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

Saturday, January 28, 2012

F**k The Filesharing Websites (and their apologists.........)

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the internet and piracy and SOPA and government and big corporation collusion to censor the internet etc. And while quite frankly I don’t know the ins and outs of the whole SOPA thing, I must admit to a feeling of cynicism about a lot of the views expressed on behalf of, and in support of the file sharers.

I must say I still can’t see this illegal file sharing thing as anything other than thievery. In my opinion there’s a piece of convenient moral myopia going on regarding the illegal downloading of music (and films for that matter). In a weird parallel moral universe it seems to be that theft is not theft in so many people’s minds, simply because so many people are doing it. The kind of moral dancing on the head of a pin that people are doing to justify illegal downloading of other people’s property is quite frankly bullshit. It’s self-serving convenient bullshit that suits the people who are stealing the property so they don’t have to feel bad about themselves, or so that they don’t recognise themselves as being thieves.

And they are thieves.

All the arguments put forward in support of illegally downloading are self-serving at best. You cannot get away from the simple fact that the illegal downloading of files is theft.

If I own something and you take it from me without my knowledge or permission, you have stolen it. It’s that simple. The fact that I may be helpless to do anything about it, or not even know that you’ve stolen it doesn’t make it any more morally right on your part to take it. In fact it’s arguably even worse.

The fact that it’s possible for you to steal it doesn’t make it right either. If you saw a car door open, and the keys of the car were in the ignition, would you steal it? If the answer is yes, then there’s nothing more to talk about, but if the answer is no, but you would take an online music file illegally, then maybe you need to have a rummage around in your sense of morality and see what you come up with.

The fact that everybody does it doesn’t make it right either. If I have an item of value in my house and someone comes in and steals it, that person is a thief. If I have a thousand items of value in my house and a thousand people come in and each steal one of my items does that make each one of them any less of a thief than the solitary thief? Does the fact that so many of them are involved in the theft make each one of them less morally culpable?

At what point does the mass theft of someone’s property cease to become theft? How many pieces of music must be stolen by how many thieves before the thieves become no longer thieves, but people who just ‘love music’? Is there a tipping point? Is 100? 1000? 10,000? A million? At what point does morality change because of the numbers involved? Because I’m damned if I know!

Big Companies Are Fair Game

And this whole argument that goes - ‘this is just the big record companies trying to protect their big profits while exploiting their artists’ is, on moral grounds, also complete bullshit. So it’s OK now to steal from a big company because they are a big company? I have no love for Verve, or EMI, or Sony – none of these companies would give me the time of day if I were to try and get them to release my music. Are they, or have they been involved in the exploitation of their artists? In some cases, certainly. Does that make it OK to steal their products? No!

If it’s OK to steal from Sony or Universal because they are a big company, then fuck it, let’s steal from Apple! Let’s steal iPads and Powerbooks and iPhones. Apple are a big company, (they recently announced $6 billion profit on sales of $28 billion), they’ve been allegedly involved in dubious work practices with their workers in China, and they’re interested in protecting their profits. So by the logic of the argument used regarding stealing from big record and media companies, it should be OK to steal from Apple too – right?

This ‘big companies are fair game for theft’ argument is unsustainable from any standpoint other than self-serving hypocrisy. The thing that bothers me the most about all of this is that there seems to have been some kind of moral bypass brought into being. Nobody has yet managed to explain to me how illegally taking somebody else’s property is not theft. Perhaps, in the case of music and film downloading, it’s because the tracks or movies themselves have no physical manifestation – there’s nothing you can hold in your hand unless you burn it to a CD or DVD. Perhaps if the music or film were a physical entity people would be less likely to steal them, or , it might be more accurate to say, people would be less able to ignore the fact that they were stealing them. Because it takes only the smallest amount of reflection to see that illegal downloading of copyright material is theft.

It doesn’t suit most people to admit that, because you know what? Then they’d have to pay for music!! The horror! And you know what else? How could they possibly afford to put 3000 tunes on their iPods if they had to pay the people that produced the music? I mean – is it fair that all these listeners should have to pay for the pleasure they receive from this music? Is it fair that the people who actually created the music and/or paid for the cost of producing it should be demanding some small payment from the people who use this music for pleasure? The nerve of these musicians and film makers – demanding money for the use of their work! How selfish can you be!?

