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

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Under The Influence

I recently read a very interesting interview with Brad Mehldau, via Peter Hum, where Brad, in discussing his influences, makes the following very good point:

“In terms of influence, one discourse that's curiously non-existent over players of my generation is: how we are influenced by our musical peers -- the living breathing people we are actively playing with and listening to now, players of our own generation.”

This is absolutely true – the questions most often asked by jazz journalists and casual listeners, (probably because it’s a relatively easy question to ask and demands little research or proof to back-up), when discussing a young or young-ish, (anyone under 40 seems to be described as ‘young’ there days.......), musician is: ‘who does he/she sound like?’. And by extension who are they influenced by? What they (the journalist or listener) are listening for is some kind of surface idiomatic similarity between the person they’re discussing and the playing of some other musician whose playing they’re familiar with. ‘His playing bears the discernible influence of X’, or ‘she’s clearly been listening to Y’, or ‘the music sounds like the mid-period recordings of Z’. It’s an easy game to play and doesn’t require much effort on the part of the writer or listener – hear a phrase or two you’ve heard in the playing of somebody else and then make a blanket statement outlining the clear influence of same.

But the point Brad makes is an important one - you are not only influenced by the people you’ve listened to, you are also influenced by the people you play with. I would venture to suggest that the people you play with are far more influential on you than any player you’ve only heard on record or seen live but have never actually been with. Because being with other musicians goes beyond the actual playing time, it also includes the hours you spend with them not playing - the travelling, and hanging and the endless discussions about music and life that are an inseparable part of being a working jazz musician. All of these things can help to shape your outlook on music in a way that goes way beyond the mere playing of your instrument.

As a bassist, a saxophone player telling me what they listen for in bass playing, or suggesting something they think might work in the music we’re playing, might make a big difference to how I think about the piece and may have a big influence on how I play it. That can also be true for the music as a whole – sometimes somebody can say something to you, (not necessarily a player of the same instrument as you) which can change your entire approach to the kind of music under discussion, or even the totality of how you think about music. I’ve had several of those what I call ‘light bulb moments’, where another musician has said something to me – often casually – that has completely changed how I think about something. These are huge influences, and go way beyond which bassist I was listening to when I was younger.

And there can be other influences too. Seeing Woody Shaw at the Village Vanguard and Elvin Jones in Ronnie Scott’s, both when I was in my early 20s, had a profound influence on me. I can honestly say that my approach to music completely changed after seeing them play, and my playing changed, but not in any way that could be discerned by a casual listener. These were fundamental core influences for me that went beyond the playing of the bass and into the music I wanted to play and how I wanted to play it.

And then there’s the influence of playing. This is the point that Brad makes – how we’re influenced by the people we’re playing with. This is by far the most important influence you can have in my opinion. Your first-hand experiences on the bandstand are far more influential on your playing than any second-hand experience you can have by listening to a CD or going to a gig – no matter how great those may be. For myself, I learned different things from different people – and most of it from playing situations rather than being taught formally.

In fact my formal jazz education is limited to two 3-week stints at the Banff Centre in Canada in the mid-80s, where I met many of my peers with whom I stayed in touch and later played with (Simon Nabatov, Andy Laster, Owen Howard, Tanya Kalmanovitch among others), which of itself was very valuable to me. But another reason Banff was hugely influential on me was because it put me in personal contact with Dave Holland, Dave Liebman, Kenny Wheeler and Steve Coleman

The opportunity to study with Dave Holland was invaluable to me – he’d always been a favourite of mine and to spend six weeks in all in his company, listening to him play, teach, and talk about playing was really game changing as far as my playing was concerned.

With Steve I was introduced to a whole new world of music – everything was new with him – rhythm, harmony, melody – it was simply the opening of a new universe in terms of conception and had a profound impact on me. I spent a lot of time hanging with him and talking and we’ve stayed in touch ever since either by email or in person and he remains a huge influence on me. I never played in his band, but we’ve played in several informal sessions, (and I did a recording with him in NY that was never released) – and all of these playing experiences were important ones for me too.

NB I will be posting an interview with Steve on the subject of rhythm very soon.

