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.”

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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.

West Side Story

I recently came back to playing this music with Paul Clarvis, twenty years after we first tried it.  The same feelings returned, the physical buzz of diving into something so full of musical opportunity.  Physicists tell us that time doesn’t exist, that their quantum equations don’t add up unless you take the bit out, and I can verify that. Coming back to this music, it feels as if time stands still whilst our bodies simply age around it. I am 29 again, in so far as I ever was.

Somehow the plot of West Side Story, of true love scuppered by the squabbling of rival gangs, is in the music itself.  He somehow builds it into the sound, shooting through the popular musical with darkness and uncertainty, a kind of instability.  A chord in music has what’s called a root note, it identifies the “key” and is the main thing that defines its relationship to other chords.  If you put this note at the bottom, you get a “strong and stable” sound.  An Ed Sheeran song like “Perfect”, for instance, has all its root notes on the bottom.  It’s unambiguous, it gets to the point.  This is great.  Plenty of good songs like that, but….this is the fossil fuel of music, fresh ways of doing it are running out.  Chords seem to be the last thing that anyone thinks of tinkering with (jazz, on the other hand, often has the opposite problem).  In songs like “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight”, Bernstein takes this “fist in the air” sincerity and undermines it.

“One Hand” is a hymn to devotional love. Hymns are celebrated for their logical beauty, parts moving impeccably yet beautifully between well chosen chords that are easily recognised by a congregation. Bernstein sticks to this idea, the melody moves one step at a time for most of the time…but underneath, he chooses to jump from one unstable bass note to another.  The chords are solid, secure, but the bass movement has an “unresolved” quality.  (I once saw Jack Dee doing stand up, years ago, and in the middle of it he put his glass of water down on a stool, but right on the edge of it.  He carried on with the next joke, then, a few minutes later said…”you’re all worried about the water aren’t you?”)  It’s like that, both comforting and disorientating. Like building a statue on a plinth that is slightly too small.

“Tonight” takes the lyrics and sprinkles not fairy dust, but seeds of doubt, all over them.  Tony says:

Today, all day I had the feeling/ a miracle would happen”

On that word “to-DAY”, what should be a solid, life-affirming chord is instead a slightly hollow sound, the fifth in the bass shocks us not with a horrifying dissonance, but with the most boring note of the chord that “fits” but sounds wrong.  It’s the grey suit, the fake “thank you” face after an unwanted Christmas present. A half sneeze.

We know it’s ending badly for these characters, but they don’t, and so their swooping melodies are somehow “unaware” of the shifting sands in the bass.  Of course, Bernstein didn’t invent any of this.  He used his knowledge and applied it.  Brahms did this kind of thing a lot, and so did many composers before him.  And Keith Jarrett does it too.  I like a band called “Blonde Redhead”; they do it.  Sometimes music has no fixed bass, but a moving line, another melody that means simple chords can be heard more than one way as the bass line moves.  “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five is a good example. Come on Ed Sheeran, have a go.

I can’t quite decide what comes first here, the knowledge or the feeling.  My gut tells me that the knowledge points you, as a composer or as a listener, to the source of the feeling A fifth, or a third, in the bass when you are expecting a root has always produced this effect, like time it stands still.  We do not invent it, we reveal its long term whereabouts, put its timelessness in a new context.

Music theory, or knowledge, is not lacking in emotion, vibe, or feeling.  It is like a summation of all the gut instincts of every composer, songwriter, improviser and performer which, being too big to keep in its original form, is condensed into a “boring” compressed file of lists, notes, principles.  You don’t follow it, you unwrap it. It’s like complaining that the ingredients of a cake, having not been put in the oven, taste flat and cold.

Chord sequences stand up like a table, and if you want to build one with three legs you’d better know where to put them.  Of course, there are still many beautiful four legged tables waiting to be built, but there might be a reason why no one has ever put legs in the middle.  To do so is not a “new discovery”, or a “revolution”. It is a pile of broken planks on the floor and nowhere to put your dinner.

Pass the salt.

Sleep

My mind is going again.

A word for every worry

In imaginary ink.

The words

like ants,

crawl,

they multiply,

turning the once white page

pitch black,

and so me, back

to sleep.