The Candy Bar Comparison

Someone recently said that legally buying a track on iTunes costs less than a candy bar, and a candy bar only lasts 5 minutes. Yet people will happily pay out the money for a candy bar (and most people would never contemplate stealing a candy bar....), but they balk at the idea of paying for a piece of music that will potentially give them endless pleasure. How did we arrive at this point where music, films, software – all the products of creative minds – are items that people not only will happily take without permission, but will actually resent the idea of having to pay for? I’ve noticed that when you ask people if they’ve paid for the music/film/software they’re playing/watching/using, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy, or even become indignant at the very idea of being asked to pay for these items.

I’m not coming at this from a holier-than-thou perspective – my own feelings on intellectual property is that it should be the property of the person who produces it, but I’m not a great believer, for example, in this intellectual property then passing on to the descendants of the original artist, so they can make money out of it, despite having no hand act or part in the production of it. If someone copies a recording from a long dead artist it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It’s still illegal, but morally, (in my opinion, and I accept that others may differ), it’s in a completely different category to stealing from the living artist who’s trying to make a living from his or her art. Have I ever been given a recording of something by a living artist that I haven’t paid for? Occasionally, yes I have – but in general I will always try to buy the recording in order to support the artist. And this is especially true if I admire their music. And at least I’m not trying to fool myself – I know it was wrong to have taken it, and in general I steer clear of this stuff. It doesn’t feel right at all. I have never deliberately illegally downloaded a music track or a film – and I never will.

The worst thing about the free-for-all of music downloading is that in the end, the biggest victims of this are not the Lady Ga Ga’s or the REM’s or suchlike, but the musicians who are trying to exist on the margins. In jazz it was always difficult to make small record labels work economically – now it’s impossible. Small independent jazz labels are dropping like flies – the return on any investment in the music is so small that it’s not worth doing any more. That’s if you get any return at all. The few labels left will make impossible demands of you. Recently I had a recording of mine turned down by a European jazz label, despite the fact that it featured John Abercrombie, and the owner really liked the music. The reason he chose to go with a different artist was because that artist had given him the publishing rights to the music on his CD. That’s how desperate people are to get their music on CD – they’ll give away the publishing rights to the label.

Stealing From Our Heroes

There has always been precious little profit in making jazz CDs but whatever was there before has now disappeared thanks in no small part to file sharing. Young jazz fans, (and most young people in general), don’t seem to believe in paying for music any more. They’ve got used to acquiring music for nothing and see no reason why they should pay for a commodity they see as being their entitlement. I find this illegal sharing particularly baffling in the case of young aspirant jazz musicians. These are people who allegedly revere their heroes, yet see no contradiction in stealing from them.... If there are any Kurt Rosenwinkel or Brad Melhdau devotees reading this, I ask you – have you ever copied a track from a commercially available CD of Brad’s or Kurt’s for free? If the answer is yes, then how do you justify stealing from someone whom you regard as a musical hero and an inspiration? For every CD or track legally sold, these guys (and any artist) will get some kind of return – even if it’s only in the form of the company agreeing to release another recording. Conversely, for every track illegally copied or downloaded, these same people will not only get nothing but will find it more difficult to get recordings made in the future.

If you understand that even your small contribution could impact negatively or positively on your musical heroes, surely you’d want to be on the positive side? And let’s face it, it’s not as if musicians aren’t already giving away huge amounts of music for free anyway. Everybody has free downloads on their websites – so would it kill the rest of you to pay for the small amount of stuff that these artists are trying to sell in order to make a living? Is that too much too ask?

A student of mine recently sent me an email and asked me if I could send him a copy of my rhythm book as a PDF and mp3........ I didn’t even ask if he was looking for it for free (probably because I didn’t want to hear the answer....), but I can imagine what would happen once I started emailing the book and accompanying recording in those formats. That would be the end of whatever small sales I have.

And these are musicians who hope to be in the professional world in a short time. If even they don’t see the damage that illegal copying and downloading is doing, then what hope for the rest of the world? I guess they’ll understand soon enough...........

I’m a realist – I recognise that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back. I don’t think the illegal downloaders realise the damage they are doing to the art forms they profess to love (why will anyone bother to record in the future when it just ends up costing you money? That’s a discussion for another day), and I don’t think it’s possible to change how they think. But although I know there’s not much to be done in terms of changing things, I’m damned if I’m going to go along with the apologists for thievery, and the mealy-mouthed crap spouted by supporters of ‘filesharing sites’. These people are running nothing less than online warehouses full of stolen goods – they are thieves and fences. So fuck Megadownload/upload, Pirate Bay and all of the other robbers posing as free spirits serving the needs of music and film lovers. We musicians may be screwed thanks to the likes of these guys, but it would be of no small satisfaction to me to see them in jail for what they’ve done.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Tommy Williams - extraordinary, yet almost unknown.........

Tommy Williams

"I hated to follow bass solos after Tom joined the band, because he could put horn players to shame."

Benny Golson

A couple of years ago I bought the complete Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet - the Mosaic set. Like all Mosaic sets these were beautifully re-mastered with pristine sound, the package was a collector’s delight too, with beautiful photographs taken from the sessions. I’d heard some of the first recordings before, with the very young McCoy Tyner on piano, and of course Benny’s writing was always special. I had the good fortune to do a couple of tours with Benny about 10 years ago and to play his music night after night was such a thrill. It was like a hard-bop greatest hits show, except that I was playing the pieces with the guy who actually wrote everything! “Along Came Betty’, ‘Stablemates’, ‘Whisper Not’, ‘Blues March’, ‘I Remember Clifford’ etc – I had to keep pinching myself...... But one thing I now regret is not knowing about the bassist in one of the later editions of the Jazztet – Tommy Williams, because I could have asked Benny about him.

Before getting the Jazztet collection I had never heard of Tommy Williams, and as I listened through all the music on the CDs I was startled to hear an amazing bass solo on ‘Hi-Fly’, and then another on ‘2 Degrees East, Three Degrees West’ - and there were more. In fact there were a lot of bass solos, much more than one would normally hear on a hard-bop recording. With the exception of Paul Chambers, who was a celebrated soloist and got more leeway in the soloing department than most other bassists (probably because of the amount of solos Miles gave him), there might be one or two bass solos on a typical hard-bop recording, at most. But here was solo after solo – and what solos!

I looked at the personnel on the sleeve of the CD, expecting to see a name I’d recognise, but - Tommy Williams? I’d never heard of him, and of course went immediately to the internet and found almost no information on him there. On the liner notes to the Jazztet recordings Benny mentioned what a great soloist Williams was, but also said that his wife had hated the jazz life and had put pressure on him to give up playing, which he eventually did. The jazz life of those days was really rough, and I can imagine it must have been very difficult for a spouse to deal with – the absences, unsociable hours, prevalence of substance abuse and the small money. So no doubt Williams’ wife had her reasons for getting him to quit, but if these recordings are anything to go by the Williams’ domestic harmony was bought at the price of depriving the world of someone who would undoubtedly have become one of the great bassists in jazz.

The solos are extraordinary – in fact in terms of negotiating swinging hard-bop changes on the bass, Chambers is the only other bassist I can think of who gets around the instrument as agilely as Williams (though George Duvivier on his day could hold his own in any company). His playing is maybe a little less legato than Chambers’, but he uses more expressive nuance on the bass than PC – glissandos, drop-offs, a great variety of attack – all are used in the service of constructing swinging and totally convincing solos. And the walking is not too shabby either! Check out the virile walking line on ‘Hi-Fly’ - very special.

Apparently Williams went on to play with Stan Getz, on some of his Bossa recordings (what a difference to what he was doing with Golson!), and I’ve found him on a recording well known to trombonists - Great Kai and JJ - which apart from Kai Winding and JJ Johnson, also features a stellar rhythm section containing Bill Evans with either Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes (‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’ rhythm section!) or with Tommy Williams and Art Taylor. No doubt he’s on a few more things too – but not many. Such a shame, what a talent........

Here are a few of the bass solos from the Farmer-Golson album – I would encourage you to get the full set of these recordings, there’s so much great writing and playing on them.

I’m sure Mrs Williams was happy to have her husband leave the jazz life. I’m equally sure we would have been happy had he stayed.........

Tommy Williams

Saturday, January 7, 2012

'Hands', Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra - Premiere and Video Diary

Rick Peckham

Next week sees the culmination of a year’s work – the premiere of ’Hands’ my new concerto for electric guitar and orchestra which will be performed by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra with the great American guitarist Rick Peckham This will be the fifth piece I’ve written for symphony orchestra and the third concerto, (the other two were for violin and piano respectively), and hopefully I’m getting better at it!

