Advice For Jazz Students #17: Q is for quotation.

The older I get, the less I value creativity. Maybe what I really mean is “creation”, the constant generating of new material. It’s good when it flows, but new things are not always the answer. If you spend a long time in a particular musical world, you will probably end up…going deeper, working with less, and the music will open up. Freedom through limitation.

There are, after all, infinite ways to reorder and reorganise the ideas we already use. Using a well known melody in a solo stretches across boundaries of taste, time and popularity. A simple and familiar melody can momentarily open up a music that often appears elitist. Of course, most things that take time and concentration appear elitist these days.

Quotation can be cheesy though, a proper blue vein stink, “Colonel Bogie” will cut through a Gershwin song like a turd plopped on a Roman fresco, or break the flow of a solo like an unprompted name drop in a conversation.

But it can also be inspired, it can make you aware of how all music is related somehow, somewhere, through some distant branch, a twig, of a family tree. It releases something familiar from what seemed like an iron clad context, and places it in another, builds a bridge between the known and the new. It might win you, for that brief moment, some more fans.

But it’s a high risk pursuit, no question about it. The value of your investment may go up or down, and there’s a terrifying lean to the latter. Some music just won’t stand for it, demanding something more rigorous or consistent.

Choose wisely, not out of desperation or a need to please. Pick tunes that are well known and distinctive, that can slide into view unannounced. Aim for surprise at the familiar, like an English tourist finding a Starbuck’s in a strange town.

Don’t do it too much. It wears thin, like summer trousers. Like similies.

Advice For Jazz Students #16: P is for Practice, Play, Performance

I have to confess my position on this is fairly ramshackle. My brain doesn’t always function as it should, what and how I practised recedes from view like memories of learning to walk and talk. This means I don’t often attempt teaching about it. In fact, the only thing I have ever told students which I know for certain will work is a way of getting A4 photocopies to stay up on a music stand by pinching the centre of the bottom and top edges, thereby making it three dimensional, standing like an opened book. You can DM me for that.

But I have some suitably strung together advice about these three different, sort of similar stages of making music.

Practice” shouldn’t sound that good. People shouldn’t want to hear it. It’s private stuff. I wouldn’t pay to watch Aston Villa doing push ups. Most people prefer a methodical approach to it, something I often failed at (as far as I remember), because its efficient and it works. It arranges patterns and strategies in a systematic way which then, fingers crossed, emerge in “playing” and “performance”stages in more organic and musical forms. There are lots of online resources focused on this, but I think my former (often exasperated) teacher Simon Purcell should be your first port of call for varied and creative ways to practice.

Playing” is something you can practice too, as if someone were listening. For me it’s the practice of making a coherent whole statement…there are some musicians that blur this boundary, people like Sonny Rollins who get into something so intensely on stage that it feels like they are working it out for themselves. More like a process, an endless working out that can be two minutes or two hours long. It’s my favourite stage in many ways, but….

Whether playing or practising, whatever you play in a small room comes right back at you like a tennis ball off a school playground wall. This is not true of “performance“, which can sometimes feel more like trying to throw an inflatable doll across a windy river.

In order to get a crowd interested, and keep them there, you may need to do things you don’t practice. “Showboating”, as it is sometimes condescendingly called, is often called for. Personally I have a couple of tricks, and I don’t practice them because to remember you need them is to be on the stage, usually with a drummer who has around him a whole set of things designed to be hit hard outdoors. And you have an instrument that seemed loud in 1700 because it made more noise than a harpsichord. You need some kind of David and Goliath strategy here. It’s fun too, but it won’t happen in lessons, in your bedroom, or playing along with Art Blakey records. Blakey’s coming out of a little box, and like that other little box, the X Box, the guns aren’t real. I saw him once. And he was loud, dense, like a challenge….come on, what have you got? Guns blazing.

It’s not all about volume though. I once saw improvising singer Phil Minton upstairs in a London pub. It was a small room. He had no microphone and was making tiny sounds, if I closed my eyes I could see a miniature horse in mild distress. It was quiet, it filled the room. He drowned out the jukebox (yes it was a long time ago) coming from downstairs. This was pure musicianship, at least to me. It sounded like anyone could do it, and I confess I tried when I got home after the gig. My throat hurt after about a minute. It’s not easy.

Fill the room with big, soft, raging music. And move with the audience, see if you can go around again, have you lost them or do they want more? This is performance, and to do it you have to do it. There are no internet fast track plans, you cannot learn German in your sleep whilst losing wrinkles and earning 300K a year by following this link. Or this one. You can however, scroll to the bottom of this page for premature and garish orthodontic surgery, or whichever other goodies are on sale.

The choice is yours, only you can decide.

