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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On the Road

Métier recently had a series of three gigs (which counts as a tour these days..........) culminating in an appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the London Jazz Festival. I decided to keep a road diary and take some photos and film footage - the results are below.

Limerick, Wednesday

I head off on what can only be described as a dreary drive to Limerick. Driving through the midlands is never a good advertisement for the island of Ireland - the road is pretty featureless and the greyness of the day does nothing to add to its meagre charms. The highight of the trip is when I hear a wonderful malapropism on the radio when one of the presenters describes last year's Christmas party as being a 'damp squid'.

I arrive in Limerick in the middle of a deluge, find the hotel (thanks Satnav!), check in quickly and head over to Dolan's Warehouse at around 4.30 - I'm doing a workshop at 6 with some local kids and I've arranged to meet the band beforehand to run through the material for tonight's gig - we haven't played in a while and we need to chip a bit of the rust off the written parts of the music. Of course as always in these situations the rehearsal starts later than advertised, but eventually we're all there and manage to get through all the material before the workshop starts.

We finish the last few notes of the rehearsal in front of a possibly interested, (it's hard to tell, so blank are their expressions), audience of kids - aged between 12 and 17 or so, who have come for the workshop. Limerick Jazz Society who are putting on the gig, are not only doing a great service in keeping the music alive in this part of the country, but are also doing trojan work in organising workshops for kids and giving them an opportunity to have access to proper instrumental training as well as introducing them to jazz.


But though they're not strangers to the concept of jazz, it's hard to know what to usefully do with an unknown group of teenagers in an hour and a half. They're very shy too, as is often the case in these situations, so there's nothing really coming back off them and it's difficult to know whether what I'm pitching to them is getting a response. I've opted for a two pronged approach - talk a bit about jazz, discuss what some of the most common constituents in the music might be, see what they know about the music - and secondly, play with them and see what that brings up in terms of conversation points.

Regarding chatting with them, it's hard to tell what they think or what they know, since my invitation to them to contribute to the conversation is not enthusiastically taken up - shyness gets the better of them and they have the look of a group who have been sentenced by a court to attend a jazz workshop....... As always, there's one kid who's really into it and asks lots of questions, while the rest are content to let him!

Things perk up a bit when we get up to play - I ask the drummer to play any kind of groove he wants since he's a bit self-conscious about playing any jazz things, so he goes into a rock groove played at the most phenomenal volume....... It's extraordinary the tolerance these kids have for volume, the noise he's making is absolutely deafening and my little Acoustic Image amp and acoustic bass wouldn't have a hope pitted against that. So I ask him to keep the same groove, but play quieter, which, he says, makes it much harder for him to play because now he's 'holding back'. But we eventually get something going and I agree on playing a blues with the third member of our trio, a really talented 12 year old who has the most astonishing technical facility for someone so young, and a lot of vocabulary. He's a student of Joe's, living in Limerick, though originally from Slovenia, and, all things being equal, a real prospect for the future.

After this trio I get another group up to play and we again do a blues (the true Lingua Franca of contemporary music), and this time the volume is being blasted out from both drums AND guitar! We eventually get that under control and then form issues raise their ugly head. It is always interesting to me when I hear people just play their licks, but don't notice that said licks don't work over the form they're allegedly playing. It's a really common problem and comes from the typical rock way of learning to play - attack the instrument first, learn some licks, and no matter what the context, get those licks in! It's a very instrument-driven way of learning, and uses the eyes as much as the ears, but it's hard to get the kids to let go of the safety net of what they know works technically, and just play by ear. To paraphrase the old saying, there's nothing to fear but ear itself.............

As always with these things, when the workshop is officially over and the kids are released from the dread of being asked to play in front of everybody, the atmosphere palpably relaxes and chatter breaks out for the first time.

It's hard to know how much the kids got from the workshop, but hopefully there'll be something in there for at least some of them which might spark their interest in investigating jazz a bit more.

At least one satisfied customer........

One great thing about playing in Dolan's is that they have a 'band menu' down in the restaurant section, a good variety of stuff, well prepared, and all for a tenner - the best deal in town by far.It should never be underestimated how large looms the importance of having somewhere to eat and a good hotel when one is on the road. Promoters often don't get this, and are surpised at the vehemence of a band's reaction when they're offered substandard accommodation or if no consideration is given to how, when or where they're going to eat before or after the gig. What people forget is that when you've spent all day travelling in an enclosed space, with the same people, what you want at the end of the day is something decent to eat and a decent place where you can have a rest and get a bit of privacy for a few hours.

The gig itself is fun - as always with these things, all the other stuff you go through, the driving, the hanging around, dealing with the little and large annoyances of being on the road, all fade into the background once you start playing, and suddenly you remember why you play this music in the first place. Since Limerick Jazz Society is a dedicated jazz organisation, you're always playing to a jazz audience there, which is nice. There's a decent crowd (for a jazz gig on a Wednesday evening when it's lashing rain outside.......), and they give us a good response.

We've opted for one long set rather than two shorter ones - this 90 minute festival-style set is one I'm a big fan of. I think it's just long enough for the band to really get going, yet not too long where you get into the situation where it's too long for the audience and musicians alike and where both lose focus. I like this long set format both as a listener and as a player. Sometimes the two-set format makes for too long an evening, unless the band plays a 45 minutes first set, followed by a 2nd of roughly the same length. Often jazz groups play for an hour, then take an interminably long break and come back and play for another hour or so. By which time some of the audience have left to catch buses etc, some have drunk too much and are noisy, or are suffering from too much music fatigue. I'm not sure that more music is always better - for example how often have you listened to all 70 minutes of a contemporary CD? The older 40-50 minutes format of LPs definitely made it easier to assimilate a whole programme of music - to me 'A Love Supreme' or 'Kind of Blue' would not necessarily have benefitted by having another 25 minutes of music tacked onto them........

So, the gig is fun, though we were a bit dodgy on some of the written material - when you've five people in a band playing challenging music, and especially when it's challenging music you haven't played for a while, or very often, you've five possibilities of something going wrong at any one time. So inevitably there will be a few hiccups, and indeed there were on this gig. But nothing major and the improv sections were all really strong. Everybody in the band is both a strong soloist and has a strong personality and this makes for very satisfying music. The group's been together with just one personnel change for nearly three years now, and it shows. We played some pieces from our CD Cascade, and from the recent suite of music I composed, about contemporary Ireland, called 'Fiasco', and the balance of the material works quite well - I think I'll keep this set list for tomorrow night's gig in Wexford as well..........

Musician, film thyself.......

Wexford, Thursday

Leaving the hotel the next morning I misjudge the exit from their underground car park and give my car a good scraping on the left rear of the vehicle - nice! Another campaign scar earned in the cause of jazz..................

According to the AA Routeplanner Wexford is only 189 Km from Limerick, yet according to the same source it will take me almost three hours to cover that distance. On setting out it soon becomes obvious why this skewed distance vs. time ratio is suggested - the road between Limerick and Wexford is completely shite! Single carriageway for much of it, infested with agricultural vehicles of all kinds, peopled by overtaking maniacs who refuse to accept the limitations of driving on such a road and who thunder past in a homicidal manner, and intermittent showers all make for a testing drive. At least the newly opened Waterford bypass has saved me from the hell of entering Waterford city during rush hour.

The roads in Ireland are definitely getting better, but there are still rogue sections like this one, which are completely motorway-free and would probably be recognisable to someone who'd driven these roads in the 1930s. But one of the few nice things about driving on Irish roads is that you often come across many unexpectedly picturesque and beautiful sights. The quality of the light is kind of unique in this country and even in November you can come across sights like this:

and this:

Great town names like this:

and even evidence that great jazz pianists have been reincarnated and are now making a living in the construction industry in Tipperary:

And, coming through New Ross I came across the 'Dunbrody Famine Ship' - a restored ship of the type that took many Irish to America during the Famine in the 19th Century - its masts silhouetted against the evening sun........

