What next?

It goes on and on, it’s endless, feeds on itself – this discussion about what jazz is, when is it authentic.   The music (oh God what is it, the music?) is becoming endlessly fascinated with itself.  Where is jazz going?  A view of jazz on an A3 poster might look like a vast pantheon of names on which are superimposed an intricate web of lines, lines drawn in the sand by its practitioners, fans and commentators. Beyond these lines, the music doesn’t swing, has no soul, has sold out, is a cacophony etc etc.  The discussion usually polarises into two broad camps; tradition versus innovation, taking care of business versus going out on a limb.  There is endless debate about what either of these mean; I guess the general view is that “the tradition of jazz is to innovate”, which might be a slightly-too-neat conclusion, pulling the two sides together in a clever little knot.  Perhaps if questioned on the subject by Jeremy Paxman, George Osborne might trot that line out.  Which is not to say that I don’t believe it, and that I haven’t said it myself in the hope that it would give me an air of authority.

It’s like food.  If you like hot food, recipes established and handed down through tradition, eventually you might get obsessed with chillies.  You might want to find the hottest chillies in the world.  And you might have been surprised to find them, for two weeks in March 2010, in Grantham, Lincolnshire (http://www.chilefoundry.com/2013/03/02/do-you-think-you-know-the-hottest-chillies-in-the-world/).  Certain qualities in a musician’s playing might begin to dominate a person’s idea of that musician’s “essence”.  So maybe for some people, Miles lives on not through Wallace Roney (his devoted disciple…can’t imagine Miles wanting one of those), but through the stand up of Stewart Lee, sharing perhaps a certain approach to space in their delivery.

If I listen to music and can see the possibility of playing in, on, over or through it, it might be useful to me.  I don’t want to know if it’s any good, I want to know if it’s useful.  It’s this part of the process that is crucial for me, because you have to check that it’s still possible to play well in that situation, that the difference between an empty gesture and a crafted line is still worth chasing.  There has to be space to succeed or fail as an improviser, to be able to affect the overall sound from your position within it.  The classic “hard bop” line up is one of the greatest success stories from that perspective, and it’s endlessly customisable whilst still referring to something familiar.

But all this discussion and dissection can be counter productive when you are actually making music.  Now that I’ve got it all out of my system I can concentrate on the real issues; when and where to eat, how to fit in an extra rehearsal, who’s driving to which gigs, weighty questions all.     

John Cage, having tried a number of home grown systems of music making in an attempt to circumnavigate what he saw as the untrustworthy will of the human mind, finally concluded that “Music is work.”  That seems like a good definition, one that includes all manner of approaches and keeps things down to earth.  Perhaps it’s most valuable lesson is one of action over procrastination.  And each situation requires its own approach to working.

“Horses for courses”.

My nan said that, and it wasn’t about music as such, but it makes you think. 

Episode 4, music

Whenever I play music that I’ve written (which is not very often for reasons I’ll go into later) I find myself wondering why I do it.  It’s a compulsion.  I know what I’m in for when this happens; I question whether it makes sense, whether it is worth anything, whether the musicians and audience will like it or understand it.  I’m convinced now that this all translates into a general fear of responsibility.  Being a sideman is preferable from the mental health angle; one is allowed to contribute to the music’s success without being ultimately responsible for it.  Of course, the amount of room one has to do that varies from band to band, and sometimes having a very confined role can be interesting in that you might just focus on feel and sound, for example.  But you are always moving about in a framework that, ultimately, is not your decision, not your responsibility.  The “round and round” song structures of jazz, assertive yet flexible, allow an infinite array of variation and yet one is always going round and round, and that is what people have always done.  It’s tried and tested.  Once you let go of this element of the music, then each piece may need its own rules, based more on the nature of the ideas in the melody, or a rhythmic figure, or just a particular atmosphere or texture.  And you always need a way back to the composition itself – in contrast, the great advantage of freely improvised music (and it’s greatest failing for those who are not fans), is that by definition there is nothing specific to find your way back to.

Personally I like both, but music I write has often seemed to flit in and out of these areas.  There are certain things in music that I don’t want to leave behind because I like them too much.  I like tunes, for example; old fashioned tunes.  I also like very abstract textures and lines, but when I close my eyes and see my band on stage about to play, I don’t hear them doing it.  Besides, lots of other people do that very well and I don’t want to provide unnecessary competition.  But I do like the idea of not going back, of starting a tune that never returns in the same form, and this sometimes involves not writing tunes that are too tuneful otherwise they will sound like they want to come back.  And when you don’t bring them back, the tunes get angry with you.  Angry tunes don’t sound good, you have to keep them in their proper environment, treat them with respect.  They become like people; or cats.  I feel the DNA of the structure of a piece is somehow contained in its main tune or phrase, in a particular rhythm;  uncovering that structure can take me a long time, and it might only be 5 bars long after all that.  And I’m never sure I’ve got it quite right.

So to put all this on the musicians is a pretty tall order.  They are all improvising, sometimes with almost nothing to go on, but with a view to arriving at another place where they will suddenly have to read a passage, remember how many times we play it and lead on to the next section.   Of course, the sensible thing is to write all these geographical details down, which I did, complete with clearly delineated bullet points and bold title fonts, and which we all forgot halfway through our inaugural gig at Wakefield on Friday.  At these points, sometimes the best music happens; an audience likes nothing more than to see a group of musicians communicating, getting in and out of trouble.  In some ways the purpose of the music is to stimulate the band into these kinds of situations, so that the improvising then becomes the the “meat” of the piece and the musicians can guide the development of the piece.   On the other hand, there are the kinds of mistakes that are just simply wrong; there is a way of underplaying these, which is to play something that “could almost fit anywhere”.  This is very much a last resort of course, like breaking the emergency glass with the hammer. 

