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Friday, November 9, 2012

Tasteful? What's in a Word?

I just read a review of an album in which the critic described the rhythm section's playing as 'tasteful' I really hate when critics use that description of someone's playing, because to me it denotes several things.

First of all, when the word tasteful is used to describe the playing of the rhythm section, either individually or collectively, it tells me that the writer probably has no idea what to say about the them, and probably doesn't have enough knowledge of the intricacies of rhythm section playing to venture anything other than this bland phrase. It's a cop-out on the writer's part - a one-size-fits-all phrase to use when you've no idea how to differentiate the playing of one rhythm section player from another. It also implies an under-appreciation of how important the rhythm section is - the kind of writer who will  apply the 'tasteful' soubriquet to the rhythm section will usually have written extensively about the soloists in previous paragraphs and then, feeling they have to say something about the rhythm section, will describe their playing as tasteful. It's the same kind of lazy writing that trots out cliches like 'getting up close and personal with......' to describe an interview with someone.

If the rhythm section have had the good manners not to distract the writer from listening to the soloists, whom (ahem), after all are the most important members of any group, the critic will describe them as tasteful. Which brings me to my second point.

'Tasteful' can often be freely substituted by the word bland..... The kind of rhythm sections that are described as tasteful often are units that plod along, playing the right changes, keeping the time in an efficient way, doing nothing to frighten the horses. They have no identity and fulfill a function - they don't get in the way. Like good children, they are seen and not heard. Anonymous. In short, they are a terrible rhythm section. A rhythm section should always be adding to the music, not staying out of the way of it. This doesn't meant that they have to be incredibly active all the time in terms of amount of notes played (it depends on the context), but it does mean that whatever they're doing should be vital to the sound of the band, to the energy of the rhythm, to the forward motion of the music. It should be vital, not tasteful.

If a critic says that a rhythm section is 'tasteful' it usually means one of three things: 1) The critic has no idea about rhythm sections, how they work, or what to say about them. 2) The critic likes his or her rhythm sections to be of the 'seen and not heard/servant of soloists/Bebopper's Labourer kind. Or 3) The rhythm section is crap.

A final point in this mini-rant. What does 'tasteful' even mean in this context? Does it mean played with good taste? A subjective judgement if ever there was one...... Does it mean polite and well mannered? Or does it mean, appropriate to the music? For my money, the latter is the true definition of tastefulness. If a musician is playing in a way that is apposite to the requirements of the music he or she is being tasteful. Elvin Jones, rampaging through 'Transition' with Coltrane is the epitome of tasteful playing. Ron Carter, rhythmically and harmonically nudging and bossing Miles' band is tastefulness personified. Monk's comping behind Coltrane is an object lesson in good taste. Good taste is about doing the right thing in any musical situation, it is not necessarily only about being polite and self-effacing.

Poor Bill Evans is always burdened with that cliche by critics who see things in a very simplistic way. Because his music is lyrical and often on the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum, his playing is often thought to be 'tasteful' in the same way that a restaurant pianist's playing could be described as being tasteful. Quiet, not getting in the way, not drawing attention to itself. Well mannered. This does such a disservice to the depth and complexity of Evans' playing. Whenever I see a critic describe Evans' music as tasteful, I just can't take anything else they say seriously. This is a surface listener, a lazy writer, someone who really doesn't have the equipment to talk about the music in any depth.

If you are a jazz writer, please don't use this vapid cliche when describing someone's playing - do a bit of research instead, listen a little harder, tell us something worth knowing about the music you're describing instead of giving us some bland bromide that fulfills your word count but means nothing. 

In my opinion, describing someone's playing as tasteful is in the worst possible taste..........

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On The Road with Pekka - Part 1, Europe

In October and November of this year I took part in a two-legged tour with the great Finnish alto player Pekka Pylkkanen and as part of his Global Unit group. The first part of the tour took place in France and Switzerland, the second leg in Japan. I've played in this group in the past and it's always fun, being made up of great musicians from different parts of the world (hence the name). For the European leg the other musicians, apart from Pekka and myself, were the American pianist Greg Burk and the Brazilian drummer Carlos Ezequiel. Both wonderful musicians, I've played with them both before in Pekka's group, and with Carlos in several other configurations, including a memorable trip to India earlier this year.

My trip began as so many do, with having to get up at 4am (bleh.....) to catch the red-eye to Geneva, and from there to Basel where we were playing two nights at a wonderful club, The Bird's Eye. We were also going to do some live recording, some recording during the day, and combine that with a studio recording at the end of the week in France. A lot of people don't realise what musicians have to do on the road sometimes - in this case, we had four musicians who have come from four different countries, travelled long distances, went straight into rehearsal, put two sets of music together in 90 minutes, soundchecked, ate quickly and then played two sets of music. And some people think being on the road is glamorous!

Considering how little time we had and how tired he were, we played some very good music - a mixture of originals by Pekka, Carlos, Greg and I, and a few arrangements of jazz standards. But the extremely long day kicked in, and I definitely hit the wall half way through the second set - got totally exhausted and had to dig deep to keep my concentration and play competently at least for the last few tunes.

But a good night's rest will do wonders, and the next night was much better - the band sounded better and we were starting to get a real grip on the music. The result of getting to know your material in jazz is always one of creating a feeling of both tightness and looseness - tightness in that the written and composed material is played better, and looseness in the sense of a feeling of freedom within the material that comes from having confidence in knowing that material well. We got into some good energy and the audience responded warmly - it all boded well for the next day's recording.