Eventually I arrive in Wexford, where we're playing at the Arts Centre. I decide to check into the hotel first - the Maldron - but on arrival in my room I find it's not very promising. The room is cold, there's a fair bit of traffic noise outside and the wireless internet (that indispensable aid to travelling musicians these days), is not working in the room. Wexford is only 90 minutes away from Dublin, so I decide that I'll just leave my suitcase and computer here, do the gig, pick the stuff up and drive back home after the gig. A lot of musicians I know are quite into driving home after out of town gigs if it's at all feasible - but I'm not one of them. In general I like to relax after a gig and not get into the car and drive while tired, in the dark and on roads often unsuited to night driving of any kind. But this room seems so uninviting that I decide I'll just split after the gig and get a comfortable night's sleep at home.

Wexford has a world famous Opera Festival, and through this has a reputation for music and cuture. But strangely enough it's never been a regular stop on the jazz circuit in Ireland, neighbouring Waterford having much more activity happening in the jazz field, mainly due to the pro-jazz leanings of the Garter Lane Arts Centre there. So up to fairly recently I'd hardly ever played in Wexford. However that changed recently with a more pro-jazz policy emanating from the Wexford Arts Centre, and I'd already played two very nice gigs there earlier this year, one in January, playing the music of John Coltrane, and one later playing in a trio with Tommy Halferty.

It's a good place to play, audiences are enthusiastic and the management are cool - however before getting to play one has to negotiate two flights of stairs. So often jazz gigs are upstairs - or downstairs - as if the music wasn't difficult enough to play, rhythm section players have to add the skills of a stevedore to their portfolio if they're to make it in the jazz world. It's at times like these that I give thanks to the people at Acoustic Image who at last have figured out how to make a small bass amp that sounds good..........

(Setting up in Wexford)

We carry the gear upstairs and get set up, (one thing I find incredibly wearing - musicians practicing on stage while everyone's getting set up, maybe I'm becoming a grumpy old man, but it always seems so inconsiderate to be blasting through your shit while people are all around you trying to set their gear up), run through a couple of things that were untidy the night before, agree on the set list and soundcheck. We're playing mostly acoustically, with only the tenor going through the PA which always speeds things up. Michael discovers a piano in a cupboard and plays some true upright piano........

I remember Tom Rainey saying to me on a gig that the four most important words at a soundcheck are 'sounds great, let's eat!' - and how right he was. Another nice thing about playing Wexford is that there's an excellent Italian restaurant right across the road - 'La Scala' - a very unprepossessing looking place but one that nevertheless serves really good and different Italian food - wish it was in Dublin............

So, food eaten, (Papardelle with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil - result!), we head back to the venue for the gig - the usual stage wait in an ante-room, though this one is a cut above the normal dressing room since it's also part of an art exhibition at the Centre. It's very true to say that being on the road is like being in the army during a war - lots of travelling, boredom and hanging around followed by forty five minutes of fear, confusion, and chaos!

(Joe, Sean, and Justin contemplate the infinite while waiting to go over the top..........)

The Gig

Definitely better than the night before - playing music properly has so much to do with just playing it enough times. Compared to our jazz ancestors we play hardly at all - one can never underestimate the effect that the number of gigs that earlier generations of jazz musicians played must have had on their techniques, their stamina, their ability to play at a consistently high level and of course, by extension, the quality of the music that they produced. I notice immediately the difference in my own ability to play when I have the chance to play a few gigs in a row. It has something to do with the physical technique becoming more lubricated, and this has a knock-on effect on the creative mind. With the fingers working better you become less distracted by the physical and the instrument seems to play itself somehow.

And of course playing a series of gigs with a band has the effect of both tightening up the ensemble passages and at the same time (in a creative band at least), making everything looser. Because the band members are more immediately comfortable with what comes next in each tune - where the backgrounds happen, how the tune ends, who solos where, what the cues are etc. - everyone feels freer to take chances in the full confidence that if something doesn't quite work out the music won't fall apart. Tonight's gig definitely feels like that - there's more confidence in the band and having a second go at the same set definitely helps in freeing any creative shackles that may have been there previously. Since we have a fairly major gig in London coming up on Saturday, having these two gigs has been really useful to us and I feel we're more than ready to play the London Jazz Festival.

