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

Friday, January 30, 2015

'Chasin' The Trane' - Another Listen

Chasin’ the Trane…..

How many times have I listened to this? It must be in the hundreds by now, I know nearly every note of Coltrane’s solo as well as much of what Elvin and Jimmy play too. But listening to it again in the car the other day brought a new understanding of why this is such a great recording, and such an important piece of music in the jazz canon.

On the face of it – three musicians playing a blues – there’s nothing remarkable about it. It doesn’t do anything new structurally, nor reinvent the wheel as far as the 12-bar form of the blues is concerned. There is no standout theme as such – Trane plays a simple descending line and off they go for over fifteen minutes. So, three guys playing a blues with a skeletal theme, bright tempo, regular key (F), normal form – nothing remarkable in any of that. But of course it is remarkable, it remains one of the best-known recordings of Coltrane’s, and is recognized as one of the great recorded blues performances.  So what is it that makes this stand out? Even in Coltrane’s roster of recordings, (which contains so many classic and influential pieces), this is acknowledged as a landmark performance. Why?

Because this recording shows three great musicians, at the apex of the culture they come from, taking a musical form which evolved in their culture, (and one that is implicit in all forms of American jazz), and playing it at a level that both respects the structure and ethos of the form, while at the same time creating what can only be described as high art.

These are virtuoso musicians, at the height of their powers, at the forefront of their tradition, playing a song form that is vital to that tradition, and playing it in a city (New York), and at a place, (the Village Vanguard), synonymous with the greatest players and creators of this art form. Coltrane, Garrison and Jones, playing the blues at the Vanguard, is Rostropovitch playing Shostakovitch in Moscow, Ali Akbar Khan playing Raga Marwa in Delhi, Willy Clancy playing jigs and reels in Clare. It represents the highest manifestations of a musical culture, one that takes something vital from that culture and renews and honours it in live performance.

There is something ritualistic about ‘Chasin’ The Trane’. Although the band, and especially Coltrane, are stretching and pushing at the edges of the blues form, there is no breaking of it, no deconstruction or reconstruction. Unlike the Miles Davis group of the same era, Coltrane’s classic quartet, (at least in this period), did not engage in perilous experiments with form, which stretched pieces to breaking point and beyond. Instead, as in this performance, they set out with a certainty of where they were going. Yes, they were improvising and pushing their creativity, but within the clearly defined structure of the blues – one that can be clearly heard throughout this piece.  

The declamatory nature of the blues is also contained within Coltrane’s marathon solo here too – he always was a great blues player and here again he demonstrates it. Elvin propels everything forward and is extraordinarily responsive to every twist and turn of Coltrane’s line, sometimes working alongside it and answering it, at other times almost contradicting it. Garrison remains at the centre of everything – powerful, immovable, reinforcing.

Dynamically it remains fairly constant throughout – it starts at a bright mezzo forte, and stays constant with that level, only raising the heat a little as the piece goes on. This performance does not have the usual rising dynamic arc of the contemporary jazz solo, it maintains its opening dynamic throughout, but increases the intensity by the sheer accumulation of power over the 15 minute length of the piece. Like so much great jazz, it is not only about what is played, but also the way it is played. 

Despite the fact that this is a twelve-bar blues and Coltrane is playing quite chromatically at times, there is also a trance-like quality to the piece, and the repetition, the ticking-over of the twelve-bar form, combined with the power and cohesion of the three players, makes for a listening experience whereby the listener is inexorably drawn in as the performance continues. To the point that, when Coltrane abruptly finishes, it comes as a complete surprise, and indeed a wrench to the listener.

Coltrane’s solo, and this whole piece, feels to me like it has no beginning, middle or end – it is one complete statement, declared at the beginning, and repeated and reinforced as the music unwinds. But in a way his solo cannot be taken in isolation, since the power of the piece is the result of the common purpose of all three men as they create, declaim, proclaim and exclaim - and of course, to use a technical term, swing their asses off!

If it's possible that you've never heard this then please do you yourself a favour and check it out as soon as possible. If it's been a while since you've listened to it, then get back to it. And if you've listened to it recently, then do it again! Great art never gets old….

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Karnataka College of Percussion at 50!

(T.A.S. Mani)

Next year the Karnataka College of Percussion is 50 years old. Founded by the great Mridangam player T.A.S.Mani in 1964, it was, and is, a unique institution in that it organized lessons in a school format in a music that was traditionally always taught on a one-to-one basis in a guru system. Mr. Mani's forward thinking, desire to spread the knowledge of his instrument, and Carnatic music in general, and his generosity in sharing his skill and genius, has meant that hundreds of people have had a chance to study and perform this amazing music and appreciate its subtleties and intricacies.

In undertaking this groundbreaking work in India Mr. Mani was ably assisted by his wife, the brilliant vocalist R.A. Ramamani, and the two of them together have been a major force in spreading this incredible music, not only in India, but also abroad, particularly in their collaborations with jazz musicians.

(R.A. Ramamani)

My own experience with these great musicians began through another musician who had himself studied with Mr. Mani and went on to become one of their closest collaborators, the great percussionist Ramesh Shotham. Ramesh and I first met during a trio project with the pianist Simon Nabatov and became fast friends. At that time I was beginning my immersion in the world of rhythm and had become fascinated with the rhythmic techniques of Carnatic music - Ramesh was a mine of information on this subject, having studied with, and later performed extensively with Mr. Mani and Ramamani.

At this point I was already aware of KCP and the Manis through their ECM recording Jyothi, with the legendary saxophonist Charlie Mariano. As well as making Carnartic music more accessible to a bigger audience, this recording introduced the wider jazz world to the composition of Ramamani - a unique body of work.

These compositions were crucial in increasing the possibilities for jazz musicians to work with Indian classical musicians and find a common ground in which both can contribute while maintaining their own identity.

Carnatic music uses structures that are unique to it, and the responses of the musicians while they improvise are governed by a set of rules (ragas, talas, jatis, tihais, korvais etc) which take a very long time to learn, and for the western musician, are difficult to relate to unless you've done a lot of study. The same could be said of Carnatic musicians - they often don't understand the structures of jazz performances, and the result of this mutual incomprehension is that many collaborations between jazz musicians and Indian classical musicians are often stiff and directionless.

Ramamani's compositions provided a bridge between these traditions - they use Indian ragas and talas for the melodic and rhythmic material, but simplify the song form structures, which provide space for the jazz guys to improvise in and to grasp the overall structure of the piece. Here is one of Ramamani's tunes, 'Varshini', (wrongly titled in the video as 'Mr Mani'), played in Germany in 1995

It was on this tour that I finally got to meet and play with the Manis, and what a thrill it was! The band included Ramesh on percussion. We did about 20 concerts and were joined on some by Charlie Mariano, who had a long relationship with KCP, and by the Dutch pianist Jasper Van't Hof. The material was mostly Ramamani's compositions, and a few traditional Indian pieces. Working with the Manis was wonderful - they were both really nice people, easy to travel with, very patient with the inevitable delays and hanging around that touring involves.

And then of course there was the playing…… both are supreme masters of their art, technically flawless and can play with the kind of intensity that only the finest musicians can access.   I remember several alaps (non-metered introductions) that Ramamani did that were stunning, and I also remember one particular night in Vienna when Mr. Mani's end of concert Mridangam solo went beyond even his extraordinary level, driven no doubt by Mani's knowledge that there was a tabla player in the front row of the audience who needed to be shown who was the boss!

We concluded the tour in Turkey where we were joined by the Irish guitarist Mike Nielsen and the legendary Turkish percussionist Okay Temiz and there we made a really nice album called 'Mishram' for a small Turkish label. I always regretted that this had such a limited release, because I think it really achieved a convincing blending of the Indian and jazz elements in the music, producing something quite unique. Here's one of Ramamani's compositions from that recording, dedicated to her husband, 'Mr. Mani'

After that tour I played with the Manis several more times, and it was always a pleasure, their adaptability to other musicians outside their own tradition is extraordinary and very unusual in Indian classical musicians. This was demonstrated again in the biggest thing we did together - a project called '5 Cities'. This was a unique event that brought together jazz musicians, Irish traditional musicians, and Indian classical musicians. For this project I wrote an extensive suite that featured everyone at various times, and since we toured it in five cities in India, it was given the '5 Cities' title.

It was a challenge to write a piece in which each tradition could be discerned and yet work as a whole, but having such great musicians in this project, from all of the various traditions, made it a lot easier. It was quite a big undertaking to make it work musically and logistically, but work it did and we toured India with it as well as playing it in Ireland. A fly-on-the-wall documentary was made of our Indian tour and the final concert in Dublin was filmed too. Here's the last movement of the suite, with a great demonstration at the end of the Mani's amazing rhythmic dexterity, along with Ramesh, and also how much fun this project was!

Playing with the Mani's and KCP has immeasurably enriched my musical life - they are great people, and great musicians and they have done so much both to promote the amazing music from their country, and to foster ways in which people from different cultures can callaborate. Fifty years of doing anything is amazing, but fifty years of musical invention, innovation and skill at the highest level is something we should all be thankful for. Here's to the lots more great music from the Manis - I hope I get a chance to play music with them again!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hancock's World

I’ve just finished Herbie Hancock’s autobiography ‘Possibilities’, (co-written with Lisa Dickey). It’s an interesting book, as you would expect with someone of Hancock’s pedigree and history, and reading it reminds you just how much music he has been involved with, some of it groundbreaking, and all of it graced by his amazing pianism and creativity.  Hancock is one of those guys who has been around, at the top of the jazz tree, for so long you can almost take him for granted. But reading this book sent me back to some of the music he’s done over the years, and it was an instructive lesson in just how great a jazz musician he is.

In his early days with Miles and others he demonstrated all the attributes that made him such a major figure so quickly. He somehow combined the harmonic sophistication of Bill Evans with a swinging right hand that rivaled Wynton Kelly’s, especially at medium tempos. He was also a virtuoso, on a par with anybody when it came to playing fast tempos effortlessly, and he could imbue anything with a bluesy sensibility . Very much the complete package, these attributes and his high profile gig with Miles ensured that he, (along with McCoy Tyner, the pianist in the other gold standard band of the 60s), became one of the most influential pianists in jazz. In the 70s he went on to form Headhunters, create one of the biggest selling jazz album of all time, and pushed into the electronic world with enthusiasm and imagination. He’s still out there, after a career of over fifty years, still playing great and still boundlessly enthusiastic about music and excited by whatever his latest project is.

As to the book itself, it’s very interesting in a lot of ways and a bit puzzling in others

It’s interesting to read about his childhood and time in college, the fact that he went there originally to study engineering, and ended up changing his Major to music. His background in engineering did have a lasting impact on him however, in that it drove his fascination with music technology, which is something he’s still obsessed about to this day, and there is much description in the book of his various encounters with new technology, and how he would push the inventors of these technologies to stretch the capabilities of what they could do.

He describes his racist experience with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a young man, and his discovery by Donald Byrd and subsequent move to New York in the early 60s at age twenty. His stories about Miles and how that band began are fascinating and there is much here for anyone interested in the gestation of this great ensemble, its psychology, development and ultimate dissolution. He then goes on to describe the innovative ‘Mwandishi’ band, and then Headhunters and Hancock’s emergence from the limited exposure of the jazz world into the bright lights of the pop world. I found the whole Headhunters and Mwandishi story to be fascinating and also the technological advances that lead to such hits as ‘Rockit’ etc. Herbie always had a feeling for a good groove that would appeal to many people, something proved by ‘Watermelon Man’, which was a huge hit from his first album while he was still an acoustic jazz musician.

(Headhunters live in Germany in 1974)

This is a very honest book in lots of ways and Hancock does not shy away from describing the lows of his life, (such as his addiction to crack cocaine in the 90s), and the flaws in his character as he sees them. He also is scrupulous about giving credit to people that helped him with various things, such as his story about how Joe Zawinul gave him the key advice on how to write for three horns that lead to the masterpiece album ‘Speak Like a Child’. In general he is self-deprecating, and someone who didn’t know his music but had just read this book, might be forgiven for not suspecting just what a great musician he is. In general he comes over as being a nice guy, affable, and good with people in an everyday setting.

