Advice For Jazz Students #13: M is for Marmite

Marmite, you either like it or hate it. Thick, dark, divisive, a salted oil slick of a spread, you can’t sit on the fence about it. I’m not sure if I like it or not, so I guess that makes me an extremist, dogmatic in a paradoxical centre.

At some point you have to get seriously monastic about playing jazz. You have to obsess about it, inhabit it, shut, to some extent, some other stuff out. And then, after some time, 10,000 hours, whatever they recommend these days, you have to rehabilitate yourself in the world of real people, hoping you’ll have time in between for some “maintenance” practice, keeping yourself match fit in between.

If you go to college, you will spend most of the time “under the bonnet”, building and fine tuning the engine, learning the mesh of the mechanics, what goes where, why, and how. Chords and scales in music are like axles and cogs, the basics of what makes the thing go.

But you can’t sell a good car like that. You need someone with good teeth and hair driving it through an empty mountain range, someone beautiful straining at the saxophone with “passion”. You need visuals that sit on top. You need a strong brand.

Marmite, the growing up spread.Know what I mean?

Especially now. Because experts are the new enemy of progress. Presumably this trend has “experts” of its own, influencers (influenzas) with their ears to what is left of the ground. Young people with teeth.

So how do we sell this? The new repackaged from the old? New terms like “Spiritual Jazz” are both juvenile and patronising, reducing everything else to the cold and rational. Improvisational forms instead renew themselves through large and small changes in who is using them. On “Ballads” for example, Derek Bailey uses the Tin Pan Alley tradition as a host and then, like a hatching insect, eats his way out of it. This is new. This is old.

Improvisation is an activity like any other. You might as well say eating is old hat, breathing a blatant steal. It is done, and done again, the quality measured in the conviction and not the “never before”-ness of its “content”, the arrogance of its delivery.

Marmite does not, of course, exist in a vacuum. It needs toast. It is, in fact, nothing without toast. Toast and butter. Toast does not, however, need Marmite. It is flexible, it has many companions, Honey. Cheese. Beans. All of these things create magic when toast is introduced. Soup.

Just not Vegemite, which is the sh*t of the devil, please, anything but that.

Advice For Jazz Students #12: L is for landing.

I often imagine a person on a diving board. He walks calmly to the edge and stands looking out into space, then down at the water. He has speedos on. He does some graceful arm swinging stuff and one leg comes up as he prepares to fling himself into….

So far so good. Most people could, with some prep, do a passable impersonation of that. And once you find the pure courage, the outrageous hutzpah, of actually jumping, gravity robs you of any credit for hitting the water. Nobody ever got points for that.

Of course, there’s the somersaults on the way down, the back flips, the altered dominants and the suspended resolutions. But really…it’s all in the landing…how you finish the job. It’s a ten metre drop, the stakes are high.

This is how I describe playing good melodies to students….I like metaphors because they make you feel something. It’s not dots on a page, or fingerings, it’s survival. To hit the water square on means you don’t hurt yourself. It’s also elegant, it’s pleasing to watch.

Have you ever done that, gone to the edge of a diving board? Maybe you went through with it too. That feeling, of total focus and concentration, i feel like that’s what we should aim for with every utterance, every line, in improvised music, being in it. That’s the only way I can get the music out, really feel it. All the knowledge of all the modes and scales and chords and recordings and “what is hip” won’t help you (well maybe a little bit). You have to be aware on a molecular level, to feel that it’s life and death. A belly flop, a fluffed line, hurts like hell. I mean, look at that last sentence, you’ll see what I mean.

But here’s the secret. What you play in the middle is not going to kill you, it can be made good by the ending….learn to find an ending for every line and gesture. Have an exit strategy for any situation, and then you are free to just play. Jazz is about escape.

We are told to think ahead when improvising. I would take that with a pinch of salt: sometimes you have to think behind. Remember what you played just now, be aware of what you need to finish it. The mind thinks in many directions at once.

The diver, of course, is only going one way.

Advice For Jazz Students #10: J is for Jokes

Does humour belong in music?

What about if you take out the specific meaning (the words), the barb and the hurt, and then look at what’s left? Timing, expectation, perhaps shock (LOUD….soft), inappropriateness (a change of language?)…these things are fundamental tools in an improviser’s armoury…well, for me they are.

Stand up comedy is a big influence. The art of dropping the right word in, pacing a story in preparation for the punchline, turn of phrase, accent, tone. These are all qualities that seem more important to me than the subject matter. I have laughed my head off at really offensive jokes, it’s not because I’m a bigot but because the joke and it’s execution are paced right, and suddenly everyone looks at each other slightly ashamed. What power that is.

But musical jokes are my favourite because they are made at no one’s expense, but you get the hit from it, the surprise. They are the non-competitive football of jokes. Being a musician and an introvert (double honours), you can avoid offending people and then get your kicks in sound.

A joke, when reduced to its bare bones, is a set move. In jazz, a lick might seem analogous.

A lick is like a short scene from a film, a scene where the conclusion is completely predictable. The doorbell rings, a woman gets up, the camera following as she answers the door, the door swings open, a close up of her face and then we see…the face of her husband, due back at precisely that time.

Surely something like this would be better.

The bell, the woman answers, the hand on the doorknob, door swings open, her face in close up, the camera pans to the doorstep…and a wild dog looks up menacingly.

Perhaps then people see these tricks too many times, and now they expect the dog, so then you have to start messing around, the close up of the hand becomes the shadow of the hand, the camera pans around and it’s an alien, or there’s no doorway but another living room, a dog in a living room etc etc.