And the recording the next day was indeed a good one - it was nice to record on stage rather than in the often sterile environment of the studio. And since we'd played the music the previous two nights we had the cushion of both being comfortable with the material and the recording environment, which is a real bonus. We recorded pretty much all our material and then recorded a bunch of improvised short vignettes - pieces improvised on the spot, each one started by a different member of the band. I've always liked doing this - these pieces can often reveal aspects of the band that are not evident in the written material. I haven't listened back to the material yet, but I'm looking forward to hearing these pieces - I think we did some really nice ones!

Recording finished, we headed to Basel airport (which must be the only airport in the world that straddles the border of two countries......), hired a car and drove into France. We headed for Metz to stay overnight, and on the drive there got into some lengthy discussions of politics and economics and the current political/financial situation. Jazz musicians should really record these on-the-road conversations - on this trip we pretty much solved all the world's problems - who needs politicians and economists when you have a jazz quartet to sort everything out!?

(Metz Cathedral)

We had some time off the next morning before heading to Fontainebleu, so Greg and I took a look around Metz, an interesting town that shows both German and French influences. The Cathedral is renowned and when you step inside you can see why - it's a vast Gothic construct with a soaring ceiling and featuring beautiful stained glass windows by Chagall. The size of it and the fact that people have prayed there since the 5th Century gives even an atheist like me an idea of the power religion has had on the minds of people over the centuries.

And the power that good food has on me in France should not be underestimated either - having basked in the glory of Medieval religion, it was time for Greg and I to bask in the glory of local French food, at a local market and to eat a simple but great lunch at a famous soup counter in the market, beside the cathedral. I partook in the delicacy of Boudin Noir with apples (an acquired taste perhaps, but one I acquired a long time ago, raised as I was on Black Pudding - the irish equivalent), while Greg had some fantastic slow-baked lamb. French food is often thought of as fancy and chef-y, but regional French food tends to be both simple and delicious.

And the food theme continued as we headed off for Fontainebleu to play the next gig - at a jazz club that is owned by and is an annexe to a Moroccan restaurant. The R-Jazz Club is a cosy little club and the owner and his family are lovely people - genuine enthusiasts who love the music and their club. It was really a pleasure to play for them, and also a pleasure to eat the wonderful food they provided for us before and after the gig - all jazz club gigs should be like this!

(Gourmet Market - Milly La-Foret)

We stayed the night at a small hotel in the nearby town of Milly La-Foret, a small quiet place that sports a gourmet market (more food!) on Saturday mornings. All kinds of artisan products were on display and the market demonstrated again the importance the French place on food - if only all countries were the same in this regard.......

And then it was off to another small town - Dammarie-Lès-Lys

 (Pekka and Carlos at the studio)

We were recording in a studio in the engineer’s home – I like these kinds of environments, again they’re a bit different to the airless bunkers that often constitute studios these days. The engineer’s house was in a small town in the countryside and the whole scene was pleasant and conducive to relaxed but concentrated work. Where else but France could you take a break and have a lunch of Confit Duck in a local restaurant? We got all the tracks recorded that we hadn’t managed to get to in Basel, and we re-recorded a couple of others, and then we headed for Dammarie-Lès-Lys where we would be staying for the next few nights.

Dammerie is close to Paris, and we had a day off the next day so it was a foregone conclusion that we would head into town at some point. And what a perfect day for a trip to Paris it was! A beautiful late Autumn day, bright sunshine – it was almost like being on the film set of one of those Hymn-to-Paris movies that Woody Allen makes. Carlos and Greg went in earlier and went around the Louvre, (Carlos commented that his smile is more mysterious than that of La Giaconda – see below and decide for yourself….), Pekka and I headed in during the late afternoon and we met up with the guys, walked around in the sunshine along the Seine, and had a delicious and very good value dinner in a great traditional Bistro, before heading back to our hotel in Dammarie. Sometimes being a musician IS glamorous! Or at least lots of fun………

(Carlos enters a smiling competition with the Mona Lisa)

The reason we were in Dammerie was because of its proximity to CMDL – the school of Didier Lockwood, where we did a combined workshop and concert performance. The school is in a lovely setting and has a student body of around 100, which is a perfect size in my opinion – big enough to be interesting, but not too big to become impersonal. I got together with the bassists, and we discussed various bass related issues, but also musical issues in the wider sense. When you get together with a group of students whom you haven’t met before, and you only have an hour, it’s hard to get into much concrete information, since by the time you know what it is they wish to work on with you, the time is almost up. But they were a very receptive group, we managed to get into some interesting stuff, and a good time was had by all.

After the workshop we played a concert for the students for about an hour – really fun, because at this point we really knew the music and were able to get into it immediately and explore it more fully at the same time. This was our last gig on this leg of the tour, so it had the usual bittersweet flavor that these last gigs on tours always have.

To give you an idea of some of the music we played, here's a recording of a piece of mine called 'Traditional', recorded live at the Bird's Eye club on the second night of the tour.


(Greg, Pekka, Carlos and I, outside the Bird's Eye Club in Basel)

 So that was that – some travelling, lots of music, lots of new music recorded, and lots of good food! I left the next morning to go back to Dublin to change my clothes re-pack my bags, and head off for the second leg of the tour – Japan!