In defence of journalism…

The first trick is to lure people in with a headline.

I’ve had my fair share of rants about journalists, public and private, as if they were all peas out of the same pod, and I’ve since regretted it. Writing blogs, rolling around in that vanity publishing utopia, has made me realise a few things.

And one thing’s for sure. I’m not a Writer. Not because I can’t do it, but because I often can’t think of anything to write about. It’s not easy. I wish I could simply shunt sounding things together, end to end, without it needing to be about something. This seems to work with music, but words need to hang on something, they must describe. We can’t all be EE Cummings.

Journalists, it seems to me, are in the trickiest position of all. They are obliged to write about the world as it is, or as it seems to them. The priority is to get copy out. Then they get censored (sorry, “edited”), squashed, collated, chopped. What’s left might be an opinion that is no longer quite their own, flapping like a dying fish on the deck of a sailing boat.

I’ve tried writing about music I like, and every time I try and describe what I think goes on, I often feel like I am just adding needless bumf to what is already there, like draping tinsel over a Ming vase.

It’s not easy. Dead heroes and heroines are easier to write about, because you miss them, so you write about that loss. The strange jolt of death that catapults an artist from forgotten to iconic for a few days. That’s readable. But it all reminds me of that film of Jackson Pollock painting with his turkey baister, crouching over a huge canvas. The action is all in his head, the spatial and textural sense, you are witnessing creation but not seeing it. Stravinsky sits at his desk with a pen and glasses, and out come the masterpieces.

So I’ve come to terms with the necessity of writing about the stuff “around” the music, the people writing and performing it, the people they in turn are seen to represent and reflect. Maybe music itself doesn’t quite fit on the page? Maybe audiences have to come out and get it themselves. Perhaps a tasty headline or a well doctored picture helps a bit, but in the end the horse and the water are still locked in timeless battle.

So, men and women of journalism everywhere, I hereby endorse the frankly worrisome task of writing about my upcoming album. My dad would have said “cheque’s in the post”. “I’ll BACS you” doesn’t really cut it, but thats all there is. I’m no poet, that’s for sure.

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Sonny Rollins is here…

I found my way into improvisation via ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, essentially dance music without Ecstasy. Or, in my case, dancing. Learning about this music, and how to play it, you immerse yourself in a world that is, from the first time you cross its borders, essentially alienating for many people. Anyone who’s seen Woody Allen’s films can get along with early jazz and swing, but after that, it gets knotty. The dancing got left behind and bebop asserted a more highbrow approach, and this is where jazz as repellent starts. But at some point in my mid teens, this became the sound I had in my head, it was what I wanted to come out every time I thought about playing the piano. (Thinking is all very well, I’m still working on it now.)

Still, it’s the boiling lobster principle. After twenty, thirty years, you take a sound for granted that most people hear as a kind of indulgent white noise. Growing into it, I was around others who felt the same draw, we nodded our heads together to music which appears to have no beat, no tune and no purpose. This was in some way mirrored in our own lives of monastic practice by day, and Guinness by night. The music was and is offensive, actively disliked by those who don’t understand it, and nothing is more powerful than seeming to tell someone they are stupid. It was “everyone playing at the same time.”

Occasionally the “j” word gets popular again, and other streams of music appear; the advantage of jazz as an influencing genre is that you can often take half of what’s already in it and make something more digestible. This stuff is essential for the growth of the ecosystem of the music, but there are some musicians who manage to steer a path in and out of these currents, they are “likeable”, but they are “heavy” too. You stay with them and they with you. For me, it’s Sonny Rollins.

Rollins has always cut through the noise. Charlie Parker’s records in the forties still shock today, bursting with an energy that shoots out at all angles. He seemed to stream through the sky like a comet, died young and broke and looking old. Rollins survived.

