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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Steve Coleman and Dave Holland - The Two That Got Away

{Although Dave and Steve played together in several other incarnations other than the ones mentioned here, I wanted to confine my discussion of their music to the recordings where they both played on the entire albums}

Steve Coleman and Dave Holland playing together was a musical marriage made in heaven. I can remember the first time I heard them together on Dave's Jumpin' In album in 1985, and I knew immediately there was something new going on here. As a bassist I was of course familiar with Dave's playing, in fact I was a huge devotee of his, but I'd never heard Coleman before - he was relatively new on the scene, at least as far as international recognition was concerned - but I was immediately struck by both his sound and his harmonic/melodic approach. I'd never really heard anything like it - he seemed to be both inside and outside the tonality at the same time, and his sound had a unique wiry quality with very little vibrato - it struck me as being quite a 'pure' sound for some reason. And the wide intervallic leaps and unexpected twists and turns of his lines made for really refreshing listening - there were no cliches in his playing, and no obvious antecedents that I could discern at the time. Later I found out the provenance of at least some of his concept, but at that time it seemed like he'd come from a completely different place to anyone else I'd heard. And the combination of this skittish sound and approach with Dave's propulsive lines and incredible rhythmic depth and weight made an immediate impact on me.

But impressive though 'Jumpin' In' was, it was really just a prototype for what was to come. I'm still very fond of this recording even though it's not typical of the later music by the quintet. It has an almost traditional jazz quality about it - the melodies are played, the three front line players solo collectively before two drop out leaving one soloist, who is eventually rejoined by the others who in turn take their own solos. Of course the music sounds nothing like traditional jazz, but it has that collective ethos about it, rather than the relentless linearity of bebop soloing practices. Steve Ellington's drumming has a much different quality to that of his successor in the group, Marvin 'Smitty' Smith - it has none of the rhythmic complexity that Smitty demonstrated, but then again the music on "Jumpin' In" didn't demand that either. Ellington's bouncy swing feel would never have worked on the music that was to come in the next album, but here it meshes perfectly with the compositions, providing space and a nice sense of propulsion for the soloists. I love the drum sound too, and the sound on the recording in general, which is spacious with a very nice reverb that does justice to the great sound of the band and its stellar front line soloists - Coleman, Kenny Wheeler and Julian Priester - and to the resonance and depth of Dave's bass sound.

This fresh approach to soloing conventions, the balance between open playing ('Jumpin' In') and playing over form ('You I Love'), the combination of strong and original soloists, and the sheer rhythmic virility of the music all pointed to this being one of the great new bands in modern jazz. But with the next album Seeds of Time, the band and the music went to another level of invention, creativity and originality.

When 'Seeds of Time' came out the band had one new member - the precocious drummer Marvin Smitty Smith, and good though Steve Ellington had been, Smitty's phenomenal rhythmic skills allowed the music to enter a new world of rhythmic complexity unknown to jazz at the time. The opening track, Coleman's 'Uhren' sets the mood immediately with a spare bass and drum line announcing a highly unusual piece of music whose pulse is clear but whose metre is not. At around this time (1986, a while after 'Seeds of Time' was released), I had the great good fortune to be a student at the legendary jazz summer school at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, where Dave was the head of the programme and both Steve and Smitty were teachers. If it hadn't been for me having direct access to the concepts and ideas of Steve and Dave's music, I must admit I wouldn't have had a chance of figuring out what was going on on 'Uhren' or many of the other tracks on 'Seeds of Time'.

By this point Steve was already developing his very original rhythmic concept, and 'Uhren' demonstrates his originality perfectly. In Banff he explained his idea of metres possessing the possibility of having half a beat in them. In other words he would describe some tunes which would have a metre that would be conventionally called 7/8, as being instead in 'three & a half four' - the argument being that the music did not have an 8th-note feel but rather had a feeling of three long beats and one short one. This is very hard to explain in words, but notating the rhythmic cycle of 'Uhren' demonstrates it very well - it being in three measures of 'four & a half four', with the half beat being added to the third beat in the first two bars and to the second beat of the third bar - as follows:

The piece not only has a written melody and bass part, but has a completely composed drum part also. This is something Coleman calls a 'drum chant' - a kind of rhythmic melody written for the drums and which forms an integral part of the composition. This drum chant idea is something Coleman has used extensively ever since and is an idea he freely admits he got from the innovative if little known drummer Doug Hammond, with whose trio Steve worked in the early 80's. One of Hammond's pieces, 'Perspicuity', which clearly outlines the drum chant concept is also included on the recording.

