Advice For Jazz Students #22: V is for Virtuosity

What a nebulous term this is. What does it mean? The Merriam Webster dictionary has this to say:

“1: great technical skill (as in the practice of a fine art)”

“2: a taste for or interest in virtu

In music this seems to be perceived as something to do with speed of execution, and, when the fingers hit light speed and can go no faster, you can always make the material they are executing more complicated. This all seems reasonable when you are starting out, mainly because in the early stages of learning to improvise your fingers probably don’t work spontaneously at all. It’s an appealing trajectory, it’s measurable progress. I saw Chick Corea’s Electrik Band in 1989, I remember.

But let’s look at this logically from the viewpoint of a working group. Let’s assume everyone is working to this brief, which will produce, invariably, an increasingly complex web of sound where each voice is only alluding to the original idea. A mass of tangential turbulence like a room full of hyenas. That can be fun.

Fun to play. To listen to, I’m not so sure. Jazz musicians can be very snotty about the reasons why audiences for their music aren’t larger. I’m like that sometimes. When I play music that has that level of activity, now I try to accept the audience numbers. In fact, I mostly try to rein in my (admittedly) stupendous levels of dexterity and let some air in.

Virtuosity assumes this forward motion that never ends, the forging onward to greater and greater depth and intensity. What if that energy went backwards too, inverted itself? It takes energy to leave space. It’s as tiring as producing notes. It’s more like dodgems than stick car racing. But it’s rewarding, and audiences, in my experience, like it. The constant striving for balance, of groove, texture, part motion. The warming of the air between sounds. It might at least reinstate the “virtu” that Merriam Webster are banging on about which, among other things is, according to that same source, the seventh-highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy in Christian angelology.

It’s knowing when to be flash. It’s knowing when to shut up.

Which is about now.

Advice For Jazz Students #21: U is for undead

There’s a David Lynch film, before he got famous , where a boy’s plant gives birth to a fully grown grandmother. I always think of this image when I hear the “Is Jazz Dead?” argument, a supposedly sensational headline that comes up once every few years. It is usually followed by the canny observation that “jazz is alive and well” or “safe in the hands of x, y and z”. Even people writing about it like this is interminably dull. Jazz is like the grandmother born to a cactus: how many times can this same creature live, die and be resurrected. Even Jesus only managed it once, which I imagine is enough for anyone.

The answer, of course, is like the idea of a “piece of music”, jazz is not a living thing. Neither is it dead. Earl Hines and Bill Evans the humans are elsewhere, other atoms now, but their records will be new to someone somewhere today, and tomorrow. What is unknown to someone is always new, which is why those same three guitar chords come back and back again.

Jazz is undead, it is both living and dead. Jazz needs both to rejuvenate and consolidate, its constituent parts, drawn from all over since its beginnings, will continue to do so. They will lift and separate. The new will build on the old, and the old on the new, there will be both continuance and innovation. And pursuing us in this simple endeavour to stay productive and sane, the media, good and bad men and women, and maybe, who knows, (in the future), plants, vegetable scribes looking for the gossip or the substance and everything in between, giving birth to their living grandmothers so they may in turn die and rise again, older and wiser. Eventually that pattern gets so old it wears out. Is resurrection dead? Grab a pencil and paper, let’s find out.

Advice For Jazz Students #20: T is for Teaching

I never wanted to teach. I did my best not to, but the hours are flexible and people think they want what they think you have, so it’s good business model. It wasn’t that I felt “above” teaching so much as unworthy of the responsibility. And introverts don’t always like to hold forth, to “present” things. Ask me a question instead, I have a million answers.

Anyway I started small with teaching, kids of 11 or 12, escalated to teenagers, adult learners, and finally, as the cravings escalated, the higher education crowd. It can sometimes feel that teaching works against creativity, it’s the “other thing” we do. However, acres of spare time doesn’t work for me, I need to be boxed in. And teaching is great for that. Deadlines and windows work well together.

At some point, acknowledging that teaching can enable you to play and be “creative”, financially and mentally, led me to the conclusion that one has to somehow combine teaching and performing so that they feed off each other. You probably will have to, so make plans about how to enjoy it.

It’s good to think about how you want to teach from the off. After all this time, it fascinates me how people learn, why they learn, and whether it is any of our business as teachers what our students do with that information. As I said above, I’m more of a reactive person, responding to questions, finding out where people are and going from there. Some teachers have a method, a syllabus almost, and that is great too. Charisma and humour are good, but mostly people are simply paying for you as a musician to be isolated in a room with them and to get what they can from that opportunity. Don’t abuse this by being taciturn and abusive.

My advice is to think of how you can make learning creative, the same way you have to when being taught. You know, assessments, patterns of this and that in every key, one day you might be on the other side, dolling this stuff out. It’s tedious, unmusical, but as long as you accept that it will feed into your music and be useful. Don’t learn it as music, don’t teach it as music. You are teaching people to make lemonade, to find mistakes profitable, to soldier on.

Not all of your students are destined to become jazz musicians. An English Lit course does not churn out forty novelists every year. Jazz education is a general musical training for all kinds of work (and play). It’s not a straight line to virtuosic stardom for everyone. But you might be creating an audience, a group of promoters, journalists, that will support you, and us, in the future.

Advice For Jazz Students #19: S is for Scalextric

If you don’t remember this toy, have a look at it here. Two cars race around a track, each fixed to their own path by tramlines, which which drive the motors via brush contacts on the bottom. You hold the so called controls, which is basically one button for acceleration. These are essentially very fast, upside down trams.

Whoever is on the inside lane has less distance to travel. This is a fixed position, as there is no possibility of overtaking. So the competition is an illusion, a feat of suspended disbelief cloaked in a pretence of excitement. We all loved it in the eighties.

Jazz can feel like this at first. It’s good to get your strength, and your speed, up. A button for acceleration. But this is only the first part of a very long process, and letting go of this bit is what we are all aiming for. At least I hope so. If what you play does not affect the other musicians in the band, and if their reactions do not change your trajectory, then you are reduced to a pair of metal brushes stuck on a track. To create new ideas endlessly without input from your band mates is not easy, but to listen and react is a gradually maturing skill for us all. When teachers say you are “not listening”, they don’t mean that you can’t be bothered, they mean you aren’t yet able to show you are listening by letting go….

Every chord sequence has its bumps and bends, but no one wants to see you whistle round them in record speed. (Coltrane did that once and thereafter his curiosity was satisfied). You are not trying to win, but to entertain and enrich. I guess it’s more like stock car racing, pieces falling off, wondering if we will make it. Monk in a beaten up Morris Minor, ramming into the bumper of a disgruntled Miles Davis.

This is what it’s like to drive as a jazz musician.

Advice For Jazz Students #18: R is for rhythm

You are at one end of a long street. The early morning mist makes even familiar things look a little hazy. Further down the road you can see something is moving. You know it’s a person straight away, a moving object that big on a street is always a person. As they walk towards you, their gender, race, language, and even the brand of their phone may become clearer. These things are part of their humanity, they are details that fill out the essential truth. This person is not primarily an android user, despite what marketing researchers will tell us.

When improvising, ideas come out of the fog, and the first kicks I feel are rhythmic. The other stuff comes later, they help to project the initial idea into the musical space occupied by the instrument, the piano.

Melody is necessary because my instrument is lumbered with the man made chromatic scale, and harmony also, to a lesser extent, comes in handy to blur the melody and make it more rhythmic, to muddle the pitch, bring it closer to the drums.

Of course, the extensive canon of Western music also looms large in my memory, colour and counterpoint, thematic unity and all that. But where it used to be funnelled into a symphonic timeline whereby ideas were set in motion, explored and developed, then recapitulated and put to bed, now there’s a sense that our music is merely joining in with something that already exists. We are joining in with the world.

I used to love symphonic music, and still do but, as detailed in Nicholas Cook’s excellent essay, its hard to feel the triumph, the release, of the endings anymore. (Read his book, it’s life changing.)

Now we know that everything is essentially in an endless cycle, it seems that only humans ever made art in their own image, as an entity that is born, exists and dies. Look at this alphabet I have chained myself to. It has an arc, ending in its demise, and with letter “R” the end is near and I’m facing the final curtain. Time to plan a rousing ending, but…an ending of what?

We used to want to represent nature (from our omnipotent view above it), music that imitates what we see from our observation post. Now it seems there should be more of a feeling of taking part in it, losing the idea that we are the boss.

Music is everywhere. The cross rhythms of your footsteps and heartbeat might be music enough. At the slower end we have the seasons, the Earth’s night and day rotation, it’s year long journey around the sun. Wheels within wheels, loops and cycles.

A lot of jazz is based around Broadway hits that were only designed to be heard once. They are kind of offshoots of the Western operatic aria, and of the protagonist does at the end of her song, there’s no coming back. But Black musicians took these cast iron moulds and spun them around and around, making every calculated gesture into a signpost, a marker of not so much of progress as a point on a wheel. A sequence of chords, originally designed to stop at the end, is forced into an endless loop, each harmonic moment becoming like a rhythm itself, repeating endlessly, or until the club closes.

What I am trying to say is, try tapping two hands on a table, observe the infinite variety possible with two strands of rhythm, two arms. I like it, it’s my favourite practice routine. I like to think it connects me to the world and its workings.

A bus passes by outside, I don’t even see the number or where it’s going, and for me its story ends as the back wheels leave the edge of the window frame. The driver, though, is still there in the picture, until the end of her shift. Someone, somewhere, will see that bus to the breakers’ yard finale of its useful life. Most of us will not see where those atoms go, but they will be back, perhaps in the soles of the shoes of the woman who walks the streets of your town in the morning mist.

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.

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.