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.

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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.

National Student Survey, 1263

(…George Benson believed that the children are our future, and I guess only time will tell on that one. It’s great students can voice their opinion these days, but this is nothing new. Going through the bins in the library, I found this ancient manuscript of what appears to be a partially completed National Student Survey originating in a Medieval Kyoto monastery.  Cautiously unfolding the parchment,  I transcribed what I could, as it was written mostly in Chinese characters of which I have no knowledge at all; anyway I did my best.  Known for its rigorous enforcement of a strict master/student protocol, medieval Japanese monasteries nevertheless enthusiastically encouraged student feedback in questionnaires eerily similar to those today.  I have updated this account a bit in order to try and make it more relevant so now young people can understand it too…)

Date : April 4th, 1263

Subject : Enlightenment Foundation Module

National Student Survey

Questions:

The teaching on my course1. Staff are good at explaining things.

2. Staff have made the subject interesting.

3. The course is intellectually stimulating.

4. My course has challenged me to achieve my best work.

I don’t like the way staff explain things at all actually.  First of all, it seems we have to do all the work, it’s all questions and no answers. He asked us what the sound of one hand clapping was. I did it, I clapped one hand and the teacher was like, but there’s no sound and I was like, I know but isn’t that just your opinion (which the teacher seems to think is important by the way). I tried it again. I watched a girl on YouTube try it, and her results were the same despite having fifty thousand likes on a video sharing platform that doesn’t exist yet. Not a whisper. Try it. Clap one hand, nothing comes out. It’s just lame.  Two hands clapping is apparently cheating, breaking the “***rules***“.  Rules are just a way of limiting our self expression, in my opinion.

Learning opportunities5. My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth.

6. My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics.

7. My course has provided me with opportunities to apply what I have learnt.

Look, I have a lot of ideas, and especially a lot of concepts, which are like ideas in that you don’t have to do anything.  My teacher said, that’s great, you should explore them, but this lesson isn’t the place.  I said isn’t that just your opinion.  He hit me with a large stick.

Assessment and feedback8. The criteria used in marking have been clear in advance.

9. Marking and assessment has been fair.

10. Feedback on my work has been timely.

11. I have received helpful comments on my work.

Marking is rubbish here.  I definitely don’t like being assessed.  Apparently there’s no guarantee that I will get a good mark although I paid a fortune to come to this place.  I get feedback but some of it is critical and that makes me sad, representing bad value for money.  My teacher said some of the best lessons he had made him sad, and the sadness enabled him to seek out what he needed in order to improve.  He also said that you wouldn’t feel like that if you didn’t have to pay for your education.  I said exactly, that’s why you should give me good marks. This time I saw the stick coming and got out of the way in time.  The teacher smiled.  He said I had at last learnt something.

Academic support12. I have been able to contact staff when I needed to.

13. I have received sufficient advice and guidance in relation to my course.

14. Good advice was available when I needed to make study choices on my course.

15. The course is well organised and running smoothly.

16. The timetable works efficiently for me.

17. Any changes in the course or teaching have been communicated effectively.

I must say things are pretty efficient here, there are lots of emails about doors working, then not working and then working again.  I know every detail of the well being of every entrance mechanism in the building.  This makes me feel empowered.  The timetable of getting up at 4am, eating rice and then meditating for twelve hours every day (until enlightenment comes) is quite simple to follow, except one day I missed it because it wasn’t in my calendar, so on that day it didn’t “work efficiently for me” as I wasn’t there. There is definitely room for improvement here.

Learning resources18. The IT resources and facilities provided have supported my learning well.

19. The library resources (e.g. books, online services and learning spaces) have supported my learning well.

20. I have been able to access course-specific resources (e.g. equipment, facilities, software, collections) when I needed to.

Libraries are so uncool, scrolls and all that shit are just not edgy enough for the way I like to do things.  I prefer my own vibe.  Other people have already done things, now it’s my turn.

Learning community21. I feel part of a community of staff and students.

22. I have had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of my course.

This is true, I get to sit in silence for twelve hours next to people I like who, like me, are silent.  Some days, we all get together and try, again, to clap with one hand, which is like silence but with aching arms.

Student voice23. I have had the right opportunities to provide feedback on my course.

24. Staff value students’ views and opinions about the course.

25. It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on.

26. The students’ union (association or guild) effectively represents students’ academic interests.

True feedback is found in the clear mirror of your quiet self, they tell me.  This is the kind of shit we have to put up with.  I tried to complain about the clapping thing. Apparently it’s kind of a riddle, and there’s no definitive answer, which means the mark is totally random.  I said, how long will it take me to work it out.  My teacher said, ten years.  And if I try really hard?  Twenty years, he said.  If I was allowed my stick in class, I calculate I could just about break his nose from here.

Overall satisfaction

27. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.

The course is a journey, life is a journey, life is suffering.  Satisfaction is superficial, coming only to those who do not embrace true and constant change.  Quality is an illusion, all is vanity.  I don’t know what is left of this question, or how to answer it.  Instead I sit, and I think what now.

Coffee cup

The time is 12.23, , and as my weary eyes catch sight of a rubbish bin I feel, somewhat prematurely, the surge of pleasure at the thought of having dropped the empty coffee cup (held precariously between thumb and forefinger as the three remaining fingers grip my reading glasses with hopeless optimism) into it.

In the other hand is a copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”, thick and solid. It has all the answers. Like a toddler’s drawing of a face, there’s a suspicion it’s not completely accurate, but its enthusiastic scrawl is bursting with enthusiasm. Everything has been, will be, and is, as ok as one could hope for in such a complex and fragile humanity, bound together as it is by fictions, folktales and trust in the future.

A kind of consensus of imagination, whether it be God, money, presidents or our inherent superiority to animals, holds this juddering juggernaut together. As the internet finally grants a voice to more people than ever, perhaps such agreements may fall apart, the human sprawl reveals itself, a mass of voices informed by everything from intense research to idle gossip. But more than ever, these voices demand results, to throw out history and start again, to take no shit from the old orders. Such demands have now spread to the human body itself, and a combination of computers and bio technology will offer us choice beyond our wildest dreams, if dreaming is still a possibility with all that machinery and bio mutation made flesh.

(Ok, his tone is a little more optimistic than mine, but it was a fun read.)

It was also a practical read; short chapters despite the weighty tome, easy to get one in between Facebook posts and other essential business. And, by definition, we all feel like characters in the book itself. By reading it, we somehow participate in an unfinished final chapter. As I multitask my way through a series of frivolous actions, I am paradoxically reminded of the freedom and the terror of being in a “foraging” society. The author certainly takes the nostalgia out of that little pipe dream. No time for selfies with a ravenous mammoth stampeding towards you and only a spear to catch it with. No time for much really. Pick the fruit and run. And no going back.

But in the present day drama of the coffee cup and the reading glasses, I emerge victorious, the cup making a soft landing between crisp packets, the glasses secured between my fingers. With a renewed sense of positivity, I go a-hunting and a-gathering into the jungles of Baker St.