All of which begs the question, why make things awkward for myself and everyone else?  And the only answer I have is that when I sit down and write stuff, that’s what comes out.  There’s like a feint sound of music in the background of my head, and I’m trying to catch it, and when I don’t catch it it’s like….”nearly”, and I have to try again for as long as I’ve got, and then it’s two weeks til the gigs start and I have to say, OK that’s it, I’ve finished these pieces.  There are all these methods of writing, structuring, things we know work, and yet….somehow, when you are writing your own music, all you can do is listen and wait for ideas to come. 

It’s easy to tie oneself up in knots about all this, but it’s not a bad job to have and a lot of the time the music goes down pretty well.  The audience at Wakefield were, as ever, hugely enthusiastic about the music; perhaps it’s good that they are unaware all the neurotic histrionics that go into it’s preparation.

Navel Gazing

One of the main problems with blog writing, and possibly writing in general, is navel gazing.  It’s an occupational hazard of sitting down, you only have to lower your head in a moment of tiredness and it’s right there.   I am trying to think of some things to say about my music in the wake of the first and only rehearsal for the forthcoming tour (I’m not sure about that word “wake” for a start, it’s a bit….funerial…), and it starts to happen again, my head drops a bit, deep in thought, perhaps I’m a bit tired…anyway, there it is; my navel, what else is there to gaze at?  I suppose if people communicated their innermost thoughts with a megaphone all this navel orientated activity would stop, and people would look up instead, surely a more promising source of inspiration.  

Rehearsals are a strange event whenever any degree of improvisation is involved.  The “top and tailing” of arrangements, figuring out different grooves which are only partly implied on the written page, solo orders…the one thing that often doesn’t get rehearsed is the actual playing together that constitutes the majority of the gig.  Actually PLAYING (in a kind of “your arse off” way) at a rehearsal would be akin to revealing childhood traumas at an interview for a vacancy at KFC, it just isn’t really done, although you’d be tempted to give that person the job.  There’s a kind of tacit understanding that what is being rehearsed is a kind of “C Beebies” version of what is going to happen on the gig, with all the swearing and adult references edited out, and possibly a bit too much explanation of what’s going on.  There’s an almost superstitious feeling that you shouldn’t blow all the music on a rehearsal, and it’s universally understood and accepted amongst most musicians.

So the anticipated relief at having rehearsed the music, sorted the parts, finalised the arrangements…it never really comes; I’ll be saving that for the end of the first gig, which is in Wakefield on Friday 20th September.  Until then…chin up…

Decisions, decisions…

I have nothing to say/ and I am saying it/ and that is poetry/ as I need it.”
Lecture on Nothing” (1949)

There’s something about improvising that involves a lack of reflection, letting whatever happens stand as the finished product.  It makes it impossible to worry about it, you can’t go back.  You can do it several times, and decide which time you couldn’t go back came out the best, and put it on a recording…that’s the extent of your control.  I can take years to finish a 12 bar tune, leaving it and coming back to it several times in a quest to unlock the “riddle” of the initial idea, only to throw it away again, yet an improvisation is a complete piece of music in the time it takes to play it because that is the agreement made between the musicians, and between the musicians and the audience.  Decisions are the thing I find most difficult, and so looking over two hundred photographs…of me…is quite a painful process.

I think I’ve found some that are suitable for “promotional use”, i.e I am not TOO grumpy (like email, photos don’t quite get across the humour of grumpiness somehow).  Ideally, I would like a grumpy picture with some kind of bubble coming out of my mouth that says “this is just how I look, I’m not upset”.  But this is all part of being in control of one’s own “product”, ensuring the viewer gets the right message instantaneously, that you can “match” it to an aesthetic, an ethos.  Some people are brilliant in this, and it’s an art form in itself; I realise I have pretty much spent my whole career avoiding the whole issue, hiding behind the sideman role (which I love and enjoy enormously).  But I guess it’s time to have a go at making a statement.  This will be formed through lots of small decisions that are musical and non musical, and I’m quite enjoying the novelty of it all.  Having only really thought about how notes, sounds and people work together I’m now thinking about what “I” am trying to “say”.  And whether I have picked the right font.

Blog number one

I have a new band called “Brother Face”, and we have a tour which, I discovered a week ago, is now funded partly by the Arts Council.  One of the conditions of receiving the money is that I write a blog, and so I am making a start.  I can’t face anything other than factual information at the moment, just dipping my toe in the water blog-wise; so here are the dates.

20th September     Wakefield Sports and Social Club
27th September     Stoke By Nayland Hotel, Boxford
8th October             Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham
12th October          The Hive Theatre, Shrewsbury
18th October           Millennium Hall, Sheffield
1st November         The Verdict, Brighton
8th November         The Vortex, Dalston, London

We also have two workshops, one at 4.00 on October 8th at the MAC with Birmingham Conservatoire students, the other at 10am at the Guildhall School Of Music And Drama.

The band is made up of my regular trio with Dave Whitford and Dave Wickins on bass and drums, and adds the tenor/clarinet of Shabaka Hutchings and trumpet of Chris Batchelor, and it’s all my music (the written bits anyway). 

I guess this will be some kind of diary of what happens when we do things.  I will try and make it interesting, but I guess I should not shy away from the documenting of things that are not.  

Wish me luck, I just said to myself as I wrote this.  

By the way, the name…from a poem by Robert Creeley called “Histoire de Florida”.
It doesn’t really mean anything (like the music), but I like the way it almost could.