, contemporary classical, world music, electronic dance music, hip-hop etc. etc. ‚ and, of course, the American swing idiom, which is the original rhythmic source of the music. Different groups and musicians reflect different influences, sometimes mixing more than one element in their musical outlook. This eclectic myriad of styles and influences is very much a reflection of our society. We live in the information age ‚ never has so much information been available to everybody, via mass-media and the internet. Music is no different - go into any decent mainstream music store and one is met by a baffling array of artists and styles, and literally anything, even the most obscure music forms, are available through the internet.

We are bombarded with musical information, and it is hardly surprising that jazz musicians, as they have always done, use this information to inform their own music, taking inspiration where they find it. In this way the music is absolutely reflective of the society in which it lives. Globalism is bulldozing local traditions in all sorts of ways, and in jazz the same could be argued. 50 years ago a young musician living in a small Spanish or Irish, or Indian town would probably be exposed, for the most part, to Spanish, Irish, or Indian music respectively. His or her counterpart today would have been exposed to a much wider range of musics ‚ and this is reflected in the music we hear from jazz musicians now. In this way, jazz is very reflective of its environment.

So how is jazz today not reflective of society?

One of the things that I find most attractive about jazz is the democratic and social nature of the music. The music is about process rather than result ‚ jazz being best experienced live, where one can experience the creation of a piece of music, brought about by the efforts of a group of people working together, and communicating with each other. Yet within the tradition of this sociable music, the idea of individualism is not only encouraged, but highly prized. So, here we have a music which is completely dependent on co-operation between the participants, yet which at the same time encourages each to make as personal and individual a statement as possible. What a wonderful ethos!

And what an alien ethos in today's society! We live in an era of conformity ‚ despite what we are told by advertisers, trying to convince us that buying their products will somehow make us different or special. The name of the game today is sell, sell, sell. And never has it been easier for advertisers to reach its customers. Through the same mass media and technology which allows us access to so much music, comes a relentless barrage of advertising, product placement, corporate identity information, and a general haranguing of the population to buy this or that.

In order to maximise the sales of their products, huge global corporations have been formed which can send their message to every corner of the earth. One of the results of this is the gradual bulldozing of national identity ‚ people in Japan, the US, China, France, Brazil etc. often wear the same terrible clothes, eat the same terrible food, listen to the same terrible music. People are happy to be walking advertising boards for global clothing companies, proudly sporting their logos on their shirts or footwear. Never has the world undergone such a tidal wave of sameness under the name of choice. The result is a conformity that threatens to engulf every aspect of our lives.

In this milieu, jazz is very much out of step with the society. It stands out as a beacon of individuality in a sea of sameness, commercialism and mediocrity ‚ and thank goodness for that! Its prizing of individuality is a wonderful thing, allowing a rare opportunity for people to express themselves in a way that is not governed by an advertising executive or an accountant. This is not to say that jazz hasn't been touched by the same market forces as all other musics, but I think it's fair to say that it is less prevalent in jazz.

This is where I think the question of 'what is jazz' becomes important and interesting. If we agree that jazz is an oasis of creativity in a commercial desert, then surely it becomes important for us to be able to not only identify the aesthetic values of jazz, but also the musical values ‚ the musical aesthetic that separates it from other forms of music and allows us to identify with a tradition, and a list of great musical antecedents. In this way we can clearly identify what is important to us, both musically and aesthetically, and clearly make a musical statement every time we play.

Of course now we come to the thorny issue of what exactly 'jazz' is in musical terms. Can it even be explained? Can it be reduced to a few principles, or is that impossible? Is every effort to explain it either too all-inclusive ‚ where almost everything could be called jazz of some sort or another ‚ or too exclusive ‚ where a very narrow definition excludes almost everything? These are hard questions to answer, and all I can do is offer the solution that I've come up with myself, and with which I form my own opinions about music I play, and music I hear.

