I Have Trouble With History

“I didn’t really buy any of Sun Ra’s records because I could just go and hang out when they were performing, or go to one of their rehearsals, so I didn’t need the record!

Lonnie Liston Smith interviewed by Anton Spice .

Well, that’s cool Lonnie. The thing is, I’ve got everything in my little sardine box music screen machine here, so I don’t need to go out. Musically, I am staring blankly at the pasta section in a supermarket that stretches as far as the eye can see, marvelling at what I could eat. I’m not eating it, but I’m marvelling at my marvellous “eating future”. I’m going to check that out. The trolley’s still empty but think of what could fill it. No-Wave, post-punk, fettuccini, stuff my kids listen to, all things I’m going to check out. Really soon. It’s a really exciting time. Or it will be. The future’s bright.

Not all music, however, is designed for solitary listening, and we know that because people keep going out for it. It’s so cheap to have it sent straight into your ears, yet people spend a lot of money to be around other people listening to live music in a field where the wind may all but blow the sound out of earshot, and most of what you can hear is other people singing along to each other as the band do something somewhere out of sight. People do listen, even if it’s often with their eyes. Social media has propped up a kind of military takeover of the other four senses by the one that now reigns unchallenged; seeing. Seeing is believing.

As you get away from the festival experience, an event defined by numbers in many ways, immersion in music is more an act of will. Sometimes you have to do that yourself, make a conscious decision, lower yourself into the bath of it rather than wait for an attendant with a big bucket to pour it over you. Jazz has always been like that for me; and this goes for its history too.

My knowledge of jazz came from record covers laid out on the floor like a soap opera storyboard, this follows that, swing-bebop-cool-hardbop etc etc. I knew the accepted story, but my knowledge was not a bodily thing, it wasn’t in me, wasn’t backed up by any kind of experience. Jazz history played out like the Battle Of Waterloo with toy soldiers, and you just kind of put them in whatever position you felt most likely. The music’s past, and the past I would like to have experienced but didn’t, was for me a construct, pieced together from the musical fragments available at the time.

It all started around 1983, or thereabouts, The Churchill Library, Bromley, an exploded sonic star where the slowly falling fragments were catalogued alphabetically. Records I took home because they were there. Sun Ra’s “Mystery Of The Two”. Stravinsky’s “Requiem Canticles”. One casualty of the move from analogue to digital was the Duke Ellington with Jimmy Blanton album, which now sounds wrong because the scratch that made it jump a beat in 1984 is missing. Nothing was in any kind of order. Earl Hines, for example, he was an early favourite, but nobody had informed me that learning to play jazz required starting with later players, where it’s less about playing the piano and more about “information”, “content”. It was too late for me. Hines, Stravinsky, Ellington, Cecil Taylor – I started a file under “piano sonorities” and staggered on. For me they were connected by sound, as if the sounds themselves lived, went to school, met other sounds and reproduced.

But if I’d seen Hines bump into a young Cecil Taylor at the florist, I might have made that other connection, might have seen those worlds joined for myself. A kind of social bond that ensures the passage of the tradition, where it finds its own winding path, through accident and circumstance, seemingly disparate worlds coming together in a shared taste for daffodils. I had no history, no tradition, no reason to be doing what I did aside from a general dissatisfaction with life as it was presented to me and so, lacking a social connection, I made my history up, a fake news repository of unchecked facts and suppositions, and I surveyed it as I imagine the owner of a train set would, congratulating myself on the detail whilst knowing real engines don’t run on tables.

History was never my subject, I just couldn’t hold facts or remember names, couldn’t visualise the things happening. I never understood how, considering our impressive roster of cruel mistakes when we get together in big groups, we never learnt from them. It’s unlikely that lessons in jazz history would have helped me, but I would have liked to have seen where Duke Ellington bought his vegetables, I think I’d have learnt a lot from that.

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Small things

“The guy who lived downstairs didn’t have a nasty bone in his body. This made getting around difficult.”

(Unpublished, unfinished short story).

I’ve been reading “Sing To It“, a new collection of short stories by Amy Hempel, her first in over a decade. She doesn’t write many, but when she does they are extremely good. They don’t take long. There is no time for an arc as such, not easy to say for sure what happens to her characters either side of the text. If there’s a moral to these stories, it’s ambiguous. Some stories are only a page long (and the font is obligingly large).

Chuck Palahaniuk, who, if I knew him, would presumably hate me to refer to him as the author of “Fight Club”, said this about her:

“Every sentence isn’t just crafted, it’s tortured over.”

So I got into Amy Hempel simply because someone who I think is a great writer recommended her, and sometimes you want a doctor’s opinion about who should take your kidneys out.

I also like that quote about torture, I can believe it.

Short stories are the shrugged shoulder to the raised pointy finger of the giant literary work of genius. There is not much to look at except the sentences, their melody, little observations shaped into something more than simply what is being said. More than the person saying it and more than what they stand for. Something outside the visible, something you could look at and not see the writer.

I wish performing was a bit more like that but it isn’t always, and it especially isn’t always now. We all want to know who made everything and how, and why, perhaps so we are tempted to think we could do it ourselves. We want to see the evidence, check with our eyes that what we are experiencing is authentic, that we are justified in feeling something.

My opening sentence remains, the vertical blinking cursor daring me to add to it. Perhaps I won’t. This blog is already too long, and by the time you read it I probably will have shortened it still further.

One thing shorter than an Amy Hempel short story is a tweet, originally the sole preserve of anthropomorphised songbirds, now a popular vessel of communication amongst humans that customarily lacks the musical quality of the feathered variety.

Reading short stories helps me recover from time spent on Twitter. So it’s not just the brevity then.

(Sorry that was a bit of a moralising ending. Writing well is hard. Baby steps……)

In defence of journalism…

The first trick is to lure people in with a headline.

I’ve had my fair share of rants about journalists, public and private, as if they were all peas out of the same pod, and I’ve since regretted it. Writing blogs, rolling around in that vanity publishing utopia, has made me realise a few things.

And one thing’s for sure. I’m not a Writer. Not because I can’t do it, but because I often can’t think of anything to write about. It’s not easy. I wish I could simply shunt sounding things together, end to end, without it needing to be about something. This seems to work with music, but words need to hang on something, they must describe. We can’t all be EE Cummings.

Journalists, it seems to me, are in the trickiest position of all. They are obliged to write about the world as it is, or as it seems to them. The priority is to get copy out. Then they get censored (sorry, “edited”), squashed, collated, chopped. What’s left might be an opinion that is no longer quite their own, flapping like a dying fish on the deck of a sailing boat.

I’ve tried writing about music I like, and every time I try and describe what I think goes on, I often feel like I am just adding needless bumf to what is already there, like draping tinsel over a Ming vase.

It’s not easy. Dead heroes and heroines are easier to write about, because you miss them, so you write about that loss. The strange jolt of death that catapults an artist from forgotten to iconic for a few days. That’s readable. But it all reminds me of that film of Jackson Pollock painting with his turkey baister, crouching over a huge canvas. The action is all in his head, the spatial and textural sense, you are witnessing creation but not seeing it. Stravinsky sits at his desk with a pen and glasses, and out come the masterpieces.

So I’ve come to terms with the necessity of writing about the stuff “around” the music, the people writing and performing it, the people they in turn are seen to represent and reflect. Maybe music itself doesn’t quite fit on the page? Maybe audiences have to come out and get it themselves. Perhaps a tasty headline or a well doctored picture helps a bit, but in the end the horse and the water are still locked in timeless battle.

So, men and women of journalism everywhere, I hereby endorse the frankly worrisome task of writing about my upcoming album. My dad would have said “cheque’s in the post”. “I’ll BACS you” doesn’t really cut it, but thats all there is. I’m no poet, that’s for sure.

Vinyl

After checking the size of Hokusai’s print “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” against the size of a large shoe box I can confirm that one will not go inside the other. It’s completely buggered my analogy. I wanted to say that this image, which has been plastered all over the world in posters, murals, fridge magnets and billboards, was originally small enough to go in a shoe box. I’ve seen the print at its original size. You have to lean in towards it, squint a bit, shrink yourself down to the size of the people in the boat beneath that frozen wave. Seemingly dwarfed by a flattened perspective and camouflaged by colour, the eye then zooms in to Mount Fuji in the background, miles away yet vivid in its presence. Scale seems a huge part of the experience of art in general, from huge, immersive installations to miniatures that force us  to reduce ourselves to a tiny, critical mass.

This is how it feels to me to listen to vinyl, memories frozen in an unwieldy, outdated format that now thaw on to my new turntable with a slow drip-drip of recognition. This is not, by the way, a treatise on the sound quality of vinyl versus that of digital music. I’m supremely unqualified to comment on that.

I’m thinking about Hokusai again. There is the wave, the mountain, the boat, then there is the artist, and finally, the painting, each represents a kind of mental jump, a process.  The bumps as the needle finds its groove act as a ritual clearing of space, everything after that is announced as a representation of sound, a mirroring of tiny motions of air made at some other time in some other place. As a listener it puts you in a different place, imagining the wires that can carry vibrations through time and space, back to the source.

If you are lucky, there’s no real noise on the record itself, but if you are luckier still, there’s a just a little, like textured notepaper, a skin even, a glimpse of the moon through clouds.  The covering is a kind of invitation.

I used hurl myself off diving boards at my local swimming pool, and the hardest thing was that the boards got higher, you started to see not the surface of the water but the bottom of the pool, which added a cool 20 feet to the apparent distance. I would stand on that edge until someone made a splash, reminding me of the point at which I would be hitting, slightly out of whack, the water. Those were the days.

Records have that crackle that tells me it’s not real time, it’s a record of the time. To hear the music is to peer beyond that skin, through it, to make oneself the size of the fishermen and feel a wave you could fit in the palm of your hand threaten to upend your boat. Digital music is like a gas, it’s like tightrope walking in space, where there is no real difference between your feet on the rope or off. There are no edges to it, a borderless noise that appears in the air, a swimming pool with no discernible bottom. It’s sort of creepy. You can’t fall off.  It’s like swimming by lying on a table and moving arms and legs, hoping that one day you’ll get over your aversion to water.  It’s far away, distant somehow, a hologram of Frank Sinatra in your living room. It’s a kind of pre-listening….it says, I’ll listen to see if I want to listen later on. I listen to a lot of digital music, and I’ve realised that it’s me that has to lean in to it, it won’t come to me.

It seems the most remarkable thing about the recent surge in vinyl popularity (and I realise I am, true to form, thinking about it some ten years after it started) is that life can go backwards. The niggling thought that all human beings are condemned to a kind of pathological progress ending in disaster has eased off a bit. All is not lost, all is not forgotten. Will we all sit around the piano on an Edwardian Sunday again, singing songs we all know whilst our shopping is bought, delivered, cooked and quite possibly digested by some kind of automated cyber drones? Will music ever be injected in a liquid form, bypassing the cumbersome necessity for moving air and eardrums whilst outside people discover the pleasure of travel by stagecoach? Can we combine forward and retrograde motion? Is this the future? 

Maybe the “newest” thing we can do as a species, is to stick the car in reverse occasionally? To take back some of the stuff we bought, wear our clothes more than once, to listen to a scratched copy of “Bad Manners'” first album again.  Perhaps going forwards and backwards at the same time is the greatest leap forward, and always has been. One thing’s for sure, shoes won’t come in a box in the future, so enjoy that while it lasts.

 

 

 

 

Notes

 

On My Recent Revelation About L.A Rap in the 1990s

Everyone has to start somewhere.  Mostly, it’s at some kind of beginning, and that makes you, by virtue of your position, a beginner.  When I was a kid, I found a book in Bromley Central Library of show tunes.  I’d just started liking jazz, and was eager to try out new tunes, maybe find some that hadn’t been played that much.  I was particularly taken with two of the songs in this book.  One was “Stella By Starlight’ and the other was “On Green Dolphin St”, two of the most played standards in the whole jazz repertoire.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know then and, if my discovery was thirty years too late, I knew at least I was on the right track if Miles Davis liked those tunes too.

The 2007 Ava DuVernay film, “This Is The Life”, comes at the uninitiated like a torrent of white water.  There’s no welcome message, no complimentary mint on the pillow, you’re straight in, it’s like you pass someone on the street and they just start spilling it all out, their life story and the life story of the club that made them.  This was the story of “The Good Life”, a health food cafe that doubled as a music venue, where rappers were thrown out for cussing, or for using excessive “diggety” ornamentation in their rhymes (filler-type patterns that had the slight stink of bullshit about them).  There had to be substance to the words, these were the rules. Substance and no cussing. And no leaning on the paintings.

Parallels with hip hop and jazz here speak for themselves (God knows jazz has its share of meaningless ornamentation).  But when the musicians talk about how they rap, what happens when they’re doing it, it’s all flow and it’s all concentration, it’s character and it’s technique, articulation, being suave or being charming, “chopping”, “spitting”, breaking up the line. This isn’t “new” to me, but these grainy old video footage of these grainy exchanges shows how the rappers bounce off the energy of the audience and off each other, and that brings everything closer to us.  These are a cast of characters (including the director herself, who was in the group “Figures Of Speech”) united by their music and mutual respect, but also by their drive to be unique, a community of individuals.  These people are loveable nerds. There’s one guy who, apparently, would always rap about fish (“he would be putting in stuff about, you know, red snapper”). There was no bluffing in this art, and anyone who did would be told to leave, often, eventually, by the whole audience, as if they were polluting the atmosphere somehow.

Hard but fair.  The fact it happened to a guy who had a record deal at the time (“pass the mic” the audience would chant) will resonate with jazz musicians, or with anyone who works at their craft, no special dispensation for big time success stories in that club. I won’t attempt a “review” here, it’s best experienced fresh, but this film is full to the brim with music and words, a real treasure trove.

The thing I love most about the cinema is coming out afterwards, the feeling of moving from that enclosed space to the open world, the dislocation that confirms that something has changed.  I haven’t spoken for five hours, but in my brain there’s a head-spinning avalanche all the way home, I’m trying to remember everything that I saw and heard, it came in such a rush, all the names of the MCs and crews, where was the club, was it LA, (I’ll check when I get home), I’ll buy all the records, and I’ll look for the lyrics so I can start again and piece it all together slowly at my own remedial pace.  I’m lost.  I feel like a beginner, like an idiot somehow and, as a musician, that’s the feeling I’m always looking for.  It’s the best feeling in the world.

West Side Story

I recently came back to playing this music with Paul Clarvis, twenty years after we first tried it.  The same feelings returned, the physical buzz of diving into something so full of musical opportunity.  Physicists tell us that time doesn’t exist, that their quantum equations don’t add up unless you take the bit out, and I can verify that. Coming back to this music, it feels as if time stands still whilst our bodies simply age around it. I am 29 again, in so far as I ever was.

Somehow the plot of West Side Story, of true love scuppered by the squabbling of rival gangs, is in the music itself.  He somehow builds it into the sound, shooting through the popular musical with darkness and uncertainty, a kind of instability.  A chord in music has what’s called a root note, it identifies the “key” and is the main thing that defines its relationship to other chords.  If you put this note at the bottom, you get a “strong and stable” sound.  An Ed Sheeran song like “Perfect”, for instance, has all its root notes on the bottom.  It’s unambiguous, it gets to the point.  This is great.  Plenty of good songs like that, but….this is the fossil fuel of music, fresh ways of doing it are running out.  Chords seem to be the last thing that anyone thinks of tinkering with (jazz, on the other hand, often has the opposite problem).  In songs like “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight”, Bernstein takes this “fist in the air” sincerity and undermines it.

“One Hand” is a hymn to devotional love. Hymns are celebrated for their logical beauty, parts moving impeccably yet beautifully between well chosen chords that are easily recognised by a congregation. Bernstein sticks to this idea, the melody moves one step at a time for most of the time…but underneath, he chooses to jump from one unstable bass note to another.  The chords are solid, secure, but the bass movement has an “unresolved” quality.  (I once saw Jack Dee doing stand up, years ago, and in the middle of it he put his glass of water down on a stool, but right on the edge of it.  He carried on with the next joke, then, a few minutes later said…”you’re all worried about the water aren’t you?”)  It’s like that, both comforting and disorientating. Like building a statue on a plinth that is slightly too small.

“Tonight” takes the lyrics and sprinkles not fairy dust, but seeds of doubt, all over them.  Tony says:

Today, all day I had the feeling/ a miracle would happen”

On that word “to-DAY”, what should be a solid, life-affirming chord is instead a slightly hollow sound, the fifth in the bass shocks us not with a horrifying dissonance, but with the most boring note of the chord that “fits” but sounds wrong.  It’s the grey suit, the fake “thank you” face after an unwanted Christmas present. A half sneeze.

We know it’s ending badly for these characters, but they don’t, and so their swooping melodies are somehow “unaware” of the shifting sands in the bass.  Of course, Bernstein didn’t invent any of this.  He used his knowledge and applied it.  Brahms did this kind of thing a lot, and so did many composers before him.  And Keith Jarrett does it too.  I like a band called “Blonde Redhead”; they do it.  Sometimes music has no fixed bass, but a moving line, another melody that means simple chords can be heard more than one way as the bass line moves.  “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five is a good example. Come on Ed Sheeran, have a go.

I can’t quite decide what comes first here, the knowledge or the feeling.  My gut tells me that the knowledge points you, as a composer or as a listener, to the source of the feeling A fifth, or a third, in the bass when you are expecting a root has always produced this effect, like time it stands still.  We do not invent it, we reveal its long term whereabouts, put its timelessness in a new context.

Music theory, or knowledge, is not lacking in emotion, vibe, or feeling.  It is like a summation of all the gut instincts of every composer, songwriter, improviser and performer which, being too big to keep in its original form, is condensed into a “boring” compressed file of lists, notes, principles.  You don’t follow it, you unwrap it. It’s like complaining that the ingredients of a cake, having not been put in the oven, taste flat and cold.

Chord sequences stand up like a table, and if you want to build one with three legs you’d better know where to put them.  Of course, there are still many beautiful four legged tables waiting to be built, but there might be a reason why no one has ever put legs in the middle.  To do so is not a “new discovery”, or a “revolution”. It is a pile of broken planks on the floor and nowhere to put your dinner.

Pass the salt.

Vertigo At The British Museum

So much is free, but you can’t hold it, can’t touch it, you don’t own it. Well, “you can’t take it with you” as they say.  Why hold on to something?  But when you get a digital something, you have the ghost of it, the music, the book, the film; it’s free but it’s gone. You are holding on to air.

I went to the British Museum recently, and there it’s different; old school.  You can walk past things, you can, in theory, touch them (signs saying “please do not touch the exhibits” only encourage it.  I have never seen a sign saying “do not touch the MP3s”, because, well, you can’t).  Egyptian gods stare down the aisles and ages, Greek bodies are held in split-second frozen marble.  And under glass, ancient thoughts written down are too far back in time to find or feel.

This stuff is old.  Really old.  The feeling is strangely vertiginous, as if looking back is like looking down, and the further you look the higher up is the precipice from which that past is viewed.  Looking into the strange, ossified eyes of an Egyptian mask, it seems every smile has behind it a thousand others, and in front of it many more to come.  Years ago, and years yet to live.  It seems impossible that this has happened.  I catch my present day grimace’s reflection and find it lacking.

Recurring dreams of childhood dreams left me with a kind of “fear of infinity”, and a quick google has identified this as apeirophobia.  For a long word, this strikes me as being too short, abrupt almost; it should have within it an impossible cycle of repeats that can never end.  It should be spelt up a kind of Escher staircase, or possibly down a spiral one.  Apeirophobeirophobeirophobeir…o…..ph….

Faces smile back at me, perfect and timeless.  We assume that to create something timeless is a good thing – yes, Hotel California, what a timeless classic etc.  For me, timelessness is a nightmare of arrested activity, a trapped movement, invisible mucus wrapped around me like a coiled snake.  Air into vacuum.  Michelangelo’s David will always be youthful and virile, a snapshot (or sculpture, the only thing they had in those days, terribly time consuming) perhaps taken before his later decline into obesity and alcoholism.  Like Instagram, these are models of ourselves we cannot match.

But then we arrive in the Japanese Galleries, and this is why I came. They have the lights low here, to try and halt the inevitable decay of the treasures within.  It’s never busy.  Silk scrolls curl, woodblock prints fade, everything is fragile, is broken, ceramic pots are wonky and endearing.  It is not timeless, because the effects of time, the aesthetic benefits of time, are seen here everywhere.  It is full of time.

An iPhone 6s, for example, is exterminated well before its natural demise to make way for an upgrade, maybe one of these new ones with a screen that goes past the edge of the handset (to where?).  We don’t get to see it decompose, it’s corners fraying and worn, signs of use making it more beautiful, more personal, lived in, like an old book or wrinkled face.  The Japanese call this wabi sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection, where an object only really reaches its full glory as it begins to lose its shine.   Beauty as process.  Dropping your phone on the pavement or down a toilet doesn’t count.  The internet can document the passing of time (it is mainly about the passing of time) and yet nothing ages…..it’s merely information, a shared thought trapped in purgatory between the mind and the world of real things.

Back in the Japanese galleries, my phone’s message notification disturbs the murky light.  Must make some time to get back to them, just need to find my bank details and address and phone number, I don’t like to keep people waiting.