The Light That Goes On

The older I get, the harder it becomes to locate a voice in my music. We are supposed to aspire to that, to find this thing that is yours, as if music were a forest, the voice a lost animal somewhere. So are we all following the distant bark of a trapped dog? All musicians aspire to a condition of authenticity when playing. But how? How do we recognise it? I’ve tended to shy away from sticking to any kind of guns musically, and perhaps this means I’ve been unable to find my true calling, unless you count absent-minded listlessness. It’s a kind of direction in itself I suppose, a clearly defined path taken by a three-wheeled shopping trolley. But there has to be something linking it all together, and I think I’ve at least found out what that is.

I used to play in a band with a tenor saxophonist called Bobby Wellins. We played at a club called the 606 in London, I reckon we did a gig a month for around fifteen years. The band was (mostly) myself, Dave Whitford and Dave Wickins on bass and drums respectively. We played standards, often the same ones month after month. You might think that was a pretty locked in format, but it was as free as I ever felt playing music: clear boundaries that were, as you approached them, soft and fluffy as clouds. I think it worked like this: Bobby called a tune, or sometimes just started it in the middle of another one, and, depending on the circumstances, we crashed, sloped or edged in around and behind him. Every musical decision felt like it had infinite other alternatives, each of which would have led to a new fork in the road with infinite others, all somehow held by the gravitational pull of the tune itself. It seemed no arbitrary coincidence that these songs had been played for decades: these songs could take a beating, and still they got up and asked for more. They became more alive with every punch, with every attempt to unseat the foundations the thing stayed more in the ground. There’s a lot of fun in that (and no violence, by the way).

Anyway, that band, took care of my “standards fix”. Sometimes we would play as a trio without Bobby, but even that group was slightly edging away from the mainstream repertoire. Musicans like John Scofield, Keith Jarrett, Geri Allen and Paul Motian had always come back to standards after playing their own music and that of other contemporary composers. I felt the same way: I needed to do other things in order that I had something to bring back with me.

In 2016 Bobby passed away, and the gigs at the 606 stopped. I still played standards a bit with Dave and Dave but then, in 2019, Dave Wickins died. I haven’t played that kind of music since. Those associations were long in the making. I felt that music belonged, in some way, to them.

Dave Wickins used to run a Summer School in Wales that myself and Bobby taught at every year. And every year I would watch Geoff Simkins create impossibly twisting sculptures of line out of these same old tunes. Sometimes I would watch so intently that I forgot to play. We would always invoke, after a week of both teaching and learning in equal measure, that old jazz mantra: “We must do it again!” This has been going on for years.

Now we are doing it again. We have a gig, and we are recording it. I feel like it’s a good time to go back to playing those tunes (as well as some by Chopin, Duran Duran and one by person or persons unknown). There seems a specific reason for doing it. But I keep coming back to this question. Why? What makes the experience feel so authentic?

Remember those electric dynamos on bikes? If you pedalled hard enough the lights would come on and, if you stopped putting the effort in, they would dim again. Well, it’s not like that. Music has legs that move on their own, set in motion by some kind of rightness, some kind of feedback between ears, body and mind that makes the light come on. I’ve felt it in free music, in other people’s music, in my own bands and in pieces I’ve written, if I allow myself the indulgence. It’s not the repertoire. Choosing to do a certain thing in music is no guarantee of magic: knowing a haïku is seventeen syllables doesn’t make you a poet. You can’t make it happen, it happens almost in your absence, when you are not thinking about it, forcing it, willing it to happen. There’s a kind of “not-doing”-ness to it, one the actual haïku poets were well aware of.

Whenever I feel that happening, the little light goes on, that’s something I want to do. It can be abstract, earthy, restrictive, loose or just an idea in someone’s head. But you have to follow the light and try not to take too much notice of the other voices in your head, the ones ferociously and needlessly pedalling downhill and leaving themselves no energy to come back up.

Then all you gotta do is hit the sweet spot with them algorithms and bingo, away you go!

Here’s a link to the gig, at The Vortex, Dalston on Weds 26th October: