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 #5: E is for Eco System

There’s no one else here. This is only seen by me until it’s seen by you, by which time I’ve finished it. So the first person to hear this advice is me, and it’s as much for me as it is for you, whoever you are.

The jazz world, with its soft borders for some, it’s strict rules of engagement for others, could be seen as a single eco-system. In doing things their way, people make space for each other, whether they like it or not. We feed off each other, support each other even in our differences.

Those of you who know me might be surprised to hear me say that. As I said, it’s for me as much as you.

Musicians can be obsessive, they need to be, and often equally so regarding criticism of other people’s ways of working. Familiar scenarios might include, but not be limited, to the following:

He Sold Out (Has An Audience).

She Doesn’t Know Her Way Around Chord Changes (doesn’t play standards).

They Went “Avant Garde” And Abandoned Their Values (They Abandoned My Values).

It’s All Image And No Music (The Band Are Younger Than Me).

These sentiments are always sincere, often justified, mostly bluster and catharsis, and can often run riot when work is scarce and adulation scarcer. They are not to be sniffed at. Let them in.

In the end though, a musician who plays in a way you don’t approve of is making a space for you. He or she is cementing your own ideas about what you want to sound like. What do you hear in that space instead of them?

Musicians I don’t like much inspire me, they are part of a process of elimination in finding my own way through the endless maze of music. I try and thank my lucky stars they exist.

I often fail.

(Writing this down helps).

I also love to hear musicians who can do things I can’t do, because then I can enjoy listening to them. From my distance of indifference to measuring myself against them.

(Again, writing helps).

Relish the differences in taste, because they come from your history, the million micro-experiences of hearing certain things in music and feeling a light go on.

Bluffers and charlatans are ultimately left to face their own demons, regardless of their successes. The work will be it’s own reward. It’s just like writing blogs. A face in the mirror looks back and tells you to work harder. Or relax. Relax harder.

Ok that may not be correct. I left out the people who a) don’t care about getting better and b) can’t hear how bad they sound.

Don’t be like them. Work hard. Get better and enjoy getting better. That’s my only real advice, and this blog series will probably turn out to be an alphabetically restrictive circling of that thought. I see myself basically as an apple-thumbed hawk above the hapless hamster of musical process.

So, don’t be like them.

Don’t.

Be.

Like.

Them.

Writing this down helps.

“Retail doesn’t have the suction”

Specsavers.  Look around, its all eyes, a feast for the peepers, look and look again, shiny reflections advertising the very notion of clear sight. It’s what they are known for, the glamour of well dressed eyes.  But what of ears? The website tucks ears in a small corner, in plain type. Blink with your relatively precious eyes and you’d miss it. For a small fee, it turns out, Specsavers remove “compacted wax”.

“No wax, no fee” it says.

They must be doing this for love then.

I am here for ears. I am hardcore. I am being led around the back. These are evidently unglamorous repairs and the assistant, like a fearful guide in the Amazon rainforest, leaves me just short of my destination.

“It’s through there.” I turn to thank him, he is already gone.

The paint is pale green, so close to a calm jade, but really it’s like white stricken by melancholy. The young technician (I don’t know if he’s a doctor) offers an outstretched hand. His hand says hello but his face says sorry. It turns out he knows what is ahead for us both.

“Let’s have a look” he says, wedging a plastic funnel into my ear and strapping on cyberpunk headgear with binoculars and a light, “yes, it’s all softened up nicely, shouldn’t be too difficult to get that out…”

It is difficult to get that out.

It takes an hour and ten minutes to get that out, during which time my head is subjected to various low level assaults and investigations. The sound of wax being sucked out of the ear has the intensely warm crackle of a needle dropped on vinyl that’s  too loud, combined with the feeling of having the lining of your head pinched like a balloon from the inside. Sometimes he reaches for tweezers, and this feels like he’s picking the nose of my brain and I’m hearing the screams of the bogeys in real time.

(Apparently I have very thin passageways with tricky twists and turns. It’s a fact that sound travels at 343 metres per second. But to get to my brain, it has to do the equivalent of the 110 metre hurdles through the maze at Hampton Court, which I reckon knocks the speed down a bit.)

Exasperated sighs, which are now getting louder as my ear gradually clears, add to the cocktail of sonic assault. About halfway through the operation he starts to speak of a “break”, not the kind where you stretch your legs, more of a gap year, for him possibly a career change.

Afterwards, slamming the tools down on his desk with a kind of joyful and final wheeze, he says “That was a tough ear”.

The toughest ear, in my long and varied career, I have had to clear.

Like the deck of a ship after a fishing expedition, the haul lies on a sheet of kitchen roll. Two black clumps of stuff, dark and shiny. They remind me of sad photos of seabirds pulled from an oil spill.

“Of course” he goes on “hospitals have more powerful equipment and so it’s easier, but it can be dangerous. In retail we just don’t have the suction.”

I pay him cash, it’s like no one knows he is here and transactions can’t be linked to the store outside, in all its glowing loveliness. It’s off the record, cash in hand. We shake hands and I wander off, it seems somehow not enough to leave like this, not after the intensity of our shared experience. There’s probably someone right after me, it’s just a job for him I think wistfully as I stagger out, slightly dizzy from the change in pressure, hearing the world anew through a room full of spectacles.