Wynton Marsalis, when asked what jazz was, baldly stated, "Blues and Swing". To him this is the simple answer ‚ the music evolved within a certain tradition ‚ blues and swing ‚ and once other influences became apparent in the music ‚ i.e. rock music ‚ it ceased to be jazz anymore. While I have a certain sympathy with where that argument is coming from ‚ the desire to preserve what he sees as a tradition under threat ‚ at the same time I think this is far too simplistic an idea and is insupportable from both a creative and historic point of view.

If you hold onto an idea of a 'pure' form of jazz you are entering very dangerous waters. Since jazz is a music that originated from an accretion of musical information coming from several different musical cultures, at what point does one cut off the inclusion of any new pieces of information? Who decides that this piece of harmonic information was acceptable, but that is not? Who decides that the influence of Latin rhythms are acceptable in jazz, but that funk rhythms are not? Jazz has evolved and taken in influences constantly. This happened from jazz's earliest days right into the 1960s ‚ which seems to be the cut-off point for Marsalis as far as his notion of the legitimate development of the tradition is concerned. But why were the influences that entered jazz up to this point ‚ Latin rhythms, chord substitution, and modal harmony for example ‚ acceptable, and the later ones ‚ funk rhythms, free playing and classical compositional practices for example ‚ not?

These decisions seem far too arbitrary to me and are far too subjective, being based on the likes and dislikes of the arbiter ‚ in this case Marsalis. It also neglects to take account of that other great jazz tradition ‚ innovation and change, which is the engine that has driven the evolution of the music. And it excludes far too much music that is clearly based on a jazz music ethos, and that uses jazz techniques almost exclusively.

I guess it has come to the point where I have to state my own opinion on what is and isn't jazz ‚ I can't sit on the fence any longer! I believe that jazz has become an incredibly broad music, and that it is a global music now ‚ one which is played and developed by musicians all over the world, not just America. A music where innovators come from many countries and cultures and who bring their unique perspective into the music to enrich it and help keep it vibrant. So in this vast musical landscape, how can we identify any more what is or isn't jazz? Well, for me, this is what I see as being jazz:

Jazz is a largely improvised music, in which all members of the group improvise, and which is informed by the Afro-American rhythmic tradition.

I think this definition is broad enough to include all of the innovations which are taking place in the music today, and the influences that are coming from so many sources, while at the same time setting limits as to what can be called jazz ‚ preserving some sort of ethos with which we can identify with, and be a part of, rather than being part of a church that is so broad it encompasses everybody from Megadeth to Ligeti.

So maybe I could give a few examples of this explanation of jazz in action ‚ or how I would apply my definition to different artists. Indian music, though fulfilling the criteria of being largely improvised throughout the ensemble, has no influence from the Afro-American tradition, so isn't jazz. Steve Coleman's music, though rarely, if ever engaging with swing, involves many aspects of the Afro-American rhythmic tradition, and the group improvises both collectively and individually and therefore, by my definition is jazz.

My definition is broad enough to allow currently active musicians as disparate as Wynton Marsalis, Jan Garbarek, John Zorn, and John McLaughlin to be seen as part, albeit very different parts, of the same great tradition. At the same time it allows me to exclude Kenny G! In Kenny G's group he improvises after a fashion for sure, but his group is constrained to play the same backing time after time, therefore breaching the stipulation that the music must be improvised by the group ‚ not just the individual. For the same reason, I have grave reservations about the current vogue in Europe of mixing jazz gestures with electronic dance music. This has the same problems for me, in a jazz sense, as what Kenny G does, in that the soloist is improvising over a set background that cannot, and will not change. In this way the music skirts the social element that true group improvising - that I mentioned as being such a wonderful part of the jazz ethos ‚ entails.

So, with this simple formula, I find it relatively easy to negotiate the plethora of differing styles that can currently be heard in what I would consider to be contemporary jazz. At the same time it allows me to also clearly identify core values that can be clearly understood, and acted upon.