On arrival back to the hotel I find that the heating is now on, the wireless now working and the noise from the road has disappeared - I reconsider my decision to drive back to Dublin.................

London, Saturday

The ‘Red Eye’ is well named — those flights that leave at an ungodly hour, and that seemed to make up 90% of all flights that musicians are condemned to take. Red eyes are not the only thing that you suffer from on these flights, I always have a feeling that my eyes are about to drop out of my head when the alarm clock rudely interrupts what would otherwise be a perfectly satisfactory sleep. Those first 20 minutes are the worst, after that it kind of becomes okay to the point where I often arrive at the airport terminal and am actually surprised to realise that it's only 5:30 AM. This flight is not too early - 9 AM, but that means being at the airport at 7 AM, which means leaving my house at 5:45 AM, and getting up at 5:15 AM. Such is life — or at least a musician’s life.

Having made all that effort it’s a little bit irritating to find that the airport is half empty, and that we could have come a half an hour later and got an extra 30 minutes of valuable sleep — it’s November and serious low season for flying, so the usual early morning chaos is notable by its absence. We check in — I’m the only one checking in any luggage because my bass is too big to go in the cabin, and therefore has to go in the hold. Fortunately I have a custom-built case that can pretty much withstand everything except US Homeland Security..............

A quick coffee before we board the plane, (a quick tip if you’re passing through Dublin Airport — Butler’s has the best coffee not only at the airport, but possibly in Dublin too), we meet up with Ronan from IMC (who have hooked up the gig for us), who will be riding shotgun with us, and we’re off.

50 minutes later we’re in London, where we meet up with Joe, who is that most unusual of Irish Jazz musicians in that he doesn’t live in Dublin, and so has flown to London from Shannon in the west of Ireland.

We’re picked up by the festival driver and head into London, then check into the hotel. For once we actually have time to have a small bite of lunch before going to the sound check. We are immediately reminded that though Dublin may be expensive, it can’t hold a candle to London — I buy a cappuccino at the hotel and it cost me the equivalent of four euro — you would be hard-pressed to pay that at the Four Seasons in Dublin, but even in a bog-standard London hotel like this one they can demand this astronomical figure without a blush apparently.

On to the South Bank Centre where we'll be playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall opposite Tomasz Stanko. It's good to have Ronan with us to organise the logistics of the trip - no matter how many times I do this, I always find the logistical chore of being a bandleader, (calling cabs, dealing with the hotel, telling everyone where to be at what time etc.) to be a drag, and I find it difficult to switch that tour manager side of my brain off when it comes to performance time, and concentrate solely on the music. But for once I don't have to do it and so I wallow in the luxury of being the band leader yet not having to deal with all that logistical shite.

The weather's really crap - we apparently are arriving in the middle of the 'worst storm for 30 years', but it doesn't seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of the London Jazz Festival audiences - no less than three of the major shows are sold out tonight, including the one we're playing.We get our passes and enter the bowels of the QEH, find the dressing room and calculate that since Stanko is only just finishing his soundcheck and they have to reset the stage for us, we have enough time for a coffee - the trick with soundchecks is to be prepared for interminable bouts of hanging around, especially if you're soundchecking 2nd, (or even worse - 3rd!), either have a book with you or be good at estimating how much quality time you can squeeze in before you're really needed to soundcheck. The experienced soundchecker will arrive at the appointed time and then immediately find out what stage the sound crew/other band are at in their soundcheck and make their plans accordingly. So, over to the Royal Festival Hall's café which seems to have all its tables taken up by people taking advantage of the free WiFi rather than actually buying any food......... A quick exorbitantly priced coffee later, it's back to the QEH to find that they've somehow mislaid the bass amp and there'll be a delay while they find out what's happened to it.