He took Parker’s language and sound and expanded in all directions. The first good sign is that you cannot teach anyone how to play like Rollins, nor can you even pretend to. He appears to pluck sounds out of the air. He can weave around chord changes with impossible elegance and groove one minute, then hack away at one note like a lumberjack at a redwood the next. He moves sound around like a voice. Language becomes secondary. It’s not a “style”; it’s simply being good, being fast…..not playing fast, being fast. The only way to mimic Rollins is to be as witty, as imaginative, and as quick as the man himself. It’s impossible and it’s inspiring. The music is dancing again.

When I think of the archetypal improviser, someone who shuts their eyes and listens and simply plays what they hear, it’s him.

I am saying this because he is still alive. I want him to know. There are too many obituaries.

Vinyl

After checking the size of Hokusai’s print “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” against the size of a large shoe box I can confirm that one will not go inside the other. It’s completely buggered my analogy. I wanted to say that this image, which has been plastered all over the world in posters, murals, fridge magnets and billboards, was originally small enough to go in a shoe box. I’ve seen the print at its original size. You have to lean in towards it, squint a bit, shrink yourself down to the size of the people in the boat beneath that frozen wave. Seemingly dwarfed by a flattened perspective and camouflaged by colour, the eye then zooms in to Mount Fuji in the background, miles away yet vivid in its presence. Scale seems a huge part of the experience of art in general, from huge, immersive installations to miniatures that force us  to reduce ourselves to a tiny, critical mass.

This is how it feels to me to listen to vinyl, memories frozen in an unwieldy, outdated format that now thaw on to my new turntable with a slow drip-drip of recognition. This is not, by the way, a treatise on the sound quality of vinyl versus that of digital music. I’m supremely unqualified to comment on that.

I’m thinking about Hokusai again. There is the wave, the mountain, the boat, then there is the artist, and finally, the painting, each represents a kind of mental jump, a process.  The bumps as the needle finds its groove act as a ritual clearing of space, everything after that is announced as a representation of sound, a mirroring of tiny motions of air made at some other time in some other place. As a listener it puts you in a different place, imagining the wires that can carry vibrations through time and space, back to the source.

If you are lucky, there’s no real noise on the record itself, but if you are luckier still, there’s a just a little, like textured notepaper, a skin even, a glimpse of the moon through clouds.  The covering is a kind of invitation.

I used hurl myself off diving boards at my local swimming pool, and the hardest thing was that the boards got higher, you started to see not the surface of the water but the bottom of the pool, which added a cool 20 feet to the apparent distance. I would stand on that edge until someone made a splash, reminding me of the point at which I would be hitting, slightly out of whack, the water. Those were the days.

Records have that crackle that tells me it’s not real time, it’s a record of the time. To hear the music is to peer beyond that skin, through it, to make oneself the size of the fishermen and feel a wave you could fit in the palm of your hand threaten to upend your boat. Digital music is like a gas, it’s like tightrope walking in space, where there is no real difference between your feet on the rope or off. There are no edges to it, a borderless noise that appears in the air, a swimming pool with no discernible bottom. It’s sort of creepy. You can’t fall off.  It’s like swimming by lying on a table and moving arms and legs, hoping that one day you’ll get over your aversion to water.  It’s far away, distant somehow, a hologram of Frank Sinatra in your living room. It’s a kind of pre-listening….it says, I’ll listen to see if I want to listen later on. I listen to a lot of digital music, and I’ve realised that it’s me that has to lean in to it, it won’t come to me.

It seems the most remarkable thing about the recent surge in vinyl popularity (and I realise I am, true to form, thinking about it some ten years after it started) is that life can go backwards. The niggling thought that all human beings are condemned to a kind of pathological progress ending in disaster has eased off a bit. All is not lost, all is not forgotten. Will we all sit around the piano on an Edwardian Sunday again, singing songs we all know whilst our shopping is bought, delivered, cooked and quite possibly digested by some kind of automated cyber drones? Will music ever be injected in a liquid form, bypassing the cumbersome necessity for moving air and eardrums whilst outside people discover the pleasure of travel by stagecoach? Can we combine forward and retrograde motion? Is this the future? 

