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.

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.

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.