Jazz is a great gift to humanity, and now, maybe more than ever before, I believe it has much to offer the world. I think it's important for us to be proud of being jazz musicians, and to believe in the importance of what we do. And in order to believe in that importance it's necessary to understand exactly what it is we do. Hence the necessity for all aspiring jazz musicians, teachers and lovers to ask themselves ‚ 'what is jazz'? If you can answer that satisfactorily for yourself, everything within the music takes on more meaning - and this has to be a good thing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Question of Status

OK, this is going to get controversial. I was watching a wonderful classical pianist named Valentina Litsisa on Youtube the other day. She was playing Chopin’s Étude No. 10 – a ferociously difficult piece that she played with amazing aplomb, making light of the technical difficulties and giving the piece a serious lash.

here it is

An amazing performance by a great musician. I was so knocked out by it I watched it twice over, but about half-way through the second time through I suddenly thought ‘It’s amazing but……………. not one note of it is hers” And this set me thinking again about something which I’ve been thinking about for a while. At the highest level – can you compare great classical performers with great jazz peformers? And if you can, who, if anyone, takes the spoils?

I am a huge fan of classical music and musicians - I’ve read biographies of Yehudi Menuhin (one of my heroes), Glenn Gould, Artur Rubenstein, have read and re-read a book of interviews with concert pianists etc. When you read about musicians such as Rostropovich and Menuhin and their close relationship with great composers such as Shostakovitch and Bartok who wrote music especially for them, and you get into the lives they lead and their status in society, you realise you’re dealing with giants of music, by any standard. When you listen to them playing – their technical skill, their extraordinary feats of memory, the subtlety of interpretation, the understanding of the music of the composer etc. this confirms their greatness. All of that is unquestionable as far as I’m concerned - these are great great musicians. But…………

Again that ‘but’ – because, you can’t get away from the fact that these musicians didn’t produce anything of their own. Alfred Brendel is considered a God of German repertoire, and is treated like a god yet we’ve never heard a note of Alfred Brendel’s own work – his whole career has been based on music provided for him by others. Ditto Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Ashkenazy, Stern, etc. etc. It could be that some of these have done some composing, but I don’t think so, and if they did it was a very minor and neglected part of their activity, and not one they chose to feature in their performances.

Now I don’t mean to infer that any player of original music is by definition greater than any musician who is only an interpreter. A hack jazz musician playing a tired and cliché-ridden blues does not inhabit the same universe as a Richter or a Barenboim. But at the very top of the jazz profession, if you take the real giants of jazz, and you compare them to their counterparts in classical music, no matter how great they may be, I think the jazz guys have the edge on them.

Take such musicians as John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Parker, and Louis Armstrong - here you have a list of musicians who were (or are) not just great virtuosos on their instruments but extraordinarily creative as well. They combine the virtues that in classical music are usually embodied by two people – the composer and the performer/interpreter. In the case of Armstrong, Parker, Davis and Coltrane, they were not only great players on their instruments, but they changed music itself and their influence was felt far beyond the confines of their respective instruments. Richter was one of the greatest pianists of all time, but how many violinists did he influence? How much difference did Menuhin make to the world of pianism? But Charlie Parker, who was an alto saxophonist, influenced the playing of every jazz performer who came after him, regardless of instrument.

So, the bottom line – I believe that Wayne Shorter is a a greater and more important figure in music than Alfred Brendel, that Ashkenazy does not match up to to John Coltrane – the creator of ‘A Love Supreme, and great as someone like Rostropovich might have been, Miles Davis was even greater. These giant figures in jazz combine instrumental performance at the highest level, with a level of creativity and originality of thought and conception that their counterparts in classical music cannot match.

This opinion is one I’ve only come to recognize recently – I was almost afraid to come to this conclusion – so great is the status of these famous classical performers, and indeed so great was my own admiration for them. It’s almost like heresy to consider someone like Itzhak Perlman to be a lesser musician than someone else – but I have to admit, I DO believe that musicians such as Charlie Parker are greater musicians and more important figures in music than someone like Itzhak Perlman, great violinist and musician though he undoubtedly is.