I remember the first piece I wrote for the orchestra in 1994 and the incredibly gauche orchestration gaffes I made (what, string players need to have bowings written in!?) and how I sat up all night after the first rehearsal adding in hundreds of dynamic markings and slurs and bowings in an effort to a) not be as humiliated as I was the day before, and b) to get closer to what I was hearing in my head. I’ve never had any formal training in orchestral writing or composition and I’ve learned on the job, in the same way as I did in the jazz world. But discovering things by trial and error is often a deeper experience than having someone show you something – the act of discovery seems to deepen the experience, one is actively learning rather than passively receiving. Having said that I wouldn’t have minded receiving some basic orchestration lessons and being spared the agony of that first orchestral rehearsal!

In music, (by necessity rather than desire), I’ve always been an autodidact and have had to figure out different ways to get to where I wanted to go in terms of musical knowledge, technique etc. In the case of orchestral music, courtesy of my father who raised us all in an environment of great music, I am very familiar with the classical tradition and how an orchestra should sound, but I had no idea how to achieve those sounds. So I read some orchestration books, including the wonderful ’Orchestral Technique’, by Gordon Jacob, a crash course in orchestration in less than 100 pages recommended to me by Noel Kelehan, a great Irish jazz pianist and arranger, in response to my cry for help upon receiving my first orchestral commission and realising that if I was to keep the money I’d actually have to write some orchestral music...... I also checked out some orchestral scores, studying them closely while listening to the recordings, and making notes in a little book in which I would reference things that particularly caught my ear, and note the place they occurred in the score so that I could access this information later.

Over the years my orchestral writing has become more confident and competent and I don’t worry so much about orchestration any more, but relish the opportunity to work with that Rolls Royce of the musical world - the symphony orchestra. On setting out to write this new piece I decided to keep a series of video diaries of the process and make them available to anyone who might be interested.

Here is the first episode in which I describe my way of working and my plans (and hopes) for the piece

My first step of the actual writing of the piece took place in March last at the beautiful Tyrone Guthrie Centre, an artist’s retreat in Ireland where I was able to work for a week, undisturbed by everyday life. As you can see from this episode of the video diary, I met with both success and difficulties...........

One skill I've never aquired is conducting, and even if I had, I don’t think I would have got it to the level of being able to conduct a symphony orchestra. And of course the conductor is such a vital part of the interpretation of a symphonic piece and speaking as a composer, a conductor can make or break you when it comes to having your orchestral piece performed. With my pieces, rhythm and feel are vitally important, and getting 90 musicians to play together with a particular rhythmic feel, or even cohesiveness, are among the hardest things to achieve with an orchestra. To have any chance, you definitely need the right guy on the conductor’s podium.

So I was lucky to have the wonderful Scott Stroman to conduct the piece. Scott is adept in both jazz and classical idioms and is vastly experienced as both a conductor and composer. I know Scott very well too, so I was able to look forward to the performance of the piece without the necessity of that first meeting with an unknown conductor where you find out if the he (or she) ‘gets’ what you’re trying to do. In June I was working with Scott in London and took the opportunity to meet him and have a chat about the piece.

Later in the same month, I did an interview with the Contemporary Music Centre in Dublin and talked in a more general way about composition. You can see the interview here

In August I was in Boston and met the soloist Rick Peckham at his home, and we talked pedals and general guitaristic stuff.

As the final interview in the series, I met some of the orchestral players who would be playing the piece. Oftentimes in classical composition, the orchestra is seen by the composers as some kind of impersonal machine whose job it is to reproduce what the composer hears, but of course an orchestra is comprised of individuals too and it makes sense to talk to them about what they like or don’t like when playing new music. We had a really great chat and I hope we can do it again soon.

The piece itself comes in at around 20 minutes, is in three movements, and has an improvised cadenza that will connect the first and second movements, as well as some spaces for improvisation for the guitar in the first movement. I know Rick's been experimenting with different sounds for the piece, so I'm really looking forward to hear what he comes up with.

We have two performances of it next week - an incredible luxury - a kind of workshop/preview on Tuesday (17th) at lunchtime at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and the official world premiere on the following Friday as part of the full symphony concert, alongside music by John Adams and Shostakovitch - no pressure then!

Here's the final segment of the video diary - I hope some of you who are in Dublin can make it to one of the performances