But these are just two tracks in an album of amazing creative richness. The band strikes a wonderful balance between using different types of material while retaining a unified group sound. So pieces as different as Kenny Wheeler's 'The Good Doctor' with its typically rich Wheeler-esque harmonies, sits comfortably alongside Coleman's breakneck tempo, harum-scarum 'Gridlock' - his musical depiction of New York's traffic system. "Walk-a-Way' - a bass and percussion duet based on a bass excercise of Dave's and completely improvised in the studio - complements Holland's 'Homecoming', one of those dancing-around-the-Maypole English folky pieces that Dave used to write, that leads into some wonderful time-no-changes improvising.

There is a real sense of excitement about this recording, and about the music that Dave and Steve were playing together - the younger questing musician inspiring and being bolstered by the slightly older and more experienced musician, the incisive linearity of the saxophonist finding the perfect foil in the depth and weightiness of the bassist. And the newness of so much of this music! Coleman's harmonic sense that allowed him to seem to be both in and out of the tonality at the same time (for a partial explanation of how this is done - and be warned, it's not for the faint-hearted - have a look at Steve's explanation of his Symmetric System), and Dave's similar ability to explore tonality and seeming atonality simultaneously. And the rhythmic constructs were so new! I remember seeing them perform at a faculty concert at the Banff Centre with Smitty on drums, and I, along with pretty much much all of the audience, was simply dumbfounded by what was going on musically on the stage.............

'Seeds of Time' was followed by Razor's Edge, an album with equally interesting music on it including one of Steve's most popular tunes 'Wights Weights for Weights', based around an equally killing bass line and drum chant. Steve was at the same time also recording with his own '5 Elements' band that had a more electric instrumentation, but that Dave also guested on from time to time.

The next full album in the Dave/Steve continuum, recorded in 1988, was Triplicate, a departure from the previous recordings since it was a more free-wheeling saxophone trio recording with the great Jack DeJohnette on drums. It's very interesting to hear this recording because we hear Coleman in a very different setting to the previous recordings mentioned. DeJohnette's presence ensures a much more loose-limbed approach to the rhythmic aspects of the music than were heard from Smitty, and on Coleman's 'Games' for example you can hear that Jack is not entirely comfortable with the unusual form of the piece. However there are some real highlights on this recording not least hearing Steve's approach to traditional harmony and the swing idiom on 'Take the Coltrane' and Bird's 'Segment'.

As far as I know this is the first recording of Steve playing 'standards' and many musicians of my generation point to Steve's and Jack's alto/drum duet on 'Segment' as being one of the real highlights of contemporary standard playing. I think this trio, which was under Dave's name, only did a couple of tours and was never the kind of group fixture the quintet was. Which is a pity - Dave and Jack have one of the greatest bass/drum hook-ups in jazz history, and with Coleman's highly original playing skittering along on top of this amazing foundation one can only wonder if they'd played together longer what they might have achieved in terms of setting a new benchmark in how contemporary swing can be approached.

Next up was the seminal Extensions, still spoken of with awe by musicians of many generations. This unveiled a new line-up, dispensing with the trumpet and trombone but adding Kevin Eubanks (in his pre-Tonight Show incarnation), on guitar. Sometimes it surprises me that an album like 'Seeds of Time' is so little known in some circles, but the same can't be said of 'Extensions' which is widely known not just by musicians of my generation, but many younger musicians also. It's hard to say why this album gets a higher profile than the others - maybe the presence of the guitar on it makes it more accessible to many rather than the 3-horn, chord-less format of the quintet. One other reason could be the absolutely devastating opening track - Eubanks' 'Nemesis', an 11/4 workout with a great vamp which contains what is for my, and many other people's money, one of Coleman's greatest recorded solos. His playing on this track and indeed throughout this album is extraordinary, so inventive, so rhythmically complex and with a much bigger sound. It's mature Coleman, showing him at this stage to not only be one of the real theorists and original minds in contemporary jazz, but also one of its greatest soloists. The material on 'Extensions' may not be as interesting and varied in itself as on the Quintet albums, but the playing is of the highest level. I'm not a huge fan of Eubanks' playing, especially his soloing, but I really like his comping behind Coleman's solos and the quartet's sound has a lightness about it that's very transparent and attractive.

