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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stadium Jazz!?

I just watched an amazing video on YouTube -- it features the Count Basie Orchestra, taken from a concert at Randall's Island in 1938. The film footage is silent but a soundtrack has been added featuring the Basie orchestra from that period.

The footage itself is amazing, you can see Lester Young playing a solo wearing sunglasses, the band obviously really swinging, and the audience literally dancing in the aisles! When you watch this film you realize what a popular dance music jazz was at that time. And what an affect the music had on the young audience - people are cheering, dancing on the steps, in the aisles, on the seats etc. in fact you could transpose this footage into the present day and see similar reactions from young audiences at stadium rock concerts. There's a kind of collective euphoria formed from a combination of the music and the energy created by large numbers of people reacting to the same stimulus in an enclosed space. It's something you would never see at a jazz performance now -- the music has changed, the audience has changed, the place of the music in society has radically changed.

Have a look at this amazing footage to see what I mean. You can see it here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Land of the Free? Ha!

It’s extremely galling to have the instrument that you use to make a living smashed by some oafish cretin in an airport. It’s doubly galling when it’s smashed as part of a ham-fisted and totally unnecessary “search” perpetrated in the name of public safety.

I’ve just returned today from teaching in Berklee College of music in Boston for a week. My acoustic bass guitar is far too large to fit into any overhead compartments in an airplane cabin, so I have a custom-built case made for it which allows it to safely travel in the hold. I check the bass in as baggage, and only once since I got the case in 1999, have I ever had any damage to the instrument. On arrival at Logan Airport yesterday I locked my instrument case as usual and checked it in without mishap — but when it came out the other end in Dublin, I was horrified to see the case was only being held together by tape. A quick examination of the case found that all the locks had been smashed deliberately — a note from ‘Transportation Security Administration’ at Logan confirmed this. I just had the case serviced two weeks ago to make sure that it stays in top condition for the protecting job that it has to do on virtually a weekly basis, and now here it was two weeks later with every lock literally smashed. But worse was to come — on opening the case I found that huge crack had appeared on the front of the bass, obviously caused by the mindless gorilla who was forcing open the case. On consultation with my Luthier it seems that this is going to cost approximately €500 to fix. And then of course I’ll still have to have the bass case repaired.

I travel all over the world with this instrument and case — in the past eight months alone I’ve been in Belgium, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brazil, Switzerland, and the UK. In all of this time and through all of these airports, the case has passed unscathed, locked, and with no attempt to smash it open made by any guardians of “security”. It’s a very simple procedure to ascertain what’s in the case and any x-ray of the case reveals the instrument clearly inside — I’ve seen it myself several times. Why it was felt necessary to smash open the case like this in such a brutal and violent manner is beyond me. To stick a note in the case telling me that the TSA “sincerely regrets” having smashed the locks, but reminding me nevertheless that they are not liable for any damage (the last part was underlined in pen by the moron who smashed both case and instrument), is typical of the ‘take it or leave it’ attitude of the American security personnel at airports in the United States.

While I can appreciate the need for security at airports and God knows I’m glad of it, spending so much time as I do in airports, this over-the-top, using a sledgehammer to crack a nut attitude, is a typical hangover from the Bush regime who behaved like this in macrocosm in their dealings with the world, as well as the microcosm of their treatment of my bass. Travelling musicians know it’s getting more and more difficult to travel by air with your instruments these days. But it’s even more difficult in the US where apparently it’s not permitted to even give your instrument the protection of locking the case to prevent the instrument from falling out. To do so is to invite the thuggish attentions of some troglodyte servants of a faceless security regime which can pretty much do what it likes. The scrappy piece of paper thrown into my case was the sum total of responsibility that was deemed necessary by the TSA after they’ve smashed both bass and case. There was no number or contact details for me to make any protest of any kind. “Take it or leave it”. Land of the Free? Ha!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jazz Composition 3 - The Soloist Conundrum continued

Since the last time I wrote on the subject, there’ve been some very interesting developments from my point of view — two in particular. One was the response I got from the great Jim McNeely whom I mentioned in the last post about this subject, and the other was my involvement in writing some film music which I also mentioned in earlier posts.

In relation to Jim’s response to my last blog on the problems of integrating soloists with extended compositional forms in jazz, he made some very good points — as one would expect from someone with his experience. If you’re interested at all in this subject, I would recommend that you read his response in full — you can see it here

But I want to extract one paragraph in particular from this response, as I think it’s particularly germane to the subject, and of particular interest to me as a composer. When talking about having shorter solos in jazz compositions, Jim says this:

There's plenty of early precedent for this kind of thinking in jazz; but as the bebop model took over (play a head, blow, play the head again), then the Coltrane extension of same (play the head, b---l---o---w, b---l---o---w, b---l---o---w, play the head), we were faced with soloists applying that aesthetic to soloing in long-form jazz compositions. This is not to demean what he did; one of my 5 "desert island" records will always be "A Love Supreme". But I've always appreciated countless recordings from the swing era where a guy had 8 bars to make sense and then get out of the way. The solo was part of the overall texture of the piece. Maybe Rex Stewart wouldn't have articulated it that way, but that's the way he played it. Those guys were on to something!