Maybe the “newest” thing we can do as a species, is to stick the car in reverse occasionally? To take back some of the stuff we bought, wear our clothes more than once, to listen to a scratched copy of “Bad Manners'” first album again.  Perhaps going forwards and backwards at the same time is the greatest leap forward, and always has been. One thing’s for sure, shoes won’t come in a box in the future, so enjoy that while it lasts.

 

 

 

 

Notes

 

Slade

Once a year, members of the pop group “Slade” plan their 11 month holiday in the sun, funded by royalty payments from the “Merry Christmas Everybody” single.

Like similar hits by Wizzard and Mariah Carey, it takes what used to be the hippest dance beat of the thirties and transforms it into a flat-faced, ironed out, shouting racket. It’s the equivalent of a Ray Charles poster on the wall at an office party, and its standard issue, sandpaper shrillness sits comfortably within the enforced enthusiasm and shopping noise of the period.

No automated checkouts will it’s jubilant voice subdue.

All Christmas songs have to have this swing beat. Here’s another one. This beat is only ever tolerated at Christmas, those are the rules and they are rarely broken except by Jona Lewie. But strange things sometimes lurk beneath the tinsel.

Slade’s lyrics are very strange, for a start. Opening with “Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?” a series of bullet point questions follow…are you doing such and such, does he do this, does he do that, does he have a drinking problem? Why the interrogation? Are you question our motives? Are you wondering what the point of all this really is? Are you ruining the party atmosphere?

But the chorus is the real head scratcher:

“So here it is, Merry Xmas

Everybody’s having fun.”

(So far so good, although the “here it is” smacks of a certain level of disdain, as if to say “is that it?”….but then….)

“Look to the future now,

It’s only just begun.”

With a mind consumed by thoughts of decorations, grandma’s gibbering nostalgia for the “old songs” (surely the composers knew this song would become one of them), is there even time to be philosophising about the future? And can the future ever “begin”? Isn’t it always after “now”, forever beyond our reach? A song composed of questions which do nothing but raise further questions, hopelessly caught in its own spiral of doubt. This is not the stuff of Wizzard’s brain dead rhymes, and it’s not Jack Frost nipping at your nose either. It’s a protest against Christmas…look again, they are saying, at your patterns of behaviour, your peculiar rituals, the tat in your trolley.

And then the music. You have to dig down a bit, but… “Everybody’s having fun”….listen to that again, the way “body’s” has a kind of doubting sidestep, a minor key colouration that gives us pause. Wagner might have written it, minus the beat of course, but either way, this is not “fun” music. And the unfaithful mother and her red hooded lover are accompanied by a brilliant change of pace and darkening of mood, then with a sudden uplift, (ahaaaa-aaaaaaa) we are back to where we were, the sort of lurching key changes Talking Heads might have done…everything is restored but nothing is resolved. Making music complicated often darkens the mood, and here it’s fundamentally unsettling. I think it pretty much proves the point that you could set a choir of car horns to a shuffle beat and make a Christmas song out of it. But was it an accident? I don’t think so.

Under Stalin’s regime, Shostakovich used to “smuggle in” clashing dissonance under catchy melodies, fulfilling the brief to stay patriotic whilst preserving a critical stance undetected by the state. And Slade, in their own way, perhaps, are doing the same with us. Perhaps it’s their insurance against the inevitable critical backlash that may come in the future (presumably some time after it’s only just begun). Look, they will say, it may have seemed like an innocent Christmas song to you, but we were criticising, not glorifying, excess. Our song has a troubled energy, uneasy shifts, it unfolds around an almost sermonising series of questions that cast doubt not only on life, but on Christmas itself. Once experienced, there’s no going back. There is no looking to the past or the future, but rather a slow realisation that we are in the moment always.

Quite an achievement for the band that was named after a nickname for a pair of shoes.

In Praise Of Not Knowing Things

I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.”