I saw this band in London in 1991 over a couple of nights at Ronnie Scott's club and I still regard it as some of the greatest live music I've ever seen - Dave, Smitty and Steve's hook-up was SO strong and the things they were doing with both original compositions and standards were extraordinary both in imagination and execution. I remember coming home completely fired up and enthusiastic, full of ideas of stuff to try and stuff to think about. Little did I know that I'd seen Dave and Steve play some of their last gigs together.

1991 proved to be the last year they recorded together and (probably, though I'm not 100% certain about this), the last year they played together. For reasons best known to themselves two of the great accomplices in the creation of new ways to play improvised music never played again together after this year. But before they were finished, they recorded two more albums, one a masterpiece and the other something of an oddity.

Recorded in January 1991 Phase Space is a monument to the connection between Dave and Steve, a bass and alto duo recording that shows all their great qualities - a fearsome command of time and rhythm, an ability to negotiate the most complex forms at speed ('Cud Ba-Rith'), real swing ('Ah-Leu-Cha'), and a kind of astringent lyricism that had been a feature of their playing together from the earliest recordings ('Straight Ahead'). "Phase Space' is a testament to their musical relationship and the understanding that existed between them - here it's pared down to its essentials, just bass and alto, no overdubs, playing together with a synchronicity and intuition that's only given to rare combinations of players - Elvin and Trane, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, Clifford Brown and Max Roach - these seem to be hook-ups that go beyond just compatibility and into the realms of telepathy. It's clear that Dave and Steve, and I know this anecdotally from both of them, that they worked on a lot of stuff together and talked about music incessantly, but there's also a natural fit to the way they play together that goes beyond mere calculation and intellectual discussion.

It would have been fitting if 'Phase Space' had been their Swansong as a recording team, but there was one more album to come - Coleman's Rhythm in Mind, a rather odd collection of musicians and music. The music on this recording ranges from straight readings of some Thad Jones pieces ('Slipped Again', 'Zec'), to more typically angular M-Base compositions ('Left of Center', 'Vet Blues'), to 'Pass it On' - a Holland flag-waver of a tune. The personnel is equally mixed with veterans Tommy Flanagan, Ed Blackwell and Von Freeman mixed in with Coleman, Holland, Smitty, Kenny Wheeler and Kevin Eubanks. The mixture of music and musicians makes for a very puzzling recording that seems to be neither one thing nor another. There are some nice moments on it but it doesn't make anything like the unified statement that 'Phase Space' or indeed any of their other albums together did.

And that was all she wrote so to speak - they never recorded or played together again. And this is really a shame since I think they made some of their most vital work together. In fact I'd go as far as to say that together they recorded music that had elements that are missing from their work apart. The acoustic linear quality that Dave brings to their music together is missing in much of the more densely layered music that Steve plays these days, and Dave's current and highly lauded quintet is to my mind, though featuring great musicians, much more formulaic than the great quintet of the 1980s. Both players are in good health and working and playing, and living in the same corner of the US, so it's almost tragic, given their amazingly creative partnership, that they haven't played a note together in almost 20 years. Let's hope that situation gets rectified soon. In the meantime here's a clip of the quintet in all their glory - check out Steve's solo from about 8.20 on the clip - this was the stuff that turned us all around back then...................

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Monday, February 8, 2010


New York may well be the best place in the world for jazz music - at least in terms of there being more great musicians in one small concentrated area than anywhere else on the planet. Also in terms of seeing great creative music, NY is hard to beat - there is just SO much going on. But at what cost to the musicians who produce this music? The money that can be earned there from playing creative music is risible, and outside NY it just gets worse and worse.

