“K” is for Krishnamurti

An interesting photo. Look at the space around him. Now notice his expression. To me it’s unreadable yet trustworthy, like he has nothing to hide. “The medium is the message” said Marshall McLuhan, and Krishnamurti seems almost to be at one with his it, to have dissolved into the message itself. He often referred to himself as “the speaker”, as if what he spoke of were something found written on his body. “Let’s look at this” he seems to be saying, pointing to a metaphysical open door. But leading where? What was the message?

I must admit he baffled me as a teenager. My father directed me towards his writings as well as those of Alan Watts and a couple of epigrammatic Zen compilations, a strange spin on the dad and son talk about facts of life. The Japanese stuff grabbed me more, with its cruel humour and unexpected tenderness. But the messages of both camps are similar, and it was when I saw Krishnamurti speak in videos scattered across Instagram, forty years on, that I understood more about how to digest it.

Books, unlike music, give no indication of tempo, and were they not so tied to the destruction of rainforests, I would politely suggest that publishers restrict the layout to one sentence per page. You have to go…..slow….with his stuff. The space around the words, the framing of the delivery, makes all the difference. To understand a sentence of Krishnamurti’s, you need the words and then you need the air around the words. There is music in them.

There are plenty of quotes here, and to dive in is to see a consistent vision of humanity from multiple angles. Strangely, I find the short format of Instagram works well too: watching him speak is always a revelation. There is no monastic self denial in his philosophy, and gurus get little sympathy here. Enlightenment should happen, he says, “in the blink of an eye”.

Pick any one of his pithy observations, each works as a pin to poke into the thick rubber balloon of bullshit that we all carry around with us. Here’s a good example:

Society is based on ambition and conflict, and almost everyone accepts this fact as inevitable.” (“Commentaries On Living, 2” 1958.)

It’s stated bluntly, not as opinion, but as fact. Can you argue with it? I can’t. Conflict between nations, individuals, the various parts of what we think of as the “self” is accepted as the only way forward, with a constant hope that the “good” prevail against the “evil”. It has become increasingly unfashionable to question this position, that collective pressure, whether on individuals, nations or society as a whole, must eventually create a better world. It’s so tempting to believe it.

But it hasn’t worked. For Krishnamurti the cause is obvious:

When you separate yourself by belief, nationality or tradition, it breeds violence.” (Freedom From The Known, 1969)

We seek to make our institutions better, more fair, but to him their very existence implies conflict, imposing rules according to our membership of them and so dividing us. They are made by us, an extension of us. We are, as he said once, “educated to be cruel”. So what’s the alternative?

Well, perhaps just to sit and look at it, without prejudice. In Krishnamurti’s vision of mankind, from this state arises a pure love which is not for your country or your partner but a thing of itself that seeks nothing. Love without an object.

I’ve often played records to people, fixated on winning them over. It’s a form of violence in some ways, imposing an extra layer of expectation on what should simply be a collection of sounds.

It’s a fight, to stay vigilant, observant of ourselves and our surroundings, our fellow humans. Years of conditioning enslaves us, numbs our experience. My bafflement continues in many ways. I am, like most people, prey to all the usual weaknesses, vanities and denials. Krishnamurti talks about the “tyranny” of thought and experience, how we see things only in terms of what we have already seen, in terms of what we remember, never just looking at what is there in front of us. He would never have written this.

Resits: “J” is for Hank Jones

How well do you know yourself? Could you identify your arms and legs if they were in a photograph? If you feel certain of something, do you know it, as the saying goes, “like the back of your hand”? Look again. Whose hand is it?

It was the nineties, I’d just done my first dose of magic mushrooms, and the answers to all of these questions were by no means straightforward.

Running across Tooting Bec Common, I’d looked down to see the grass not coming towards me, but moving from left to right. Trees were people, upended, half submerged in the seemingly watery wasteland of the earth. My friends were all changing places with each other, periodically morphing into dogs and gateposts as part of some strange black and white animated film. This was reality for a few hours, and it was a hoot.

But I was curious to see what would happened if I tried to play the piano. Music had given me a more convincing identity in life than that built from my interactions with the world and the people in it. High as a kite in a hurricane, I was curious to see if that inner reality would collapse in the way that the outer one had.

I’m sure you can guess what happened next. I started to play and, feeling increasingly disconnected from my body, I looked down to discover that I had….women’s hands….and yes, women’s and men’s hands are not always that different, but these were small, too small for my arms at least, and had bright red nails protruding from their smooth, airbrushed fingers. The music I was hearing seemed somehow urbane, effortlessly sophisticated, a kind of carefree unity of mood and direction. In other words, everything my music wasn’t. I wasn’t trying.

I realised, with what seems now like inexplicable calm, that I had been invaded by the ghost of Hank Jones, who was at the time very much alive.

In these polarisingly algorithmic times we live in, it’s easy to assume that if you love someone then they must think like you, be like you somehow. Hank Jones is a truly otherworldly kind of genius. He has a natural gift for song-like phrases. He seems like someone from whom great melodies emerge, one on top of the other, as long as he doesn’t get in the way of himself. He’s the beach ball that floats unharmed on the white water rapids, getting everywhere fast with the minimum of effort. This is exactly how it is recommended people should improvise, to allow the music to unfold.

It’s hasn’t really been my experience of doing it: for me it’s a struggle, always, and that’s the music, that quality is embedded into the very nuts and bolts of it. I identified with the hacking determination of Monk and Ellington more than the quicksilver runs of Wynton Kelly. It goes without saying that Hank Jones is an undisputed legend, and his recording of spirituals and hymns with Charlie Haden is one of my favourite recordings. Part of the pleasure of listening to that music for me is the realisation that he is doing it differently to me, that there’s an ecosystem of music out there, not a solitary standard of excellence that we are all chasing in vain.

We live in times of easy platitudes copied and pasted over scenes from nature. “Be Yourself”, that fatuous update of the Bible’s “know thyself”, is the one thing everyone seems to agree on. Everyone except me that is.

My one and only trip on magic mushrooms ended with me watching myself do something that only I knew was impossible. It was impossible because it was not me. It’s not the cataclysmic epiphany that some have experienced through hallucination. I didn’t fly or see God, I laughed for a long time, threw up the leftovers of the mushroom soup, and resumed, after a short period of recuperation, normal life.

But I was, and am, changed forever. I never, ever say to anyone “Be yourself!” There may be more than one of those in each of us. Perhaps “be whoever you are right now” might be a better piece of advice, but you can’t write that under a photograph of a sunset.

The Light That Goes On

The older I get, the harder it becomes to locate a voice in my music. We are supposed to aspire to that, to find this thing that is yours, as if music were a forest, the voice a lost animal somewhere. So are we all following the distant bark of a trapped dog? All musicians aspire to a condition of authenticity when playing. But how? How do we recognise it? I’ve tended to shy away from sticking to any kind of guns musically, and perhaps this means I’ve been unable to find my true calling, unless you count absent-minded listlessness. It’s a kind of direction in itself I suppose, a clearly defined path taken by a three-wheeled shopping trolley. But there has to be something linking it all together, and I think I’ve at least found out what that is.

I used to play in a band with a tenor saxophonist called Bobby Wellins. We played at a club called the 606 in London, I reckon we did a gig a month for around fifteen years. The band was (mostly) myself, Dave Whitford and Dave Wickins on bass and drums respectively. We played standards, often the same ones month after month. You might think that was a pretty locked in format, but it was as free as I ever felt playing music: clear boundaries that were, as you approached them, soft and fluffy as clouds. I think it worked like this: Bobby called a tune, or sometimes just started it in the middle of another one, and, depending on the circumstances, we crashed, sloped or edged in around and behind him. Every musical decision felt like it had infinite other alternatives, each of which would have led to a new fork in the road with infinite others, all somehow held by the gravitational pull of the tune itself. It seemed no arbitrary coincidence that these songs had been played for decades: these songs could take a beating, and still they got up and asked for more. They became more alive with every punch, with every attempt to unseat the foundations the thing stayed more in the ground. There’s a lot of fun in that (and no violence, by the way).

Anyway, that band, took care of my “standards fix”. Sometimes we would play as a trio without Bobby, but even that group was slightly edging away from the mainstream repertoire. Musicans like John Scofield, Keith Jarrett, Geri Allen and Paul Motian had always come back to standards after playing their own music and that of other contemporary composers. I felt the same way: I needed to do other things in order that I had something to bring back with me.

In 2016 Bobby passed away, and the gigs at the 606 stopped. I still played standards a bit with Dave and Dave but then, in 2019, Dave Wickins died. I haven’t played that kind of music since. Those associations were long in the making. I felt that music belonged, in some way, to them.