I think Jim puts his finger on the crux of the problem here for the writer of extended or more involved compositions in jazz in the early 21st century. As the music evolved, the solos became longer and longer and the soloist became the most important member of the band — at least for the time during which they were soloing. In earlier incarnations of jazz composition, certainly up as far as the bebop era and probably somewhat beyond that, the nature of the recording technology demanded that the pieces in themselves, and by extension the solos, be shorter and more to the point. The time constraints of recordings in the pre-LP era demanded that everything be done and dusted within three minutes or so. This would include all of the compositional material as well as the statements of the soloists. In such an environment the soloists were forced to really concentrate their minds so as to make the most effective contribution to the piece that they could in the time allowed. The composer also had to take this into account and to give the soloist the most effective slot that he or she could in order to make the most cohesive piece possible under the circumstances.

I don’t think it’s necessarily true to say that the soloists of earlier eras played shorter solos simply because of time constraints on recordings. If one listens to live recordings from the 40s of the bebop pioneers, recordings done by enthusiasts using technology that may have been primitive but didn’t have the time constraints of studio recordings — you can hear that’s even in the live situation the soloists were not necessarily attracted to extended solos, but limited their contributions to what would be considered quite short solos by the standards that pertained after the mid-1950s, and certainly after the early 1960s in the post-Coltrane era. So it would seem that the long solo was not just a question of chronological limitation, but also one of aesthetic taste as far as the musicians of that era were concerned.

The problems I mentioned in my earlier post of finding a way to logically integrate solos into increasingly complex compositions, in such a way that they don’t sound like they have been put in there simply for the sake of allowing the soloists to play, was not something that the earlier composers had to contend with, since the soloists of that era were not as verbose as their descendents were to become. Like Jim, I’m not using this comparison between the soloing habits of the two different eras as any statement to beat anybody with — I myself am a product of the era of the longer solo and nobody admires Coltrane, the great progenitor of long solos, more than I do. I’m just making the observation that the difficulties of accommodating long solos into long and sometimes complex compositions is one that is made particularly difficult by the length of the solos of the typical contemporary jazz musician.

I mentioned earlier that there were two developments in my thinking on the problems of integrating long solos into complex compositional forms — one was Jim’s response, and the other was my recent involvement with writing film music

In my recent composition of 11 pieces written to accompany 11 short sections of a silent film, I was forced to write the music so that it would fit the time frame exactly, of the different sections of the film. In such a situation I was forced to give the soloists very specific instructions on the length of their solos. Since the film couldn’t be stretched to accommodate any spur of the moment inspiration on the part of the soloists, it was necessary to be dictatorial about the length of the solos. The results were very interesting for me. On the one hand the compositions really felt like compositions — pieces written to accompany specific visual images, with a lot of written material that wouldn’t vary from performance to performance. On the other hand, since I was able to write for musicians whom I knew very well, I was able to incorporate improvised solos that both enhanced the compositions, yet gave each composition a specific identity depending on who the soloist was and how they approached the piece. Without these solos the pieces would not have been as effective, and the improvisations were an integral part of the overall pieces. So although the written material formed the bulk of the compositions, it would also be true to say that these were undeniably jazz compositions since the solos formed such an integral part of each piece. Indeed to have left out the solos would have changed and impoverished the pieces irrevocably.

So, I unintentionally had an opportunity to do an experiment in the area of writing quite involved pieces with shorter solos - and I must say I really like the results. Although the soloists were circumscribed in what they could do in way they would not normally be in most of their working situations, it seems to me that the enforced paucity of their contributions pointed up even more what great players they were, and made their solos even more enjoyable. This possibly comes under the heading of “a little of what you fancy does you good”, or possibly even “absence makes the heart grow fonder”! Having said that I enjoyed these shorter solos, I should point out that these “shorter solos” did not consist of little 8 bar segments, but usually at least a whole chorus of the form and sometimes longer, depending on the situation. But they were undoubtedly shorter solos than usually would be the case with these players playing the music they usually play, and indeed the music I usually write. And will doubtlessly write again — but in this instance I was definitely shown an alternative to the problematic model where the length of the composition was matched by the length of the solos.

The musicians themselves didn’t seem to chafe much under the enforced tyranny of the composer - or at least if they did they didn’t tell me! I can imagine a scenario where if we were playing this music or similar music night after night that the musicians may feel a little bit underused and possibly frustrated at the lack of ability to fully spread their wings as soloists. But since a) this concert was a one-off, (as are so many these days!), and since b) I don’t plan to create a situation in which every piece of music I write will follow this shorter solos dictum, I don’t think this new-found circumscription of the soloists will create too many problems within the band.

I should also mention that in this film music project the pieces themselves were not incredibly long — nothing over four minutes in fact. This helps to balance the overall composition in the sense that though the solos were short, the compositions were also shorter than they would normally be in this genre. This circumscription of the composition allowed the solos to have more meaning within the overall piece, rather than giving the sensation that the piece was to all intents and purposes a classical piece, with improvised decoration.

But this film music experiment has definitely whetted my appetite for more of the same — not necessarily more film music, but more music in this vein in which the soloists will be given specified lengths for their improvisations. I’m now mentally planning writing a suite of music for small group that will be written in the same vein — solos more integrated into the overall fabric of the composition rather than the soloists being given free reign to decide the length of their solos. I’ve been listening again to the late great George Russell’s masterpiece ’Jazz Workshop’ which I mentioned in the previous post relating to this topic, and, as I said in that post, I see this recording as being a model for what can be done in the integration of improvised solos into involved composition.

In a sense I think of this way of writing actually makes the use of solos even more interesting — at least from the composer’s point of view. In the sense that rather than incorporating a solo because one feels that a particular player needs to be given a chance to demonstrate their skills, the composer can find many different ways of using a solo statement to complement a particular written passage or piece. And to use solos in this way forces one to think of more varied and creative ways of using the solos. Instead of mostly using open ended solos with cued backgrounds, the composer can utilize the solo statements in many different and more varied ways — as decoration to a melody, as something to introduce a piece, as something to end the piece, as something that arises out of the ensemble, submerges back into it only to rise, phoenix-like, later on etc. etc.. There are so many variables to this and so many different ways to use the improviser within the written context — it’s something that will really stretch the imagination of the composer and hopefully increase the enjoyment of the listener, some of whom are undoubtedly jaded by the lack of an editorial instinct in some players!

So, short yet involved compositions and shorter yet relevant solos — Brave New World!

P. S. I will be interviewing Jim McNeely about composition for this blog soon — should be fascinating.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Spinal Tap has nothing on this.........

I recently rediscovered a classic, unintentionally hilarious, video of Al Di Meola on Youtube. It purports to be a rhythm masterclass but is in fact a classic piece of Spinal Tap-style hilarity. You couldn’t make something up that’s as funny as this, in terms of its pomposity and the sheer ludicrousness of the premise that Di Meola puts forward in relation to rhythm.

The incredibly sycophantic interviewer from Lick Library (!) who almost, (but not quite), loves Al as much as Al does, really adds to the hilarity of the whole thing with his slavish agreement with every outlandish statement Di Meola makes. But in the end he’s just the straight man to Al, who manages to combine complete rubbish as far as rhythmic technique is concerned, with massively egotistical statements, a-rhythmic playing (which purports to be demonstrating strong rhythmic technique), and incredibly sweeping statements such as the one that patiently explains to the nodding interviewer that Northern Europeans and Asians have no sense of rhythm. It’s hilarious – it out-Taps Spinal Tap and it’s here

And once you’ve watched that, then there’s an equally hilarious send-up of Di Meola by two unknown Australian guitarists, having a great time in their front room and completely nailing the Di Meola persona and musical approach. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Film Music

Well, to drop into horse racing parlance for a moment, I'm in the final furlong of my film music project – the film, Dun Laoghaire – Life in the Day, made by my good friend and colleague in several bands, Ellen Cranitch, is a representation of Dun Laoghaire, the town where I live, and have lived all my life. It’s been a really interesting process – I’ve written for film before, but always in the more traditional way, i.e the music was written, recorded and added to the soundtrack. In this instance we will be performing the music live, with the film.

This has brought up several interesting technical problems, not least how we would keep the each piece synced up with the film. A very common modus operandi for jazz musicians working with film in a live context is to have the musicians improvise with the film, taking their cues from the visual. This makes cueing etc. very simple. I’ve taken a different and more risk-laden route, by writing most of the material and having the solos emerge out of the written music. If we were recording this it wouldn’t be a problem – we’d just record to a click and everything would sync up – but we’re doing it live without a click, so it’s vital that a) we start off each piece at exactly the right tempo, and b) that we don’t rush or drag – a tall order! The film is in eleven short sections and is scored for trumpet, saxophones, two keyboards, guitar, bass and drums and is very challenging for the players. Fortunately I have the services of M├ętier at my disposal with the addition of Paul Williamson and Izumi Kimura, so if ever there was a band made to play this music it’s this one. We’ve also managed to obtain the services of the live sound wizard Paul Ashe Brown, so I’m confident that we’ll have a good night.

As long as the weather is kind to us – we’re performing outdoors, next Thursday (13th) in Meeting House Square at 10pm – the film will be projected onto the wall of the Gallery of Photography and we’ll be performing on the stage. If you’re in the area and fancy seeing and hearing something different please come down – admission is free and you don’t need to book, just come along - as they say in Dublin, you can’t say fairer than that!