The QEH is an impressive looking space with raked seating and a large stage - we find that the audience will be sitting behind us as well as the in the more usual frontal position. It's been a while since I played 'in the round' but it shows the pulling power of Stanko, that despite the fact that Sonny Rollins is playing at the same time a few hundred yards away, he can sell out the QEH to such an extent that they have to open the seats behind the stage. Apart from the missing bass amp, it's a quick enough set up and the sound guys are very good - it doesn't take long to get a decent sound once all the equipment is in place, and that's another thing to be grateful for. A quick soundcheck with an efficient sound crew is a pearl beyond price, it helps so much. The alternative - an interminable sound check with nothing working, punctuated by howling feedback - can be such a downer before you play, cheating you of valuable eating or rest time. Actually good soundmen/women who take care of business quickly and efficiently are rare - it always baffles me why so many sound people are so crap at their job - especially given they're usually dealing with the same equipment every day. Yet time and again they seem to forget that if you press THAT button, you get THIS deafening noise............................................

The gig will start at 7.30. so we decide to eat afterwards, and hang around in the Green Room, snacking on cheese and fruit - more waiting! Eventually it's showtime, and I'm asked to have a chat with Jez Nelson, the BBC's jazz guy who will be introducing the concert - basically what this means is that I have to tell him who the hell we are! A festival worker asks me how long the first piece will be so they can tell latecomers how long to expect to wait before they can take their seats. When I say 10 minutes at least, she seems surprised and says 'oh, that seems a very long time' - really? When was the last time you went to a jazz gig and the first piece was shorter than 10 minutes?

(The QEH from the stage)

(Sean plays tandem drums)

The Gig

So on we go eventually and it all goes very well. We play a truncated version of the set we played in Limerick and Wexford. We only have 40 minutes to do our stuff, and in a situation like this you really have to stick to the schedule - if you bogart the gig everyone gets pissed off - the radio people (the BBC were recording this), the organisers, the headliners. I've seen situations where bands get an opportunity to play a big gig as an opener for a famous act and think that by playing really long people will see just how great they are - WRONG! The audience are really there to see the main act, and in an ideal situation you can add to their enjoyment and do yourself some good by providing an unexpected extra musical treat for them, but unless you ARE actually the main act, you should never lose sight of the fact that you're not the main reason the audience is there.

The sound was good, for me at least, on the stage - though Michael said afterwards that he couldn't hear some things well at all - it's often the case with these big stages, you can have a very different aural experience to the guy standing only a couple of feet away from you. But for me, I enjoyed the sound, though it was different to hear the music played with the thicker, richer texture of the grand piano, rather than the Fender Rhodes we'd been using on the other gigs. I really like the Rhodes, I like the transparent texture it gives to the music and its percussive nature, but it was nice to hear the music with the big sound of the grand piano on this occasion. The band sounded really good too - the previous concerts having honed our set into something that could be shown to maximum effect in the short time we had and in the big space we were in.

But of course there are certain things you can't legislate for, in this case Joe breaking a string in the second piece! He had to go off and get a new string, while I tried to fill in time on the mic - not very successfully! Eventually we just started the next piece without Joe, though he did manage to join us half way through. The audience were terrific - I wasn't sure how we'd be received because we were definitely an unknown quantity. As always with a Stanko concert there were a huge number of Poles in the hall, and there we were - an unknown band of Irish guys taking up space and time which could have been filled by their hero and compatriot - it could have got ugly! But it didn't, indeed it went even better than I'd hoped and we were warmly received on entering the stage and even more warmly applauded at the end of the last piece.

So everyone was happy - the promoters were happy, the audience were happy, the band were happy, even the man from the BBC music blog was happy!

So that was that - there remained only one last piece of road duty to fulfill - and we did it - we had a great meal in a Persian restaurant. It may be true, as Napoleon said, that an army marches on its stomach, but it's even more true of a band.............

Something attempted, something done................

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I got my first Acoustic Bass Guitar in 1983. From the beginning of buying my first bass – an Ibanez electric which cost me £49 – I was listening pretty much exclusively to jazz which of course was pretty much exclusively played on upright bass. And I’d have loved to have played an upright bass – virtually everyone I was listening to was an upright player – but I couldn’t afford a good one. I got an opportunity to play an upright bass when a friend of mine loaned me one, but it wasn’t a good instrument, was physically difficult to play, and I hated the feel and sound of it. So going on the basis that I’d rather have a decent electric sound than a crap acoustic one, I persevered with the electric and just tried to make it as acoustic sounding as possible – flatwound strings, fretless, using the left hand (the plucking hand – I’m left handed) close to the end of the fretboard in order to get a softer sound, using the side rather than the tip of my finger to get a fatter sound etc. All my efforts were directed towards making the electric instrument sound more acoustic.

Then a student of mine arrived at the house one day with an Acoustic Bass Guitar – must have been one of the first ones manufactured around that time – an EKO, an Italian factory built instrument – not a very good one but it was a revelation to me. It had the acoustic property I’d been looking for, but had the physical characteristics of the bass guitar – I’d seen the future, and it worked! I had a bit of work done on it to customise it for me, and from then on I gave up the electric bass and focussed exclusively on the ABG.

And have been doing so ever since. I’ve been exclusively playing ABG for the past 26 years with a few returns to the electric bass for gigs of Brazilian music, or occasional other situations where the electric is more suitable. But in general it’s been the ABG all the way since then, and I really love it. I love the fact that it blends well with other acoustic instruments, I love the way it can sound so good in the traditional role of the bass in jazz. I love the way you can manipulate the sound with your fingers rather than through electronics, and I even love the fact that you have to fight a bit harder to get the sound from the instrument than you do on an electric – there’s something about that little bit of extra work you have to do that is more satisfying than the instant touch response of the electric, on the ABG I feel more connected to the resultant sound than I do on the electric. I got a custom-built instrument in 1993, with a deeper body and longer scale neck, and a double cutaway, and I’m still using this instrument – as the wood has matured and settled the sound has got better and better.

One thing that’s always surprised me about the ABG is how few jazz players have taken to it. There are many electric players playing jazz these days but the instrument is problematic when playing with acoustic instruments, and especially in a more traditional jazz setting. The electric’s sonority is very prominent and it tends to stick its nose out of the ensemble too much and rudely draw attention to itself. The upright bass lends itself better to blending into the ensemble while proving the essential bottom to the music in an unobtrusive way. The ABG has this quality too and although it has a smaller sound than the upright, it has a similar sonority and tonal character. So it's ideal for acoustic jazz, and is an ideal vehicle for bass guitar players in that idiom, but it has never taken off for some reason. Apart from myself, the only other person I’m aware of playing the ABG exclusively is Jerome Harris – and even he plays regular guitar from time to time. The great Steve Swallow, who of course pioneered the electric bass in jazz, has also recently taken to playing an ABG of his own design , but that seems to be pretty much it for ABG players in jazz – I’m sure there are more I’m not aware of, but there’s no doubt that it’s still a rarity in jazz. Which is a pity because it’s a great instrument, with lots of potential for expressive and diverse playing.

Over the years I’ve made several solo recordings of the ABG, though I’ve never released any of them, (strangely enough the jazz record companies have not been beating a path to my door or squabbling among themselves for the privilege of releasing an album of solo ABG improvisations..........). I love making these recordings as I can utilise the natural sound of the instrument without pickups (essential for playing with a band, since the ABG’s sound is not loud enough to compete with drums or piano for example), and feature its full sonority. I recently recorded a few pieces and put them up on Youtube – I wanted to capture various aspects of the instrument in an improvised setting. So I recorded some different types of pieces – such as Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ in 7, (below), a piece featuring walking bass, an exploration of the sonic possibilities of the instrument, a piece based on traditional bebop bass soloing techniques, a classic ballad standard, and Ornette’s classic ’Round Trip’

I met the legendary Muhal Richard Abrams over twenty years ago and he did a double-take on seeing the instrument and immediately said ‘Wow man, with that you’ve got the portability and facility of the electric cats, but the sound of the acoustic cats’ - exactly! So why don’t more people see that as quickly as Muhal did............?