Stravinsky

You must be wondering what I’m reading at the moment. “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, is an 80s classic apparently. I can’t follow the plot at all. I have no idea what is going on but the words sound good. It veers between a real and “online” world in a way that seems very influenced by William Burroughs, another author who seemed ahead of his time, or at least seeing where it was heading. I had an obsession with him after hearing his voice on a Bill Laswell album and, like a bobby socked Sinatra fan, thinking he was speaking only to me. Burroughs is impossible to make sense of. I think I read almost everything he has written; no joy with any of it. I love it. What is he on about? It’s impossible, it’s….unfathomable. What a great feeling to be in the middle of all that.

Of course music, like everything else, is an eco system. It needs multiple levels in order to operate. There needs to be some stuff going on that draws people in. And that can be interesting too. A lot of people love Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, Mozart, despite the complexities and subtleties therein.

But still.

I remember going to see Chick Corea’s Elektric (sic) Band in Lewisham when I was about 19 years old. How do they do that, I thought, they all land at the same time. It’s like they go blah blah da da. Dadadada. Blat.

Boof.

And then, tralala, they all end on the same beat.

Well, after a couple of years of experience, I realised they just practised a lot, until it was right. And the improvised stuff was just like language, you have to think about it for a quite a while, and then, after ageing these thoughts on oak casks over several years, you suddenly instinctively know it. And that was the end of my love affair with Chick. Because after that, there was no mystery. No reason to listen. I fathomed it. After that I started to gravitate to music that sounded easy, but wasn’t.

So here’s my idea for a new press release, just ideas at the moment, nothing definite.

“After hours of agonising and detailed thought, practice and sketches, here is my new album. There are no photos of me with it, because wasting time on thinking about how what I look like is related to what you hear takes away valuable brainpower that you will be needing to try and understand this largely unfathomable music. The extensive liner notes, written in needlessly small font, merely serve to further muddy the waters. The music was constructed using partly instinctive, partly mathematical systems. These were developed over thirty years of working in countless musical situations. Occasionally these systems might yield what used to be called a “tune”, but no one is perfect. There will be no “You Can Improvise For Five Minutes A Day Before Your Important Meeting At Work” free app that goes with this music. Please enjoy the idea that, quite probably, you will never be able to do this, in the same way that I will never be able to follow plot lines in novels. You might like the sound of it though, and perhaps enjoy being mystified. Because to understand marks the end of something.”

Monte Carlo Or….

I am too shy to talk to the cab driver, who is dressed in what now appears to be an ill fitting suit. I’ve been around Monaco people, and they don’t do off the peg stuff.

I’ve been flown here to play for 15 minutes with a relatively famous singer I have never met. We are opening a museum exhibition centred around Egyptian gold, and she can sing microtones. This means she has more notes in the same space than I do, and mine don’t bend. I think of it as cutting sushi with a spoon (me) or a razorblade (her). It’s good to feel like a beginner sometimes, but not in front of a hundred dignitaries eating with what appears to be spray painted gold cutlery. The music is supposed to be surprising them, beginning slowly in the dark, behind a kind of giant mosquito net, emerging from the dry ice as the lights come up and the net, having outlived its purpose, falls unceremoniously to the ground with a thump. There is a smattering of applause and somebody drops a teaspoon. People don’t really know whether to clap unless they are told, and if I’ve learnt anything it’s that.

Those fifteen minutes feel like hours, but it’s over too soon. It’s a world of music that I seem to be glimpsing through a crack in the wall that will soon close again, for now. I imagine, in between negotiating the exquisite buzzing and bending of intervals of her voice, one of the many baked brown men in the audience as his white rolled-up trousers catch fire with the sheer tension of it. A further ripple of applause rocks the house.

It’s easy to mock the rich, and it’s dangerous to generalise, but mostly they seem bored, perhaps a little protective of what they have earned or acquired by fair means or foul. Money buys you until tomorrow to decide what to spend it on that makes you happy, but then there’s tomorrow’s tomorrow too. The eternal mañana, a constant opening of presents. A Ferrari, a bar of soap, wine on the water, how can I thank you enough.