Advice For Jazz Students #15: O is for Outlaws and Octatonic

I’ve reached a kind of head scratching mid life crisis alphabet-wise. “O”. “Obvious” was the obvious choice. You shouldn’t always avoid the obvious in your line because a ball in the air always wants to come down the same way. But sometimes you should avoid it, because jazz isn’t just about balls. I’m wary, though, of admonishing potential music makers with moralistic instructions from my electric pulpit. I’ve never seen jazz like that. Pick up a brush and splash some paint around, you’ll know pretty quick if you want to be an artist. Same with music. The rest of it will follow, because the wanting will dictate the learning and the knowledge you seek.

Outlaws, this is how I saw jazz musicians. Clint Eastwood’s solitary wanderings with only an unappetising looking cigar for company. They were also literally outside laws, of supply and demand (lend us a fiver) and of fashion (my God you are still using working from that forties template?). I think you could almost argue the laws of thermodynamics, because if energy in equals energy out why am I so tired and so skint? But maybe this is all word games. For me it was more about mythology.

Duke Ellington, looking impossibly sharp at all stages of his 50 year career, delivers one of his debonair speeches, then wrenches out darkness, groove and pure anti piano out of the instrument, whilst all around him the orchestra glows like a swarm of fireflies. It’s dark entertainment alright, magic slipped under the radar. Monk, precise, child-like, Miles, hard edged and melancholy, Betty Carter stomping around the stage directing her virtuosic, much younger band to make space for whimsical phrases expertly dropped. These are people I am glad I never met in person, great monolithic makers of sound, like pieces Anthony Gormley might have made, and when I tried to practice a tune until I “got it” I was answerable to them. They were mythical, archetypal, symbolic and human. All-seeing eyes from which one couldn’t hide. Benevolent, immovable, they were statues that I would have to walk around to get to my bed.

And now? Now music lingers like a gas, its accessibility at your convenience is its number one priority, to breathe is to consume. Miles Davis with an Instagram feed. Sometimes I just stop and think about that idea. It’s not a bad thing…he would have found a way. I’m looking too. There are ways. It’s not all bad. It’s good and bad, like the outlaws, good and bad.

When something becomes less scarce, it’s cheap. Such is the fate of the Octatonic Scale, hijacked and repackaged by the American Jazz Music Industry as the “double diminished” or the “whole-half” diminished” or the….whatever. I can never remember the name, but “diminishment” seems apt, double or not. Saxophone players (mostly) can run around fast going nowhere on this scale, it’s lack of harmonic direction makes it a brilliant rhythmic device for someone like Michael Brecker to groove like mad on. He’s, for me, the heroic exception that proves the rule, many others simply sounding like Instagram bunnies frantically pumping a rowing machine parked by the side of the river.

But this weird, symmetrical set of notes used to be so much more, a bent mirror through which standard tonality is warped, producing strange visions. Go and find Bartok and Stravinsky to see what can really be done with it. As we skate over our infinite playlists of things to listen to “later”, so the fate of this scale seemed somehow to reflect the gradual cheapening of music, rightly or wrongly. Of course, the flip side of this is access, for all with a laptop and an internet connectionand perhaps that’s worth the trade. We still have these composers when we need them. But the tendency for music to now be a distraction, a soundtrack to something else meaningful, rather than a focus, is a battle we still fight in some way.

The odds are stacked against us. But we are outlaws. Octatonic Outlaws.

Advice For Jazz Students #14: N is for numbers

Fake news means you can’t trust anyone, especially not experts, who are in it for themselves and represent a conspiracy against the rights of the ignorant. Numbers, perhaps, are the one remaining fact of life.

(Pure Maths People dont @ me. We don’t trust you either.)

Numbers are the ultimate immovable experts, like statues in your living room. A series of chords like a II V I progression simply is. It makes a sound and it is meaningful because it outlines a tonal centre. Write that down. That sound is a fact.

And so these chords are like pieces of driftwood, clung to in a storm. They will save you. Sometimes, though, it’s good to fight the urge to paddle furiously, to notice instead the design, the shape. The possibilities. That driftwood was once part of a bigger boat, beautifully made.

I prefer that numbers be made fallible, with movement, a certain play in the measurements. Let them breathe.

A certain type of superhuman can learn impossibly long chains of digits by attaching meaning to them, meanings combined like Lego bricks into their walk home, the view from their window, the order and number of memory competitions they have entered etc. For some, numbers are themselves a thing of beauty. I don’t know whether to envy these people or not. I am certainly in awe.

I’m on, though, the fence (again). Sometimes I hear chord progressions and all I can see are the wheels, the pulleys that make the angels fly across the stage of a small budget nativity. Other days, I am happy to watch flying humanoids as a plot device because why not? Its all real but it is also magic, sleight of hand.

Even numbers are not above criticism. And this might make them more, not less, interesting. Maybe not statues, but rather precious stones that reflect light in unpredictable patterns. It’s raining where you are and sunny here.

Numbers are beautiful, but sometimes you wake up in the morning and the view isn’t what it was. They are like people, they will sometimes help you out of a dead end, but equally often, drive you purposefully there.

They are like people. But it’s only us who say they are experts. Numbers have at least some modesty.