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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Singer and the Song

There’s a very brilliantly observed and funny moment in the American series ‘Modern Family’ when one of the characters goes to see the ‘Four Seasons’, thinking it’s the vocal group, and is horrified to discover that he’s bought tickets for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. ‘Just instruments!?’, he wails despairingly. I found this line particularly funny because it nails a truism about the general public and music – people love singers and are less drawn as a general rule to purely instrumental music. This is not to say that there isn’t an audience for instrumental music, but it’s dwarfed by the popularity of vocal music.

Again, people love singers – but can the same be said about contemporary jazz musicians - do they love singers?

In nearly every genre of music around the world, the voice is the primary ‘instrument’, and the singers are the biggest stars. Classical music, pop and rock music, Indian classical music, Arabic classical music, Brazilian music – the biggest stars in those different firmaments are singers, and are arguably the most respected artists – Placido Domingo, Bob Dylan, Lata Mangeshkar, Om Kalthoum, Caetano Veloso etc. etc.

(Om Kalthoum)

While a similar argument could be made in jazz for Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, it’s worth noticing that both of those artists, and the other giants in that field, were at the height of their powers as contemporary artists over sixty years ago. But where, in the contemporary jazz world, are the vocal artists who are both the biggest stars in that world, and universally respected by all jazz musicians?

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say at this point that this not a criticism of jazz singers; on the contrary, I believe that contemporary jazz has what might be called a dysfunctional relationship with singers, and it is to the music’s artistic and commercial detriment that this is the case. While there are great vocal artists in contemporary jazz, there is a jaundiced view of singers among many jazz instrumentalists, one that places singers in the role of second-class jazz citizens.

If you’re a jazz musician, you’ll have heard the ‘singer jokes’, there are many of them, and all of them represent singers as lesser musicians than everyone else - and Prima Donnas into the bargain. OK, they’re jokes, and every instrument has a set of jokes assigned to the foibles of the players of those instruments. But underneath these singer jokes lurks a definite prejudice coming from instrumentalists against singers.  Where does this come from? Why in jazz does the instrument most lauded in every other music get landed with a bad rep?

I think there are a combination of factors here. Up to the late 1950s, most jazz harmony followed fairly conventional cyclical movements – II-V-I/IV-V-I/III-VI-II-V, cycle of fifths etc. This kind of harmony is relatively easy to hear your way through – these kinds of harmonic movements have been around for hundreds of years and are very familiar to the listener. In jazz, singers as improvisers have been around since its inception – Louis Armstrong being one of the earliest recorded artists to do this, and one of the greatest singing improvisers in all of jazz. As jazz developed, singers were part and parcel of that development, and right into the bebop era, there were singers who could improvise in a very convincing way in this new language. The singers were an integral part of the contemporary scene, and it’s good to remember that singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Betty Carter – giant icons of the past as they appear now - were contemporary singers of their time. And they were respected as such by the instrumentalists.

(Betty Carter)

Coming to the end of the 50s, the music began to change, especially in the harmonic sphere. Melodic Minor harmony became more common, chromatic harmony techniques and practices began to be used extensively, root movements of chords became more oblique. Add to this the great complexity of the rhythmic language that was popularized by Miles and Coltrane, and the ‘free’ experiments of Ornette and Cecil Taylor, and the result is a jazz landscape that is much harder to navigate through for the improvising singer. The kind of harmony that developed, and started to become mainstream in the jazz world at this time is generally not intuitive to the ear. You have to learn it in an intellectual and tactile way - study it and practice it on your instrument for a long time before it becomes in any way familiar as a sound. Instrumentalists definitely have an advantage here - they can play it on their instruments and help themselves to negotiate very difficult harmony by a combination of intellectual process and consequent tactile connection. This can lead, after a long time, to being able to hear this kind of harmony. 

For a singer however, unless they are really good pianists or players of some other instrument, (good enough to able to take solos), it's terribly difficult to get a handle on this kind of harmony by ear alone. Often the root movements are unpredictable, and the harmony on top is complex. Melodies often contain wide-interval leaps and a lot of non-sequential note patterns. With jazz composers trying to outdo each other in 'originality', and less and less songs based on standard formulas with familiar melodies, the jazz landscape, post-1960, became ever more impenetrable for singers. 

This had the effect of gradually marginalizing the singers from the contemporary jazz mainstream. Instead of being an integral part of the contemporary scene as Ella etc had been in an earlier time, they became outsiders - unable for the most part to jump into any musical situation, and often derided and seen as being a brake on creativity by instrumentalists. In previous eras singers and instrumentalists were performing pretty much the same material, the singers would sing the lyrics to the same songs the instrumentalists were playing. As the 60s and 70s passed, the instrumentalists and singers began to inhabit worlds that were further and further apart. Heightened instrumental virtuosity, more complex harmony and rhythms, and less naturally singable melodies drove a wedge between former comrades, creating two different musical worlds. Jazz became primarily an instrumental medium, with singers on the periphery, only grudgingly included, (if at all), by many musicians.

The singer was often seen by instrumentalists as virtually a cabaret artist rather than a creative improviser. Singers for their part often gravitated towards standards with both singable melodies and good lyrics, rather than the gnarly world of contemporary instrumental jazz - and who can blame them? So a divide opened up that, despite the work of some great contemporary singers, is still there and still felt by both singers and instrumentalists.

And I don't think any discussion of singers in jazz can ignore gender issues either. Most singers in jazz are women - I don't know what the percentage would be typically, but in my school we have nineteen singers and only one of those is male. Without getting into the whole 'women in jazz' thing which is way too big a subject for this post, I think it's fair to say that women in jazz have to negotiate social issues that their male colleagues don't have to, and in my opinion when it comes to developing as an artist in the jazz world, women have more difficulties placed in their path than men do.

If you add these difficulties to the prejudicial singer stereotypes mentioned above, you have a combination that can make jazz singing a very difficult and sometimes forbidding environment for an aspirant jazz singer. For example, if a male bandleader is very specific about what he wants from his band, he is seen as decisive. If the bandleader is a female singer and makes the same kinds of demands she can often be seen by the band as fulfilling the stereotype of the pampered Prima Donna singer who doesn't know as much about music as the male colleagues she's ordering around. When you add the fact that most of the public focuses on the singer first, and the instrumentalists second in live performances, the resentment of the instrumentalists is often even more keenly felt.

Of course there are exceptions to this scenario and no two situations are the same, but I think it's safe to say that in general the singer in contemporary jazz operates on a less level playing field than an instrumentalist does.

And I think the music is the poorer for this. I am an instrumentalist, not a singer, but I have to admit that the human voice is the ultimate instrument, coming as it does without the intervention of the instrumental middle-man, emanating from the person themselves. At its best there is nothing more profound than listening to a great singer. And in jazz, the instrumentalists who are most revered - Armstrong, Parker, Miles, Trane etc. - all have a celebrated vocal quality to their playing. I've been very lucky to play with several great singers - Norma Winstone, Kristina Fuchs, Maria Pia De Vito, Sarah Buechi, R. A. Ramamani, Marie Seférian - and with all of them it was a very different experience than playing in an instrumental group. Working with a great singer is unique - the human voice, especially when used by a top of the line artist, is so powerful and fundamental. Of course with a singer you get the option of lyrics as well, which can be fantastic, (as long as the lyrics are good!). 

Some contemporary singers have developed the kind of phenomenal technique that allows them to negotiate the shark infested waters of contemporary jazz performance, and it is amazing when you hear that. These are singers who seem to relish every technical challenge, every non-idiomatic impediment placed in front of them, and really are pioneers in the 'voice as improvising instrument' approach to singing. The brilliant Lauren Newton is a pioneer in this area, and has done some extraordinary work which really stretches the boundaries of the what the voice can do in an improvising context. Theo Bleckmann is another one who springs to mind in this area.

Here's a great example of a singer taking on something that one would think would be off-limits because of the technical challenges - this is Sarah Buechi, with Izumi Kimura on the piano, singing a piece of mine that was originally written for the soprano saxophone, and negotiating the ferocious vocal technical difficulties with ease

Artists in Residence (I) by jazzer4

There are several of these kinds of singers on the contemporary jazz scene today and what they are doing for voice is really admirable and takes tremendous work. But is this the only answer for contemporary jazz singers in order to be included in the same world as instrumentalists? For all the singers to develop the kind of hyper-techniques that would enable them to be as agile as a saxophone or a guitar? For me the answer has to be no, this is not the only way. First of all not everyone is born with the kind of innate physical facility to develop this kind of technique, and secondly the jazz world needs to embrace the idea that singing a song well, and deeply, is in itself worthy of inclusion at the top table of the music.

And this is not about the welcoming of a clichéd standard jazz approach into the ranks, just for its own sake. We really don't need any more faux-jazz cabaret versions of ' Summertime' and 'My Funny Valentine', (though let's face it, the contemporary improv, voice-as-instrument, has its own clichés; that stuttering repetition of a word, as if the singer gets stuck, like an old-school damaged LP, is as clichéd and as exasperating to listen to as any doobie-doobie-do scat singing), but we need to find a way to include song as being an organic part of contemporary jazz.

And there is valuable work being done in this area - Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding, Susanne Abbuehl, Christine Tobin, Cassandra Wilson, and in a more traditional format, Diane Reeves and Kurt Elling. All of these place the song front and centre of the music, but have arrangements and use improvisation - either themselves or other band members - that are an indispensable part of the whole and stamp their music as clearly being part of contemporary jazz. Here's Gretchen Parlato in what I think is a particularly good example of this approach

I believe that if jazz could find a more consistently positive engagement with the voice and with singers it would be good for the music both aesthetically and commercially. Jazz education has a role to play in this. There's no doubt that through institutionalised jazz education jazz singers are better all-round musicians than they ever were before, and it's right in my opinion that singers should be expected to have the same high level craft and knowledge that instrumentalists do. But does insisting that they should be able to improvise over 'ESP', in the same way that a saxophonist would, really make sense? Of course if a singer wants to do that they should be encouraged, but shouldn't we find a way to encourage high level improvising that is maybe more idiomatic for voice, rather than making them do exactly the same as the instrumentalists? There's definitely a discussion to be had here for jazz schools.

And isn't it about time many instrumentalists gave up their long-held prejudices against singers and, (for example), stopped seeing the appearance of a singer at a jam session as being automatically a drag, (all that whining from the instrumentalists about weird keys and having to play a ballad....)? It's definitely time for jazz to wake up to the possibilities of making the music a more welcoming and inclusive environment for singers, and to really explore the possibilities of what can be done when the beauty and power of the human voice meets the sophistication and creativity of contemporary jazz. There's a brave new world of vocal jazz out there, we just need to have the imagination to explore and enjoy it to the full.

Monday, June 22, 2015

'Hands' - My new CD featuring Dave Binney, Chris Guilfoyle and Tom Rainey

I can remember, in 1987, getting my hands on the first commercially released album I was ever on - 'In Two', an LP, (remember them?), of duo recordings with Simon Nabatov. It was such a thrill to see it and have it as a physical entity. To have an LP - something which for me before this was a medium for listening to other people - in my hands with me on it! An amazing thrill.... Since then, I've been on many recordings, but it's still wonderful to take possession of a new one, and especially when it's your own release.

These days many musicians question the usefulness of releasing a physical CD - CD sales are in the basement, everyone buys Mp3s or streams from rapacious sites like Spotify, so why go to the trouble and expense of releasing a CD? I think of it as being akin to an artist having an exhibition. Artists create new work over a period of time and every now and then have an exhibition to show the work as a whole. In organising the exhibition a lot of thought is given to the framing of the individual works, and in what order the paintings are hung, so that the visitor is taken on a journey as they walk around the gallery and look at the paintings in order. In a similar way I think serious, professional, creative musicians should treat CDs like an exhibition. Showing your work as a whole and in the order that you want the listener to experience the music in, with some art work to frame the music, and to have a physical, tangible entity that represents your work, is important for the serious musician, and despite the inevitable lack of financial return, I think it's an investment in yourself as an artist.

(Tom, Dave, myself and Chris at Systems Two)

Which brings me to 'Hands', my new CD with Dave Binney, Chris Guilfoyle, and Tom Rainey. We recorded it in New York last year at the renowned Systems Two studios. After a typically short but efficient NY rehearsal at Michiko Studios, we recorded the album in two 4-hour sessions. Systems Two is a pleasure to work in - fast, efficient and with a great sound. I'd recorded there in mid-90s with Steve Coleman, and recording 'Hands' there reconfirmed all my positive memories of that session. The music on this recording is challenging for the players, but at this level of musicianship even the most daunting of challenges is surmounted with ease and we were able to get straight to the music.

I've been in interested in extended form in jazz composition for more than 20 years now, and three of the pieces - 'In Fairness', 'Close Call', and 'Hands' -  all come under this heading. 'Hands' in particular has an interesting history - originally a bass figure I improvised in a studio recording, I later transcribed it and expanded it into the first movement of my 'Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra' in 2012. Here's I've gone in the opposite direction and re-transcribed the first movement of this big piece for the the more intimate setting of the quartet. It's been interesting for me to see how much can change and evolve as you keep adapting the same piece for different formats and I think 'Hands' comes off as a very unusual piece in this context.

(Dave gets set up)

The other pieces are simpler - 'Sneaky' and 'Telemachus' are groove pieces, 'Krystal' a lyrical ballad, and 'Nod' a burning blues to finish it off. We really had fun in the studio and the standard of musicianship was extraordinary. I know Tom for over twenty years and love playing with him - he's an incredibly creative drummer who always places his brilliant technique at the service of the music. The same can be said for Dave Binney, with whom I've also worked before, and it's no accident that he's at the forefront of the contemporary New York jazz scene. My son Chris was making his recording debut here, and though he was in heavy company, he was completely undaunted and played the music, both written and improvised, with a skill and maturity well beyond his years. As I knew he would. I encouraged him by telling him that if he made any mistakes he was out of the family!

Listening to the album now, a year after the recording, I'm very happy with it. Though the pieces were composed at different times, and sometimes for different settings, I chose them carefully with a view to creating a coherent sound and concept that would make the album have both a personal and unitary identity, and I feel it does that. I also feel it represents something I've been working on for years - the combination of composition and improvisation as being equal parts in a creative whole.

(Tom in action)

The recording is available directly from me, and digitally in the usual places - CD Baby should be your first port of call, but it will also be available on iTunes, Amazon and Google - though not Spotify - I'd rather give it away than have anything to do with them!

And I've also decided to self-release this album, for all sorts of reasons. The record companies, the few that are left, have become impossible to deal with. The demands they make on you are ridiculous - you have to record, edit, mix and master at your own expense, then agree to buy a certain amount of CDs off them before they'll even consider releasing the recording. A more recent scam is looking for half the publishing rights to your original compositions! It's only a matter of time till they'll be wanting one of your kidneys, or a first-born child....... And in the end, what do you get after jumping through all those hoops? A couple of reviews and some distribution. These days, with CD sales being what they are, it's just not worth the hassle of dealing with the record companies, you're better off doing it yourself, keeping control of your music, and at least not feeling like a supplicant to some miserable independent jazz record label.

I've called my record company Portmanteau Records, and I think I'll release other things under this label - stuff I've never issued, sometimes free giveaways etc. So, watch this space!


Here's a taster - excerpts from various tracks. Hope you enjoy the music and if you're one of those people who, like me, likes having something tangible alongside the music itself, then I hope this recording will become part of your collection.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jack Bruce - Things We Like

Update, July 2017: We will be playing Jack Bruce's Music again at Arthur's Pub in Dublin on July 19th at 20.30 - hope to see some of the readers of this blog there. And if you do read this blog and are at the gig - please say hello!