I've always known this, but a recent blog about touring in the US by the Norwegian saxophonist Fr√ły Aagre really brings it home again. In a fascinating article she shows in great detail what a joke the US is for creative musicians in terms of earning a living. It may be a great place for creativity, but you can't eat creativity! She estimates the tour costed $6000 and took in a total in fees of $1000. There you have it - American Jazz Economics. It makes for compelling if grim reading.

You can see it here

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Chattering Classes

I've heard divided opinions over the years from musicians about playing in noisy environments. Most say they hate it - actually virtually everyone says they hate it, but there is a divide between those who say it puts them off completely and those who say you just need to ignore it and get on with it.

I'm completely with the former group - I just can't stand playing in a room where the majority of people are talking. This post is prompted by a gig I've just done at an alleged jazz club called Dexters in Odense in Denmark. It's been a long time since I had to deal with something like this, though I did many gigs of this kind in my early years. But gradually the environments in which I played got better, and I had to deal less and less with noisy audiences as my 'career' (as I optimistically call it) developed. So it was a bit of a shock to come to this club in jazz loving (at least that's its reputation) Denmark, with a fine group of players from four different countries, with a good sound system and equipment, and then play to the noisiest bunch of Yahoos it's been my misfortune to encounter in a long time.

For me this environment is creative and emotional death - I just can't stand it. Music can be many things - it can make you think, it can make you happy, sad, make you want to dance etc. It can celebrate, it can commiserate, it can mark important moments in life, or death. It can be religious, it can be profane, it can be spiritual, it can be sensual, it can be both other-worldly or very worldly. Music should, above all, make you feel something - when music is being played people should be affected by it in some way, otherwise what's the point of having it played? I don't play weddings, but I can see the value of music at a wedding. I don't play dance music (which is a pity, as I love to play for dancers) but I can see the value of dance music. Of course I can see the value of music as an artistic artefact and as a vessel for the communication of ideas and emotions to the listener. But the one thing I refuse to believe music was ever intended for was to provide some kind of aural wallpaper to accompany the chattering classes.

For this same reason I've never been able to play corporate gigs – where you’re hired by a company to provide ‘ambience’ for their staff and/or clients. In fact I’ve never been constitutionally capable of playing any background music gigs since they bother me so much that I begin to question the whole purpose of being a professional musician. When I left school I worked in a day job for 10 years, and quite honestly I’d rather return to that than make my living playing in noisy and uncaring musical environments. To play in such places seems to call into question the whole purpose of practicing and trying to be creative and inventive. If you’re just providing some kind of backdrop to the inane chatter of people getting drunk then what’s the point? Background music is a degradation of music and the purpose of music, and unfortunately is a plague that besets western society. In fact I’d go as far as to say that western society with its ringtones, jingles, background music in restaurants, elevators, shopping malls, and virtually every public space degrades and cheapens music in a way that no other society does, or has done in the history of music.

Some musicians maintain that you should be able to mentally cut through the noise and be able to get to your own creative space regardless. And of course there are famous recordings where much greater musicians than I (Bill Evans at the Vanguard, Miles at the Plugged Nickel for example) have produced sublime music despite audible chatter going on in the background. Some people say we’re being too precious by looking for silence while performing, and in a way denying jazz’s populist roots. But just because jazz musicians of earlier eras had to perform in noisy environments doesn’t necessarily mean they enjoyed it – they dealt with it because they had to. I’m pretty certain that given the choice of playing for people who were ignoring them and using them as mere aural environment, and playing for people who were listening to them intently, they’d take the latter option every time.

And after years of seeing this kind of crap (though it’s thankfully rare for me nowadays), I’ve still yet to fathom why someone would pay a cover charge into a venue and then talk all night when they can talk outside for free. The psychology of that is a closed book to me. One of the most imbecilic comments I ever heard about this phenomenon was from a hoary old jazz critic from Belfast who disagreeing with my opinion that it was a drag to play in a room where everyone was talking said ‘I think jazz is a music that can stand up to a lot of chatter’. What can you say to a comment as vapid as that? Not a lot. So I’ll stop here................