Breakfast the next morning takes place on the sunny terrace, I get there early to avoid the previous night’s revellers. I’m shown to my table by a waitress in a smart black dress, which looks like it was designed, as with everything in this place, for my comfort rather than hers. I don’t stay long, but the muesli is exceptional.

I leave just enough time for packing and a shower. For one morning life runs like a contactless clockwork machine. While deciding what else to spend it on, money seems to facilitate a certain kind of frictionless passage through these logistics of life.

My driver’s early and he has a big black limousine. It’s a short ride to the airport and it passes in, what must be for him, a familiar silence. I am being picked up from the hotel on the water and I don’t talk.

He probably wonders how I can afford it, dressed as I am in last season’s shorts from TK Maxx and an old t shirt. I wonder if he lives there or if he commutes, if he’s busy, the usual stuff, where he bought his suit.

On My Recent Revelation About L.A Rap in the 1990s

Everyone has to start somewhere.  Mostly, it’s at some kind of beginning, and that makes you, by virtue of your position, a beginner.  When I was a kid, I found a book in Bromley Central Library of show tunes.  I’d just started liking jazz, and was eager to try out new tunes, maybe find some that hadn’t been played that much.  I was particularly taken with two of the songs in this book.  One was “Stella By Starlight’ and the other was “On Green Dolphin St”, two of the most played standards in the whole jazz repertoire.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know then and, if my discovery was thirty years too late, I knew at least I was on the right track if Miles Davis liked those tunes too.

The 2007 Ava DuVernay film, “This Is The Life”, comes at the uninitiated like a torrent of white water.  There’s no welcome message, no complimentary mint on the pillow, you’re straight in, it’s like you pass someone on the street and they just start spilling it all out, their life story and the life story of the club that made them.  This was the story of “The Good Life”, a health food cafe that doubled as a music venue, where rappers were thrown out for cussing, or for using excessive “diggety” ornamentation in their rhymes (filler-type patterns that had the slight stink of bullshit about them).  There had to be substance to the words, these were the rules. Substance and no cussing. And no leaning on the paintings.

Parallels with hip hop and jazz here speak for themselves (God knows jazz has its share of meaningless ornamentation).  But when the musicians talk about how they rap, what happens when they’re doing it, it’s all flow and it’s all concentration, it’s character and it’s technique, articulation, being suave or being charming, “chopping”, “spitting”, breaking up the line. This isn’t “new” to me, but these grainy old video footage of these grainy exchanges shows how the rappers bounce off the energy of the audience and off each other, and that brings everything closer to us.  These are a cast of characters (including the director herself, who was in the group “Figures Of Speech”) united by their music and mutual respect, but also by their drive to be unique, a community of individuals.  These people are loveable nerds. There’s one guy who, apparently, would always rap about fish (“he would be putting in stuff about, you know, red snapper”). There was no bluffing in this art, and anyone who did would be told to leave, often, eventually, by the whole audience, as if they were polluting the atmosphere somehow.

Hard but fair.  The fact it happened to a guy who had a record deal at the time (“pass the mic” the audience would chant) will resonate with jazz musicians, or with anyone who works at their craft, no special dispensation for big time success stories in that club. I won’t attempt a “review” here, it’s best experienced fresh, but this film is full to the brim with music and words, a real treasure trove.

The thing I love most about the cinema is coming out afterwards, the feeling of moving from that enclosed space to the open world, the dislocation that confirms that something has changed.  I haven’t spoken for five hours, but in my brain there’s a head-spinning avalanche all the way home, I’m trying to remember everything that I saw and heard, it came in such a rush, all the names of the MCs and crews, where was the club, was it LA, (I’ll check when I get home), I’ll buy all the records, and I’ll look for the lyrics so I can start again and piece it all together slowly at my own remedial pace.  I’m lost.  I feel like a beginner, like an idiot somehow and, as a musician, that’s the feeling I’m always looking for.  It’s the best feeling in the world.