In the end, does it matter? Probably not – we need the Oistrakhs and Kissins of this world to play all this great music that’s been written for them and their antecedents, just as we need the Parkers and Coltranes for the other stuff. But it does bother me that in general the jazz musicians do not get the status they and their achievements deserve. The great classical virtuosi are treated almost as if they were the creators of the music they play – Brendel being a particular case in point – he is so deified in his world that you’d almost think he WAS Beethoven! These musicians live in a world of privilege and status that even the greatest jazz musicians can only dream about. And it’s this disparity in recognition that bothers me more and more – these classical musicians may be great, but they don’t produce a note of their own music, yet they’re lauded as being the greatest musicians in the world. But the people I believe to be truly the greatest musicians in the world still struggle to achieve anything like the status and rewards they deserve for their achievements.

OK, I’ve stuck my head above the parapet and said it – now discuss!

PS Don’t get me started on how overrated conductors are!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wayne Shorter - addendum

Just thinking about this thing where older musicians take their foot off the creative pedal when entering their sixties, and citing Wayne as an example of the opposite of this. A few more guys who spring to mind who continue to be an example to us all in terms of always stepping up to the plate every time they play -

Jim Hall
Roy Haynes
Lee Konitz
Kenny Wheeler

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Devil’s Staircase

Recently been listening a lot again to Gyorgy Ligeti’s Piano Études – wow! I know them for over ten years now but they still evoke the wow response in me every time I hear them. And the funny thing is that I was a latter-day convert to Ligeti. All my contemporary music composer friends used to tell me that he was the man, but I never got it, and I went as far as feeling he was one of those ‘emperor’s new clothes’ figures whose reputation far outstripped his actual achievements. How wrong I was!

And it was the Études that woke me up, I remember hearing them for the first time on the radio while I was driving, and the car nearly left the road……. They’re amazing – so full of invention and if, as I am, you’re interested in all things rhythmic then these are masterclasses in the creative use of advanced rhythmic techniques. Complex polyrhythms infest these pieces yet, unlike a lot of contemporary classical music that uses complex rhythmic material, the pieces are so grounded in pulse you can really perceive the forward motion in the music.

Ligeti achieves extraordinary effects such as using two contrasting rhythms that when played together create the sensation of a third independant rhythm. Listening, you get the feeling that someone has slipped in the studio and started playing a second piano. And the music is sonically beautiful too – a piece like ‘Arc en Ciel’ manages to be both rhythmically complex and beautiful at the same time.

I’d highly recommend you check this music out if you haven’t already. The best exponent of them is Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and his recording of them on Sony Classical takes some beating. He also made a great recording called ‘African Rhythms’ where he juxtaposes Central African Pygmy music (one of the influences on the Études) with the Ligeti pieces – really imaginative.

And speaking of imaginative, have look at this very imaginatively filmed version, and great performance of, ‘L’escalier du Diable’ (the Devil’s Staircase) by Greg Andersen on Youtube –

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Music Plague

The English critic and composer Constant Lambert, writing in his book on music ”Music Ho” in 1934, devoted an entire chapter to what he called ‘the appalling availability of music’. He was bemoaning the popularity of the radio and what he saw as its role in cheapening music by allowing it to invade everyday life, thereby degrading it and creating a ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ scenario.

Well if Lambert was alive today he’d turn in his grave, as the mangled saying goes. I was in Grafton Street in Dublin this morning, and accompanying my wife into a clothes shop, (though i’m sure they’d prefer to be called a ‘boutique’), called ‘River Island’ was assaulted by pounding music the minute I stepped over the threshold. No surprise there of course, if you step into a clothes shop you can pretty much budget for this kind of aural abuse, and that’s been true for a long time. Clothes shops seem to feel that unless they have what they consider to be cool music thundering from the speakers, then the customers won’t recognize just how cool the clothes they sell are. Strange but true.