Maybe, after a while of all this crazy cavorting, the husband at the door becomes surprising again, novel, post modern, ironic.

So the point is, when Hank Mobley plays a lick, you recognise the beginning, the hand on the door, you have to, you are being made comfortable in preparation for something…the camera pans….but something changes, maybe he stops it short, maybe it goes up at the end instead of down. Little things. A lot of little things together make a personal voice. A personal voice, nevertheless, “in the tradition”. His licks are little set ups for surprise, and they are recognisable, familiar, over familiar even. But he knows how to use them. There’s the art.

I was too busy showing off for a while to get this properly….but, all grown up now, Hank Mobley is the business in my book. Subtle dents in a seemingly smooth surface.

And yet, licks still bother me. I don’t teach them. I think it’s because people can take them too literally. They are dangerous, like a kind of inverse explosive. They are “rendered”, marked as correct and all the energy is sucked out of the room. Something like this, in musical terms:

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Me.”

“Ok. Come in and please take your shoes off.”

Ronnie Scott used to say, if no one laughed at his announcements, “these are the jokes”.

I think I get it now.

Advice For Jazz Students #11: K is for Kent

That’s where I grew up. Kent. Bromley, Kent. Jazz was the result not of my environment, but of my quest for an alternative one. If there was ever a destination to Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere”, it was Bromley. It did have its advantages. It offered a public library jazz department that somehow ended up full of Sun Ra and John Coltrane albums. It’s suburban blankness was somehow an invitation to do something. Something else.

In those days music meant classical grades. Clocking up measurable units of progress on a journey that has no end. It was fun and I loved it. My parents encouraged me to take an interest in ragtime, then I discovered stride piano and Ellington. In the meantime I learnt the clarinet, rose through the ranks of the Bromley Youth Concert Band, where I learnt about social music making, the feeling of being in an ensemble, and the inherent sex appeal of flautists. I was, and am, eternally grateful to Bromley for all these revelations.

But in the end, the absolute need for accuracy in classical music defeated me. Improvisation, on the other hand, turned mistakes into opportunities, blind alleys into open roads, it was making something in, and of, the moment. There was a kind of interior dancing involved that enabled me to side step the shambles of the real thing. It gave me a rest from Beethoven (and him from me) – I loved his music, and felt bad for him about my continued involvement in it.

Although I had to make a run for it away from classical music, the bmmmmmmmph of Max Roach’s bass drum still meshed in my head with the hhhhhhrrrrrrrah of Stravinsky’s Symphony In Three Movements. Jazz was not the only sound of surprise, and it wasn’t the only music where rhythm was first in the hierarchy.

It was, though, my first encounter with black culture. There were not many black people at my school, but on the sleeves of my record collection they formed a formidable majority. Where I “came from” was a homemade culture, cobbled together both from a carpet bombing of record shops and a carefully plotted network of associations. My trail of recordings led by, or featuring, Bill Frisell, was a particularly expensive component of the early 90s.

Bromley was only ten miles from the capital, and supposedly part of that misnomer, “Greater London”, but that was far enough away to make a train ride from Bromley South to Victoria a real “before and after” experience. London was a trip, the kind where you get off at the other end and smell the air.

If you are from somewhere, or something, I say use it, feel your immersion in it, be inspired by it and make the best art you can. If you’re not, follow your nose and make sure you acknowledge your borrowings, especially to yourself, as they will continue to inspire you. It’s a practical point as much as a moral one. We all need ideas, this stuff doesn’t come out of thin air.

Maybe it’s all been done already, but not in the particular order or proportions that you have chosen, or found yourself with. To find interest in that order once, then again, and again and again, that’s the work. I don’t see retirement coming any time soon, and money is only half the reason.

Advice for Jazz Students #9: I is for Industry and Immersion

Is music manufacture? It certainly was, for a short period of time in a small part of the (European) world. Notation and recording produced artefacts that either led to the music being performed, or, one step further on, led to it being heard in performance.

Streaming services certainly encourage some people not to listen very hard, others to determinedly seek out new music. Either way, the money to be made here is negligible unless you drip drip your way on to a coffee house playlist as a soundtrack to someone’s awesome day.

That’s one option I’m working on. Currently I’m trying to monetise my music, my insecurity, my self loathing and my children. A blog is a good start.

Do not underestimate the side hustle, it may be half (or more) of your earnings. And there’s the Bandcamp thing: other people with more knowledge have written (hello Steve) about that here, but it seems a nice spot for those with a genuine appetite for the new.

What concerns me, and maybe you, is “industry” as a state of mind. We do this because we have to do this, and so do it we will, if we can afford it. And that industry leads me to “immersion”.

Immersion is the state I am aiming for. After a tune, when people clap, I wake up from my brief sleep. I can only hope the audience liked it, because I was out and wasn’t available to deal with their grievances. At least that’s how it goes on a good gig. We are offering something, and that’s all we can really do.

Of course I have done my fair share of courting an audience. I have recorded music loved by fans, though not always by musicians (“Brubeck”), tried to get my arse kicked by people better than me (“Romance Among The Fishes”) and, most recently, tried to address the current taste for less density and more groove (“The Long Game”). Mostly, though, I’ve worked in other people’s bands. I hope it’s all me. It’s certainly all me asleep. Immersion is the driving force behind everything.

Sometimes to be immersed, we must learn some cold, hard technique or theory. The last thing I want to do when I’m asleep is to worry about where the edge of the bed is. That’s practice and research, and it’s a fantastically fun part of music making, because it feels like progress (or not when it’s going less than well). But it is, in some way, separate, a different state.

The dreaming and the doing. Two states. I wonder if they could, or should, meet?