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.

How To Learn A Tune

Method 1

Some time ago, it may have been five years ago, for the purposes of this story it really doesn’t matter, all that matters is that it was back beyond measurable time.  I was staying at my friend Trevor’s house in Birmingham whilst teaching there, and we were listening to Blossom Dearie’s album of songs by lyricists Comden and Green.  The tune that stuck in my mind at the time was “Lucky To Be Me”, Ray Brown’s bass quietly singing through the 5 foot speakers, Ed Thigpen’s delicate whispering brushes, Blossom Dearie just singing the tune, almost as if she’s known it all her life and is recounting it to herself,  absent-mindedly  tracing the chords.(1)   I remember just sitting, both of us just letting the music wash over us, which is what it does, still, today.  But I’m jumping ahead now; back to my first time.

The last track on the album…no, not a track, it’s a song…the last song on the record is a Bernstein tune called “Lonely Town”.  I’m not sure if I even heard it properly that night, beer and sound fused in an impressionistic haze as the night went on; maybe I just remember seeing the title and wondering how it might sound.  I went straight out and bought the cd and played it on my own (much smaller) speakers whilst washing up; sometimes listening to music like this merely jogs the memory to a time when you were really listening to it.  I have never been able to recreate the sound of that music that evening, speakers almost as tall as Ray Brown’s bass like your head was in it, hearing all those little things bass players can do in between the essential big notes that are almost inaudible until you get that close, hearing the ends of the notes on the piano as well as their gentle beginnings, the soft hiss of a brush moved off the skin of a drum.  And that voice, that is somehow even closer than life, impossibly close.

At this point, I still haven’t investigated the mysterious “Lonely Town”, not properly.  But I have a vague impression of it; a series of disembodied, yearning phrases set against familiar chords arranged, somehow, in a new order, there is obviously some “classical composer” cleverness going on here but it has such a mood about it.  The melody seems to want to form itself into something longer, finally rising in the bridge, the lyrics speaking of the redemptive power of love “shining like a harbour light”, the voice seeming to brighten in sympathy before sinking again.  The underlying rhumba seems to hint, however,  at a world weary acceptance, intoxicating and urbane.

A few months ago, I was teaching a composition class and we were talking about songwriting.  I have an idea that being able to write, and to recognise, good melodic lines is a good foundation for any music, as far out or straight ahead as you want to go.  So, I recommend this album to the students, partly because I think they might be lured in by the more obvious jazz credentials of the rhythm section, but also hopeful that they will experience something in this music, that it will work its strange magic on them.  Anyway, now I really want to learn the tune.  I know what it means to me, essentially I know it, but I don’t know what it is.  It resides in that part of my imagination that goes with Miles Davis’s L’ascenseur, Paul Bley’s Open, To Love, a kind of melancholic, blues infused solitariness that can be hard to find in jazz these days but used to be one of its strongest, most accessible emotions.

 So, last week, I put the record on and transcribed it.  I also bought some sheet music, the original show version with piano accompaniment.  I put the cd on my iPhone, and on the whim of the machine that is the iTunes shuffle function, it appeared unannounced, trudging home from the pub in the dark, wet landscape of Camden chucking out time, or amid the endless chatter of the Monday morning tube.  I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, the strange and abrupt twists and turns of the song’s middle section repeating endlessly in my head, not torturing me but just there.  I decided I needed to find a reason to play this tune.

Three days ago, I did a solo improvised set at Café Oto.  The only way to do these gigs is just to start playing and see where it takes you, to listen to what’s in your head and try not to get in its way before it gets to your fingers.  So, when, a few minutes in, the first couple of bars of “Lonely Town” emerged, that was where I went.  I tried not to think too hard about it, I had obsessed about this tune for days, months, years even, it was in my body, wired into my whole musical psyche, just a case of letting it out and not getting in the way.  It’s all about intention, there are no mistakes, it’s the flow, the flow will take care of everything.

Anyway, somehow I fucked the bridge up.

It seems I don’t know this tune yet, but there’s no rush, it will happen.

Method 2

1    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bU-J-3JnVkE          (optional)

2   http://www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtdFPE.asp?ppn=MN0084251


You can always disprove almost any theory in the arts.  The guitarist Eugene Chadbourne recorded another great old tune, Stars Fell On Alabama, in the eighties.  It seems more appropriate, somehow, for me to put the link up here

It’s one of my favourite recordings, which I come back to year after year.   When I saw him live and requested the tune, he said he didn’t know it because he’d recorded it “reading off a Broadway Songbook score”.  Important not to get too attached to one way of working, I think…

(1)  (at this point, I would normally put a link in to the album, but I’m not going to for reasons that will become apparent)