So these are the aspects of the book that I found very interesting, but there are also some aspects of this book that I find strange.

The first one is that he gives almost no sense of what it must have been like to be a young pianist, on the scene, in New York in the 1960s. This was in many ways a golden era for jazz and in the early 60s you could see everyone from Louis Armstrong to Cecil Taylor in New York – the entire past, present and future of the music all in one place at the same time. Yet Hancock makes no real mention of the scene, of what that was like for a young pianist. There is no mention of Monk, of Rollins, or even of Coltrane. Trane was the other Big Beast in the world of jazz at that time and Hancock must have seen him play, and Trane was almost certainly at some of the Miles gigs that Hancock played at, yet there is no mention of him at all apart from Hancock stating that he played in some clubs with Miles that Trane and other famous musicians had played at. There is no mention of Rollins, whom Hancock recorded with at that time, or of Ornette, or even of the great albums of Wayne Shorter that Hancock played on at that time.

(With Miles Davis in 1967)

There is no colour in the 60s NY scene as told by Hancock, in the way that there is colour in the NY of the 40s and 50s as told in the Monk biography. Hancock concentrates on the Miles band and his own recordings, and then we’re into the 70s. I felt a bit short-changed – surely the scene there must have had an influence on him at that age, yet very little is mentioned. A pity.

The other strange thing about this book is Herbie’s obvious love of the showbiz life. He’s still star-struck and delighted to be included in big awards ceremonies and being admitted to VIP areas, and surrounded by beautiful women. One would imagine that after all these years he’d be used to being at the top table and would have at least some feeling of deserving to be there. But no, he’s still besotted by the glamour of high-end celebrity and there are moments in the book when his wide-eyed delight at being at this event, or being spoken to by that celebrity really feels strange when you consider how great he is in his own right, and how long he’s been mixing with these kinds of people.

An example of this comes late in the book, when Herbie is describing his surprise at winning his umpteenth Grammy, for ‘The Joni Letters’, for which his competitors were the Foo Fighters, Amy Winehouse, Vince Gill and Kanye West. Of this Herbie says ‘These artists made for some rarified company, so I was happy just to have been nominated’. So, the musician who made some of the greatest music of the 20th century with Miles Davis, broke the mold with jazz funk and music video, had scored movies for Antonioni and Tavernier, and was one of the world’s most influential jazz pianists, felt lucky to have been included in a list that included a mediocrity like Kanye West!? It’s baffling that he should a) be still so Star-struck after so many years at the top, and b) have such a low opinion of himself and his achievements that he should feel lucky to be included in such a list……….

This book is not anything like as good as the aforementioned Monk biography, or of Wayne Shorter’s biography ‘Footprints’, but it is an interesting read nevertheless. And as I mentioned at the beginning, it does send you back to the music, and when you see playing like in the clip below it makes you glad that Herbie is still with us.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Year in the Life - Realisation and Renewal

It's funny how life goes sometimes. When you're young and you throw yourself into something like music, everything can seem very simple. Every day you practice and work hard and try and get better, and you do all of this without thought. If all goes well you build your career and earn your living doing this wonderful thing. Then a strange thing can happen, you find yourself doing more and more work that is peripheral to the actual act of playing itself - especially these days with all the distractions of technology social media, and the necessity to be your own publicist/producer/agent/video editor/sound engineer etc. Gradually the amount of time you spend actually playing or composing diminishes, while the anciliary stuff increases. 

Well I've had one of those years - 2014 went by with far too much administration and not enough music. This blog, which is something I'm very interested in - writing about music - got almost no attention at all, and many other musical things were relegated to 'as soon as I can..' roles rather than being primary goals. Well, for my 2015 resolution I'm determined to change this and put music back front and centre again and make whatever changes I have to in order to do that.