But this kind of thing is much more widespread than being something that merely lurks in clothes shops – it’s pretty much everywhere. It’s spread to such an extent that most people don’t even notice it any more. As I was standing there trying to ignore the racket, I began thinking about how rampant this kind of thing now is, you can find it in almost any kind of shop. As an experiment I decided to enter a few different shops immediately adjacent to River Island and see what was happening on the in-store music front there. The results were as follows:

Burger King: Tinny pop music being played through cheap speakers

Shoe Shop: Bass-heavy techno-crap

Marks and Spencers: Madonna-esque pop

Bus Stop (newsagents): MOR pop music from a radio station interspersed with inane jabber from a DJ speaking a grotesque approximation of an American accent

I should also mention that as I criss-crossed the street between these shops I was assailed each time by the noise from a busker playing heavy metal style guitar noodling, blasting through a battery powered amp. The whole thing, as I moved quickly between shops and across the street, was like a musical nightmare – in a space of about 10 square metres, loud and completely unrelated music blasting at you from every quarter. The one exception to this was in Weir’s jewellers, they obviously not feeling that background music was required, and I have to say that stepping into the silence of Weir’s after the cacophony of the other shops was like having an aural bath.

Sometimes you have to take a step back to see just how bad this curse of inescapable music has become. It’s not only shops that spew out mindless background noise – restaurants too have fallen victim to it, hotel foyers, supermarkets (pioneers in the field in fact), doctor’s waiting rooms, elevators (also pioneers), being put on hold on the phone etc. etc.

There are two awful aspects to this – one is the fact that we have become a society for which silence is some kind of terrifying condition which must be avoided at any cost. We go from home to work to leisure surrounded by a meaningless musical porridge without which we feel exposed – God forbid we should have to hear the sound of our own voices or those of others without the aural anaesthetic provided by cheap music.

And the other awful aspect to this relates to music itself. Music has become cheapened and degraded by its use as aural wallpaper to accompany every aspect of daily life. People have become desensitized to it and can enter a place like River Island, have loud music pumped at them, and not even notice it. If we go back to the early 20th Century, to the period just before the widespread use of music dissemination devices like the radio and record player, we go back to how music used to be. Up to that point in human history the only way to hear music was to have someone play it for you live, or to play it yourself. In such an environment, what a special place music must have had in people’s lives, what an event it must have been to hear music played! And what a contrast to now – where music is everywhere – cheap, ubiquitous, degraded and demoted to the position of a commodity used to enhance the selling of other commodities.

And not much to be done about it either unfortunately – the plague is too widespread and most people are so used to it they’re not even aware of its presence. For myself, even I tune it out most of the time, with occasional eruptions of awareness and exasperation like this morning. I do make a point of asking that music be turned down in restaurants if I feel it’s necessary – usually evoking a polite response from the staff who doubtless privately (or sometimes not so privately), think I’m a crank. One time in Anthony Bourdain’s restaurant in New York I think a waiter actually turned the music UP in response to my request to turn it down – doubtless just to teach me a lesson! A friend of mine, the great French violinist Dominique Pifarely told me that he includes a clause in his contracts that no music is to be played before his concerts, or during the intermission because he believes that when the musicians play it should be an event, and should be the first music heard by the audience – not just the continuation of something that was coming from the speakers as the audience comes in. And he’s right!

A few years ago here there was a little controversy because the Irish Music Rights Organisation insisted that commercial premises that play music must pay for a licence to do so. And the shops resisted it but thankfully IMRO prevailed and made them pay. But not enough in my opinion, they should double, triple or even quadruple the charge to the bastards for the role they’ve played in the spreading of this plague of aural pollution and the cheapening and degrading of the gift of music.

The Rhythm Book – 10 Years Later……….

I was putting a copy of ‘Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation’, the book I’ve written on various rhythmic techniques, into an envelope the other day and was shocked to notice that it was first published 10 years ago. It really doesn’t seem that long ago that I received the first shipment of these books from the printer – I remember looking at what seemed to be a mountain of boxes and thinking to myself that twenty years from now I’d probably be keeping the majority of these books under my bed! But, to my constant surprise, the book still sells and people still seem interested in it, and it is in fact now in its third edition.

The fact that there’s still a demand for the book I believe says something about the rhythmic direction jazz has been going towards over the past 10 or 15 years. It would be great if I could claim that I predicted this move and set about writing a book that would cater to people coming to this new interest in rhythm, but that’s far from the truth. The origins of the book were far more prosaic and practical than they were prophetic.