Jack Bruce is probably the reason why I play the bass. Although I was raised on jazz at home, and have spent my musical life in jazz, it was hearing Bruce’s great bass lines with Cream that first made me think of how much I liked that sound, and how this could be something I’d like to check out for myself. At one point I obsessively listened to Cream, really focusing on the bass playing and it inspired me to buy my first bass.

Although I migrated fairly rapidly to jazz, I was always checking Jack Bruce out and hearing how different and individualistic his music was – on his solo albums, and with Lifetime, with Mike Gibbs etc. His own background was jazz and he took what he knew into the rock world and did some revolutionary things, as well as writing some of the great rock classics such as ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ and ‘I Feel Free’.

Years later I had the extraordinary experience of meeting him. I was playing with Alan Skidmore at Ronnie Scott's Club, and Jack came in to see Skid - they were old mates from the 60's London scene. At that time I'd developed a very fluent plectrum technique on the bass, (I gave up the plectrum in '93 when I got my new bass as I didn't like the sound, thereby halving my technique overnight, and probably halving the number of Youtube followers I would have 25 years later....), and coming off the stage at the end of a set, a shadowy figure loomed out of the darkness and asked, in a very heavy Glasgow accent, 'How the fuck do you play the bass with a plectrum like that!?' I was a little taken aback at this sudden question from a stranger and muttered something in response, and then, as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, realised, 'holy shit - that's Jack Bruce!'

Skid arrived and they hugged and chatted, with me just standing there gawping at Jack, a bit overawed to be in the presence of the guy who'd started everything for me on the bass. Skid and Jack decided to go for a drink and Jack invited me to join them - I didn't need asking twice.... So off we went to the Dog and Duck down the road from Ronnie's, and apart from it being a great thrill for me to be in his company, I found him to be a great guy – very funny and warm with no ‘superstar’ vibe about him – a real musician, and I still am thrilled to have had the chance to meet him and spend a little time with him.

Listening to him now, and the work he did with Cream in the 60's, you can hear why he was the leading bassist of the rock era, his bass lines are so much more than the usual one-note thump so typical of bassists of that time. The bass lines are virile and active, and really grooving, and you can hear the influence of his jazz background. His musicianship and versatility allowed him to play beyond the boundaries of rock, and his collaborators included such luminaries as Tony Williams, Carla Bley and Mike Gibbs. And although he was disparaging of his time studying classical music, there's no doubt that his abilities on cello and piano helped him to express the full range of his song writing talents on the many solo albums he made after leaving Cream.

When he passed away last year, it made me think about him again, and I wanted to do a project based on his music and great songs. So I’ve put together a band to play his music at the legendary JJ Smyth's in Dublin on the 18th of June, and had a great time going through his enormous songbook and picking tunes I love and trying to find a way to do them that are both respectful to the songs while allowing myself to respond to them in a personal way. The ones I've chosen so far are from the Cream canon - 'Sunshine of Your Love', 'I Feel Free', 'We're Going Wrong', and White Room', as well as the great pieces from 'Songs for a Tailor' - 'Never tell Your Mother She's Out of Tune', and 'Rope Ladder to the Moon'

We'll also be playing 'Things We Like' from Jack's out and out jazz album with John McLaughlin. I've had a liking for this simple little counterpoint-driven them. It has a kind of Ornette-ish innocence about it and will give us a break from the quite complex arrangements I've written for the other pieces.

I’m lucky to have a great band with me – Margot Daly (vocals), Michael Buckley (saxophones), Joe O' Callaghan (guitar), Izumi Kimura (keyboards), and Brendan Doherty (Drums) are ideal musicians for this, with the incredible range of skills necessary to do justice to one of the great musicians of the 20th Century.

Shortly after his passing last year I recorded a little improvisation for him, and we'll also be doing this piece in tribute to him. If you're around on June 18th in Dublin, come down to JJ's and join us in the celebration of his music. R.I.P. Jack - your music lives on....