On the subject of not taking any shit

When someone says they don’t take any shit, something inside me dies. It gives up. It gives in. It will not take any more shit and ends it all. I don’t know why. I am undecided, shrugging my shoulders. I am, in some way, taking my own shit from myself.

The taking of shit surely involves, after the taking, the weighing up. At the point of use, as it were, the stuff is perhaps shit and perhaps not, accepted and rejected accordingly after some kind of due process. Maybe some evidence even comes into it. Personally, I’ve accepted a lot of shit in my time, but mostly out of cowardice or ill advised apathy.

Oh, and when. people say “I don’t suffer fools gladly” I nod and think, if only I could be like that, not suffering fools, not taking any shit from anyone, provided I could tell shit from shinola, as they say. Or there’s that other great battle cry:

“She knows her own mind”.

People sit in absolute silence and meditation for years to know their own mind. Using their mind. Which is one way of not taking any shit anymore. It removes the source of said shit and, with that, the distraction, and, unfortunately the interaction. Who’s to say, though, whether one little button-pushing comment couldn’t send even the erstwhile robes wearer right over the edge, to that point where the brain becomes a stranger. You look at the mind and it says, wait, who’s driving, me or you?

A human is a mass of assumptions, knowledge, prejudice, nature and nurture, fears of the past and fears for the future. Defences draw on whichever fires fastest and quickest, and the speeds are getting faster and faster. Photographs now give us the full picture, and speeches are reduced to stumpy sentences.

Perhaps a lot of people that don’t take any shit just don’t send incoming messages through the proper channels. They are over confident, complacent, impressive. They lack caution in the way they run their own head, and are role models for the uncertain, the doubters.

Seize the moment.

Yeah, but don’t take any shit. From anyone. Oh, and don’t give any out either. Like those blogs you write. When are you going to write something about music? It was supposed to be about things you know about.

Cecil Taylor

This morning I came out of the shower and I smelt of lemons. Somebody got the lemony stuff out and put it in a bottle so it won’t go off, and now it’s on me. Ten minutes later, I’m dry and the smell’s gone.

Cecil Taylor squeezes the lemons out of his music with his bare hands, the juice seeping through long fingers. That smell is on you for life, you don’t have to show off about it, you don’t need a t shirt with a lemon picture on.

I can’t say I have lots of Cecil Taylor’s records, and I’m not an expert. But there’s something in his music that reminds me, after his long life of contrary music making, about what I love about all music. It’s not easy.

When a record like “Jazz Advance” came out, in 1956, that must have been something. I can’t imagine the bravery involved, and above all the conviction, that what you are doing is worth it. I once read a review that pointed out “nods to the post-bop form” on this album. They sound more like raised fingers to me. 1959 has been officially designated the pinnacle of modern jazz recordings, and yet two years before that, Cecil Taylor was already taking that format to the breaker’s yard for parts.

People talk about “clusters” in Taylor’s playing, easy to imagine a fist, perhaps made in anger, thrown at the keys. The thing about punching a door is, it’s not easy to come back and punch it in exactly the same place. For me, virtuosity is not in the speed, it’s in the memory. He comes back to the same spot, like running across sand in ones own footsteps, or landing a space shop on an asteroid. Twice.

To hear this in action, this lightning coherence, is a hard won pleasure. It’s not easy. It is not a Spotify Experience, because you have to concentrate, you must not think about what other music you are missing out on. You have to think that someone taking an idea and working it through- transforming it, spitting it out in meteor showers one minute, low voiced laments the next- is worth waiting for. It has to be worth the work. It’s easy to think he’s “splashing around”, that he’s working with fly swats when actually his fingers are surgical knives. Once one accepts the endless flow of activity in his music (look out of the window, why is it so hard?), it seems as natural as a Spring morning, the seeming chaos of leaves and grass moving at odds with each other.

So what “kind of thing” is it? The truth is, it’s beyond style, it’s the aural manifestation of deep architecture spontaneously generated, which is too cumbersome for a genre title. It’s real lemons, not a cheap scent.

I’m happy for his long life, it must have been hard but, really, what else is there?

Cecil Taylor RIP.