The origins of the book

Almost twenty years ago I became fascinated with the possibilities of expanding my own rhythmic language and I set about investigating ways both to find rhythmic information, and to find ways of practicing this information in order to incorporate it into my playing and my music. I looked in many different directions for this information, finding lots of fascinating stuff in African music, Balkan music, Arabic music, Turkish music, contemporary classical music, jazz, and in particular, Indian music. I adapted this information in different ways, sometimes incorporating an idea or technique directly into my own playing or music, and other times adapting it or only using part of the information. In some situations I figured out my own ways of working on things that came from no other source than my own instinct and trial and error processes. All of this research and activity was directed towards my own musical development, as I assembled a collection of techniques and ideas that I could use and work with.

I never had any pedagogical intent when I started out on this road – it never occurred to me that this might be something that others would be interested in. That came a bit later, almost by accident. At the beginning I began working on my own and I was also fortunate enough to be able to work with two other musicians – my brother Conor on drums and the guitarist Mike Nielsen – who were equally into the idea of developing new rhythmic techniques, particularly as they related to jazz in general and standard playing in particular. So we worked away separately and together and put together a body of work and a rhythmic philosophy that we found worked for us.
And that was the extent of our ambitions as far as the rhythmic information went – to find something that worked for us individually and collectively and that we could work with and develop.

It was only as I began to discuss this rhythmic stuff with other musicians outside the trio, and outside Ireland, that I began to realize that what I was doing, and what the trio was doing, was not in the mainstream, and that I had uncovered a lot of material that was not commonly known in the jazz world. General reaction was a mixture of bafflement and enthusiasm, and a couple of musicians told me that I should, at the very least, start teaching some of this information and getting it out there. The great saxophonist Dave Liebman was particularly enthusiastic and encouraging to me in suggesting that I develop this rag-bag of ideas and techniques into a comprehensible package that could be put into a book and taught in schools. He continually prodded me – as only he can! – and stayed on my case until he convinced me that this was something I should do, and I’ll always be eternally grateful to him for that.

The eventual publishing of the book

And so I eventually did it – the first ‘edition’ was a kind of large pamphlet which I put together during a two-week family vacation in Cork in 1991 – which just goes to show you how much fun it is to go on vacation with me! A little while later I went into the studio with the guys from the trio and we recorded all the metric modulation examples that are still used on the recording today, (along with some of the odd metre material). When I think back on it now and realize that we recorded all those very demanding modulations without using a click track - and most them first takes – in one six-hour session, it makes me realize how rhythmically focused we were at that time. The results of that recording was issued on a cassette tape (remember those!?) that I sold at clinics along with the skeletal version of what would later become the rhythm book.

In 1998 I decided that there was enough interest in the kind of things that had been in the pamphlet to justify adding to it, recording extra examples and to make and print a proper book. So we went into the studio again and recorded more material and I expanded the previous techniques further, incorporating new examples and showing more possibilities for their development. I also added a listening list and some original compositions which used techniques discussed in the book. This book and CD was then published as ‘Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation’, and this, with the exception of a few additions and revisions, is pretty much the same book that is still in print today.

As to the reason why the book seems to be still relevant – I think it’s because, more by accident than design, it appeared at the same time as young musicians became genuinely interested in developing new rhythmic techniques and the study and playing of what could be called extended rhythmic techniques became more popular by the year. This growth in interest in such things as odd metre playing, multiple polyrhythms and metric modulation has multiplied year on year in the past decade, and where once playing a tune in 7/8 would have been considered wildly exotic, today I’ve heard 7/8 described as ‘the new 3/4’, so common is it in the repertoire of jazz groups. In such a climate of rhythmic interest the book has found a niche.

A ‘prequel’ (eventually…..)

I think the other reason it still has relevance is the extraordinary scarcity of books and instructional material on rhythm. To a large extent it’s still the only show in town. I find it hard to believe that rhythm – arguably the most important universal element of music – has attracted so little interest from what could be described as the jazz education industry. In 1998 I shopped the book around to various prospective publishers and it was turned down by pretty much every major jazz education publisher, both in the US and Europe. All described it as being ‘too esoteric’ and obscure to make it worthwhile publishing. Time has of course proved them wrong and I’m now very happy to have published it myself, but I still find it amazing that ten years later they still don’t get it – books on harmony and chord/scale relationships proliferate like rabbits but, apart from drum books, there’s STILL virtually nothing on rhythmic technique, either basic or advanced.