The contact I made with Dave Liebman in Banff went on to become one of the most important influences in my musical life – more on this below, and more on Kenny Wheeler.

So those ‘formal’ education experiences were important to me, but really I’ve been mostly shaped by playing, both with older musicians and with my peers. I’ve been lucky enough to play with a lot of older, more experienced musicians - in a way I did a kind of apprenticeship that would be familiar to musicians of an earlier era. I was lucky enough to come in on the tail end of that system and it really formed the basis of my education in music – on the job training. And I can look back and pinpoint particular aspects of music that I was exposed to by specific musicians, and that influenced me hugely.

My first, and a huge playing influence, was with the Irish guitarist Louis Stewart. I began playing with him in 1979 and I freely admit I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing at that point! My theory and harmony knowledge was pretty much nil, (though I’d been raised listening to jazz and so was familiar with the music and innately through that, with song form), and then suddenly there I was playing with a master of voice leading, of bebop, of swing – someone who was at the height of his powers. Louis was the first Irish jazz musician to have an international reputation and career and to be exposed to that level of playing and experience at that point in my development was a huge thing for me. I was forced to improve and try and keep up – this was a real bebop environment – almost no originals, no Real Book, no charts, just tunes – which you were supposed to know. I scrambled to keep up but in the process learned lots of tunes, began to understand harmony and learned how to play off instinct when all else failed. Some videos from that time have surfaced on Youtube recently – and here’s one of a very gauche 21 year old me at the Cork Jazz Festival, hanging onto Louis’ coat tails as he tears through Morning of the Carnival.

At that time I was also involved with a trio with the drummer from that clip, the late great John Wadham, and another great Irish guitar player (with whom I still often play), Tommy Halferty. That was a very adventurous group for its time, and we played original compositions and also played free (heresy on the Irish scene at the time!) and it was my first exposure to a milieu where pretty much anything went. We also played some of the fastest tempos I have ever played and this was great for getting my chops in shape!

After that I played a lot on the Irish scene and in subsequent years began playing with international musicians and I learned something from all of those situations, but there were a few that influenced me hugely for various reasons:

From playing with Sonny Fortune I learned about stamina! Sonny is a product of the 1960s NY jazz scene and musically he came up just at the end of that decade and he saw Coltrane many times (I remember him telling me about a conversation he had with Trane), played with McCoy and Elvin, as well as with Miles, (‘Agharta"), and many others. And he was definitely an energy player who emerged in the era of the long solo. I played with him quite a lot at the end of the 1980s and playing with Sonny you had to learn how to both pace yourself AND play with high energy and intensity. When Sonny called ‘Invitation’ you knew you were in for the long haul – Sonny loved to stretch on that tune (in fact on most tunes.....) and as a rhythm section you’d better be giving him the energy he wants!

From the drummer Steve Arg├╝elles I learned about spontaneity and really being in the moment with no predetermined strategies for any particular piece. I played in a trio with Steve and the English altoist Martin Speake for about two years and Steve really opened me up to a lot of stuff, especially the idea of not necessarily playing anything the same way twice. It was in this group too that I first got to play Ornette’s music and where a lot of the repertoire was comprised of open form pieces, and I had to learn how to deal with that in a convincing way. Coming from a more conventional background this wasn't easy for me at first, and Steve really opened me up to new ways of thinking about playing improvised music. I learned a lot about all sorts of things from playing over a 20 year period with Steve’s brother Julian too – a great musician and a good friend

Simon Nabatov really influenced me in terms of thinking about music in a conceptual way. Simon is very strong on structure and the importance of being aware of the philosophy underpinning what you do as an improvising musician. Many hours on the bandstand with Simon (who is also of course an incredible pianist), and even more hours talking and hanging had a profound influence on how I think about certain aspects of music.

Another very important person for me was the Indian percussionist Ramesh Shotham. At a time when I was really trying to develop my rhythmic vocabulary Ramesh explained the technicalities of South Indian classical rhythmic techniques to me. He hooked me up with many Indian musicians, and we played together with the Karnataka College of Percussion and Charlie Mariano and many others, both in Europe and in India. Without Ramesh’s influence my rhythmic knowledge wouldn’t be anything like what it is now.

Playing with Kenny Wheeler really taught me how to negotiate complex harmonies while being lyrical at the same time. Kenny’s tunes are of course some of the most exquisite pieces in contemporary jazz, but are also extremely challenging to play. I had to work really hard in the practice room to learn how to navigate through the changes of some of those pieces, and to play his music with him was an education in itself.

Where to start on the influence playing with Dave Liebman has had on me.........? I’ve learned so much from him that it’s hard to narrow it down, but some of the most important things I’ve learned from him would include DRAMA! I remember him saying to the band before one of first gigs we did with him, in that classic Lieb straight-to-the-point way - ‘When we play I want drama – I don’t want any of that boring, in-the-middle-shit!’. I learned about the importance of programming a set effectively – how to best do that. How to balance discipline with spontaneity – the importance of keeping everything fresh. And, like with Sonny Fortune (whose musical background is similar in some ways – Miles, Elvin etc.) to be able to play with real intensity ALL the time! The countless musical discussions I’ve had with Lieb over the years - on the road, in restaurants, bars, clubs, planes, hanging out – has really helped shape me in terms of how I think about music.

This clip is taken from a gig with Lieb in the 55 Bar in NY with myself and Jim Black – the picture quality is not good, but the music gives an example of the importance that Lieb places on drama, energy and spontaneity.

But although I’ve learned so much from playing with these great international musicians, there’s something about playing with your contemporaries that feels different to any other playing situation, and since you do that more often than you do playing with visiting musicians, or being on the road with occasional projects, it has a far bigger effect on you than pretty much anything else.

By far the longest playing association I’ve had was with the Guilfoyle/Nielsen trio – with Mike Nielsen on guitar, and my brother Conor on drums. Over a fifteen year period we played together on innumerable occasions, either as a trio or as a rhythm section. In one particularly intense five-year period we developed a very forward thinking approach to expanding our rhythmic language which culminated in me writing my Rhythm Book which is still in print, and us recording our (hardly surprisingly) unreleased ‘Fucked-Up Classics’ album in 1993, featuring a whole album of standards played in Odd Metres. I’ve written about the trio elsewhere and you can download the album Here. But really the time spent with Mike and Conor either working as a trio or as a rhythm section accompanying a myriad of great players (Lieb, Sonny Fortune, Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Werner, Joe Lovano, Larry Coryell, Pat LaBarbera, Conrad Herwig etc.) had by far a bigger influence on my development as a musician than any other single thing, and far exceeds any influence I may have gleaned from listening to records or seeing gigs. The years of talking and experimenting, of developing ideas together and working on them had an incalculable influence on how I play and how I think as a creative musician.

So, influence is not (or definitely shouldn’t be!) just about who you listen to on your own instrument and who you most admire – it’s about ideas and experience, concepts and compositions, mentors and role models, exemplars and experiences. We are not just products of narrow instrumental concerns - loose clones of who we listen to on recordings - but are guided by the totality of our experience in music. Influence is not a simple thing, it, like the music, is a complex mixture of things - at any moment our music reflects not only who we've listened to, but also where we've been, who we've been with and who we are.

Friday, December 3, 2010

On the Road - Hong Kong and Japan - Addendum

To give a little musical context to my recent travel blog, Pekka Pylkkanen, the leader of the band that I went to Hong Kong and Japan with recently, has posted a Video from the Hong Kong concert. I really had fun playing and travelling with these guys!

Pekka Pylkkanen - alto
George Contrafouris - piano
RG - bass
Carlos Ezequiel

MSG's new CD out at last!

MSG - Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto), Chander Sardjoe(drums) and myself have just released our first CD on the Plus Loin label. We've been together for 4 years now and play whenever the Rubik's Cube of our three schedules can be reconciled! The CD is very representative of what we do and it's great to have it out at last!

I don't think it's been released in the US yet, but it's available in Europe and you can buy it Here

For a taste of what we do, here's a typical live performance by the band featuring one of the pieces we don't do on the CD - Rudresh's 'Enhanced Performance'