So, I've made a start by updating and upgrading my website, which you can see here - there is lots of new stuff there, I think it's more streamlined and I'll be working on it to improve it and keep it updated, so please do check it out now and then if you feel like it.

As part of what I consider my re-engagement with the core of what I should be doing, I've decided to do some one-to-one private teaching again. I haven't done this for a long time and it's something I enjoy. Up to this point my work at the school I teach at has eaten up all my teaching time, however I'm changing a few things so that I can teach people privately again. I'll be doing it on Skype as well as in Dublin, so I can work with people internationally as well as at home. There are more details here if anyone reading this is interested. If you have direct questions about getting lessons, contact me at

Despite it being a challenging time, this past year also had many musical highlights; a reunion with the Guilfoyle/Nielsen trio, gigs with two great American musicians John O Gallagher and Jeff Williams, gigs with the legendary Bob Gullotti and Bruce Saunders, performing my Joycean-inspired suite ‘Counterparts’, at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, performing and recording with a multinational band of Lupa Santiago, Michael Buckley, Goncalo Marques and Anders Vestergard in Lisbon, and performing and teaching in South Africa.

South Africa

(Kesivan Naidoo)

This latter experience was very inspiring – for the first time I got to get a good sense of the breadth and depth of South African jazz. They really have their own thing down there, it’s not European or American, though it shows influences from both – it really has its own identity, and the vibe the music is played with is just fantastic. I had a great time playing with two wonderful musicians in particular, drummer Kesivan Naidoo and the pianist Kyle Shepherd, and I hope to do that again as soon as possible! Also while there I made the aquaintance of other great musicians such as Mike Del Ferro and Ganesh Geymeier. As I said, a very inspiring time.

New Recording
The year began with something very inspiring too – a recording of my own compositions made in Systems Two in New York with a great band consisting of Dave Binney on saxophones, Tom Rainey on drums and my son Chris on guitar. It turned out really well and I was very happy with it, but with the year that I’ve had, I’ve been slow to do anything with it. Well this is going to change, and I’m going to release this in the the first three months of the new year. Here’s a little teaser......

I’m determined to make this year more musicially productive than last, and the first half of 2015 promises to be very musically rewarding. Next week I go to New York to take part in the 7th International Rhythm Studies Association meeting. This brings together high level practitioners in the world of rhythm in improvised music together for three days of playing and hanging, and discussing the latest developments on the rhythmic scene. This is the first time in NY and it looks really exciting with Dave Liebman, Donny McCaslin, Johannes Weidenmuller, Jen Shyu and Miles Okazaki among the participants. Here’s a video from the Dublin meeting a few years ago, which gives an idea of what goes on at these gatherings.

 (Eric Ineke)

In late January I’ll be taking up residence for a month at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. I’ll be there to write some music and play some music. I’ll be playing ‘Counterparts’ again, travelling to Den Haag to play with two great masters Eric Ineke and John Ruocco and do some teaching at the Royal Conservatory there, and debuting new piano trio music with the very talented young Swiss pianist Marie Kruttli and my colleage in ‘Counterparts’, Christophe Lavergne. I’ll also be doing some teaching at the Paris Conservatoire while I’m there.

Full details of these and more dates are on my website here.

Later in the year I'll be returning to South Africa to perform again, and will also be taking part in a concert with two of the most outstanding contemporary improvising musicians on the scene today - Christy Doran and Gerry Hemingway - full dates will be on the website soon.

On the composition front I did manage to get some pieces written, including a piano piece dedicated to my mother, a trio piece for the Guilfoyle/Nielsen Trio and I'm very happy to say that in the next year I will be working on a piece for chamber orchestra, soprano saxophone and piano, written to celebrate the 70th birthdays of two of the greatest contemporary jazz musicians, Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach.

More on that as it develops, for now I want to wish all the readers of this blog a very happy and prosperous 2015, and I look forward to writing much more on this blog this year than I did last year, and I hope you'll find it interesting. Please feel free to comment!

I'll leave you with this piece from the Guilfoyle/Nielsen Trio's reunion concert. Hope you enjoy it!