And this hole in information on basic rhythm information one I’ve been aware of for a while. In teaching the more advanced material from ‘Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation’ I became aware that a lot of the problems people had in dealing with the techniques were more to do with basic time issues than with the techniques themselves. So in the course of teaching these workshops and clinics I began to create exercises that would help address these basic rhythmic problems. I now have quite a collection of these that I and other teachers at the school I work at in Dublin, (Newpark Music Centre) teach on ‘Rhythm Studies’ course on the the BA programme. The next obvious step is to put these into either a book or possibly an instructional DVD, and this is something I intend to do - it would be (or hopefully will be) a prequel, to use the cinematic term, to ‘Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation’. This is something I’ve been intending to do over the past two years, but am still unfortunately ‘getting around to it soon’. Large sections of my musical life over the past 10 years has been spent in the company of dealing with issues of rhythm and musical time – if only I could get a handle on temporal time in the same way I might have written a second book by now…………..

You can see a preview of ‘Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation’ here

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Triumph of the Mediocre

Flicking through the TV here in an idle moment I stumble across Ronan Keating singing (or possibly miming) the Cyndy Lauper song ‘Time After Time’. He’s surrounded by a bevy of young girl string players (the essential accoutrement for all middle aged pop singers these days it would seem) who are definitely miming since there’s a drummer playing right beside them yet the strings can be heard clearly. God this is awful stuff – badly and unimaginately arranged schlock, delivered by a particularly mediocre singer – even by pop music standards. As I finish this little rant he’s now being interviewed and he’s describing how climbing Mount Kilimanjaro gave him ‘headaches, nosebleeds and nausea’ - I know how you feel Ronan, I’ve just been listening to you sing..................

Wayne Shorter – there’s hope for us all……………

I’ve been watching some Youtube footage of Wayne Shorter’s current and great quartet. I saw this group playing in Dublin about four years ago and it was some of the best music I’ve seen in years – really restored my faith in jazz humanity! I think it’s true to say that it’s very common for even great jazz musicians to coast creatively when they reach a certain age – you go and see a legend playing and all too often what you get is a pale shadow of their former greatness. And the audience often doesn’t even notice the drop-off in musical quality, they’re understandably just thrilled to be in the presence of someone with a great history in the music.

But for me I find it depressing when someone whom I’ve looked up to, been inspired by, learned from, and listened to extensively just doesn’t even try to do something creative or extend themselves in any way. But even though I find it depressing, I also can understand it – it’s HARD to be creative! Even when you’re young and full of enthusiasm and vitality it’s hard. When you get older it gets even more physically demanding to stay on the road, and more mentally demanding to keep stepping up to the plate creatively every day. And when you’ve already been at the pinnacle of the music you could be justified in taking it easy in your latter years. But though I can understand it, I still find it dispiriting.

That’s why it’s so wonderful to see Wayne Shorter is as creative as ever, despite the fact that he’s now seventy six years old! He has a group that’s probably the best he’s ever had and one that REALLY improvises. Their ability to take well known material (Footprints, All Blues) and simple structures (Joyrider) and recreate them in a new form every night, spontaneously and collectively, is both brilliant and inspiring. This is how creative music should be – fresh, unexpected, intense, a result of the collective effort and co-operation of a group of like-minded musicians whose technique is placed at the service of the music. What’s so impressive about Wayne and his group is the mentality they bring to the music, the determination to explore, to discover and above all to be creative in every second of their performance. If as jazz musicians we can emulate this example and attain this determination to be creative and avoid cliché then there’s hope for us all!

Here’s an example –
Hi Everyone,

Though 'everyone' may be a bit optimistic........ Anyway, this blog will mostly be about music - and improvised music and jazz in particular. That's the plan anyway.  I reserve the right to get diverted along the way however  - sometimes it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive.