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.

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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.

Rituals

These days I need reading glasses.  I can’t see what’s in front of my face, as they say, and so on they go, the rest of the world receding into a blurry backdrop,   Putting on glasses is a ritual.  It’s like the raising or lowering  of a veil, or the laying of a table, perhaps the other-worldliness of submerging yourself in water (suddenly, baptism makes a lot of sense).  The dropping of the needle, the scratchy moments before the music begins, a marking out of a sacred space.  

Picture a Zen meditation class in Highbury, where some white middle class Englishmen in medieval Japanese robes explained that, within the confines of the space this room, there were no shoes allowed.  More lifestyle enlightenment, I thought, in a lifestylishly smug way, quite pleased with myself.  Tut tut.  The romantic nostalgia of these posh quasi-monks made me feel like an extra in a sixth form staging of “The Seven Samurai”.   On reflection, and after wanting to run them through with a big sword, I appreciated the “otherness”; once fully clothed, now barefoot in Islington.

Before beginning a solo performance, pianist Cecil Taylor danced across the stage towards the piano, pausing, circling like a vulture, raising a talon and sharpening his beak before almost attacking the instrument.  Let’s face it, it’s not much different to the popular pill popping, the purpose being broadly the same, but like a lucid dreamer he can snap out of it if he wants to.  Turn on and off the supply of whatever is taking him under.   I envy him.  That night he basically didn’t give a shit what we thought.  A silent titter seemed to waft around the audience, but the next hour saw them drawn in to that same space, his space, leaving their seats dizzy at the close of  the journey.  So, in that game where you have to choose one, my superpower would be that lack of inhibition.  That willingness to leave the real world.  Whilst everyone else is flying above the clouds and reading minds, I would simply dance myself a little mimed story in a purple tracksuit.

Rituals clear space, stop time, focus the mind and the body.  Religions are useful primarily for this reason, enforcing their strange and arbitrary timetables, sunrise and Sundays, days of rest and of celebration, a dash of incense here and there.  The nearest I get to that is to close my Facebook tab before writing a blog.  And that will be open again pretty soon.  People would get more done, and with better focus, if they had to get up a ladder to post on Facebook.  

It used to be different. In student days, I would break up the routine by watching “Neighbours” at 1.30.  It was hardly a call to prayer, but it did the job, my daily shift of practice and essays divided conveniently in two by the shattered dreams and emotional love stories of future Australian celebrities.  I was the turning over the LP of my otherwise formless day; side 1 and side 2.  A neutral space, a cerebral no-man’s land.  And needless to say, the repeat of “Neighboirs” at 5.30 was strictly off limits., my own personal heresy.

These altered states remind me of  what Margaret Atwood talks about in one of her lectures on writers and writing; the double.  A writer who writes, and a writer who does the dishes, two halves of a single body.   The writer who lives, and the one who lives on after that life.  The hand on the keyboard, or the pen, like the dropping needle, is a sign that he or she is somewhere else,  or someone else.  And perhaps the writing and the reading, playing and listening, are one in the same state.

So there’s me and there’s my musician.  My playing side is bold, carefree, mischievous in a temporarily suspended time, a guest in a hotel where someone else does all the housework.  And when he’s finished, after the applause (let’s be optimistic), the somewhat anxiety-ridden, earth bound chap that lurches and lumbers through life, me, takes over.

Nowadays we have access to these ritualised states very easily, but it’s difficult to go very deeply into them.  I am writing this on a tube train, on a so-called phone.  It’s very rare I call people on it.  But if I want to write something on it, preparation time is almost non-existent.  It’s about five seconds. Open app, click pen and paper shaped icon, begin.  It even suggests words you might consider before writing them.  Without a thought in my head, there is a guarantee that some words will appear.   With one eye on the stations, trying to notice if someone needs my seat, I’m not under yet, still in the real world.  But soon I’ll have my glasses on, and if I want to I can look over the top of them, an action which causes my eyebrows to be involuntarily raised in an apparent gesture of superiority.  I hope the other passengers don’t notice.  But I’ve arrived at the station and, with no time to pack my glasses away in their case (the other end of the ritual), they hang perilously tucked in the neck of my shirt as I pick up my bag , caught walking in the increasingly small space between real and imagined worlds.  Mind the gap and all that.

Victorian Jukebox

There’s a pub in Soho where they still have a piano player.  This guy is not there to colour the silence and chit chat in the way a pianist does in a restaurant.  He plays Beatles songs, and show tunes, and things even people under thirty might recognise.  And people listen and sing along.  When his list runs out, there’s no music, but it never runs out.  And most of it is stored in his head.  He has fingers that play a real instrument, and every song he plays has to work on a piano or it doesn’t work at all.   And he has a head for a hard drive.

There was a time when all music in the home was like this.  If you were lucky enough to be in the rising middle class of Victorian England, you might have had a piano in the house.  And that was the source of all music.  A Victorian Jukebox.  All music was live.  And if no one played the piano, there was no music.

Just silence and conversation.

And we all know how awkward that can be.

Having no pianist would be like having no wifi, or 3G, or 4G, E4 or Dave.  People inevitably understood something of how music was made, because everyone who had a piano knew a pianist, and saw at close hand what was involved.

I remember a few years ago, I went into my son’s pre-school to play for their Christmas sing song.  They had no piano, so I brought a keyboard.  Children gathered around as I hauled the case down flat on the floor, flipping the catches as an assassin might before removing and demonically cleaning his weaponry du jour.  As I prized open the lid the kids, far from experiencing some kind of recognition, “oh he’s a musician, cool, music, wow it must be great to just sit down and play an instrument” kind of reaction, they were perplexed.  And it was tinged with that slight anger of not understanding, of feeling stupid, left out. They had no idea what this object was.  As I set it up, plugged in and sat behind the keys, they looked on in wonder.  It wasn’t the kind of wonder that Spielberg might have filmed, that kind of bathed angelic luminosity kind of light with its warmth and its fuzziness.  It was more like, I wonder why the hell we are here light.  It was more like Dogme-style, natural light, cold stares.  “Festen” for juniors.  Icy silence and tumbleweed in one uncomfortable mixed metaphor.  I was not at that point believing, contrary to the opinion of George Benson, that the children were our future.

So I played my first chord.  Resisting the jazz urge to hit them with all my musical neurosis of chromaticism and darkness, I went for C major.   A safe option, I thought, the universal language of music I thought, a vibration that reaches out to all without discrimination.  Almost instantaneously the entire group burst into uncontrollable laughter.  That weird, nervous laughter like when you and your mates got caught stealing useless crap from a supermarket.  An entire social history of music making, from the royal courts to the Victorian sitting room and the East End pub, friends who could sing and play, daughters who were encouraged to play the piano because their legs were tucked safely away from prying eyes, it all ended here.  It all ended on a cheap carpet with the worst audience I have ever had.

Well they were only four years old but, you know, once they’re over five there’s no changing them.

I’m quite fond of the piano as a music making machine, as an instrument of reproduction, reduction, representation.  Music used to work on the piano, most things were reducible to two hands, ten fingers and some sleight of hand stuff…aided, of course, by the imagination of the audience.  Pianos were often required to conjure the sound of an orchestra at full tilt, much as Turner’s paintings of water might almost make you feel the shock of the spray against your face.

So how would a piano cope with the incredible breadth of musical styles, genres as sounds today?  There is nothing to be gained by an accurate reproduction, but the sound of the attempt is what interests me.  Jazz for me sometimes involves hearing something you like, whether it’s more jazz or a Ugandan singer with a balaphon, and trying to use it for the purposes of improvisation.  Using a piano to do this is like playing playstation with a real tennis racket.  In other words, it’s perversely enjoyable.  It’s the best kind of enjoyable there is.  When I hear Bud Powell, or Duke Ellington, or Monk, or John Taylor, it’s partly a fight to prize something out of that instrument that was once a symbol of polite, middle class society.  It’s such a forgiving instrument, sometimes you have to really give it something to get upset about.  It’s that or it’s back to the kindergarten.