Dave Wickins used to run a Summer School in Wales that myself and Bobby taught at every year. And every year I would watch Geoff Simkins create impossibly twisting sculptures of line out of these same old tunes. Sometimes I would watch so intently that I forgot to play. We would always invoke, after a week of both teaching and learning in equal measure, that old jazz mantra: “We must do it again!” This has been going on for years.

Now we are doing it again. We have a gig, and we are recording it. I feel like it’s a good time to go back to playing those tunes (as well as some by Chopin, Duran Duran and one by person or persons unknown). There seems a specific reason for doing it. But I keep coming back to this question. Why? What makes the experience feel so authentic?

Remember those electric dynamos on bikes? If you pedalled hard enough the lights would come on and, if you stopped putting the effort in, they would dim again. Well, it’s not like that. Music has legs that move on their own, set in motion by some kind of rightness, some kind of feedback between ears, body and mind that makes the light come on. I’ve felt it in free music, in other people’s music, in my own bands and in pieces I’ve written, if I allow myself the indulgence. It’s not the repertoire. Choosing to do a certain thing in music is no guarantee of magic: knowing a haïku is seventeen syllables doesn’t make you a poet. You can’t make it happen, it happens almost in your absence, when you are not thinking about it, forcing it, willing it to happen. There’s a kind of “not-doing”-ness to it, one the actual haïku poets were well aware of.

Whenever I feel that happening, the little light goes on, that’s something I want to do. It can be abstract, earthy, restrictive, loose or just an idea in someone’s head. But you have to follow the light and try not to take too much notice of the other voices in your head, the ones ferociously and needlessly pedalling downhill and leaving themselves no energy to come back up.

Then all you gotta do is hit the sweet spot with them algorithms and bingo, away you go!

Here’s a link to the gig, at The Vortex, Dalston on Weds 26th October:


Resits: “I” is for “Isaac Hayes: By The Time I Get To Phoenix”


A single heartbeat on the bass, one solitary cymbal, the ghost of an organ chord held indefinitely. Isaac Hayes murmurs, sighs, then…”I’m talkin’ about the power of love now!” It’s a gentle sermonising, a backstory to the beginning of this iconic song that takes an age to unwind. By the time we get to the song, to Phoenix, we feel we’ve lived this guy’s life and the weight of his past sits heavy on us. So when that organ, feint like a tint on a canvas, swells a little, the stick on the snare kicks the groove in, our temporary world, that of the secular pastor, the endless chord, the heartbeat of bass and drums, opens out like a treasure map. We know where we’re going. But that’s not all.

That solitary chord has been needing to resolve, like it’s keeping a dirty secret, for several minutes. We’ve followed Hayes’s vocal – charismatic, dramatic, tragic – so closely that we haven’t noticed. That chord, a chord V in music theory terms, with a suspended fourth to make it hang in the air a bit more. And it always wants to go to a chord I. It doesn’t always happen in music that you get what you want. This is the equivalent to a short story where two people meet, there are problems (V), the problems are resolved in their union, or their death, or in some kind of philosophical shrugging of shoulders (I). It’s got to go there. We are rooting for the lovers because we feel the pull towards a conclusion.

The genius of this song is that Hayes hides the prescence of this tension. The speech winds around, circles within circles, both narrating and commenting on the song as he goes, occasionally breaking into wordless song. The pauses….genius….the timing of a stand up comedian (or perhaps a tragedian). The rhythm of the voice against that heartbeat. It’s enough. Its just there, always, like air.

Then, at around 8 minutes 39 seconds, the song starts. And then the ghostly chord, the chord that was always there, resolves. There’s no drama other than the movement of notes quietly going where they always needed to. I’ve listened to this song countlesss times, and every time it gets to this moment, I feel my body levitate. Sometimes tears come, as if summonsed by the real gravitational pull of the air. It’s the closest I have ever come to seeing an entire class of students exhale at the same time.

The strings’ entry is somewhat comedic, once we realise they have all been sitting on this studio for nine minutes waiting to do something. At 11 minutes the coda starts (this will run for another few minutes too) sweeping strings eventually joined by brass. It’s almost triumphant, drums breaking out briefly before subsiding back into the gentle heartbeat of the opening.

The Glenn Campbell song itself only takes two and a half minutes to get through. But Isaac Hayes has put it under some kind of sonic microscope. The build up and the reflection, the motivation for the song and the wreckage it leaves behind, these overtake the song itself. And yet, it’s that song that provides Hayes with the germ of the idea. A two and a half minute time capsule of unrequited love perfectly matched in the detail of its musical makeup, a perfect assymetry of suspended harmonies.

V – I movements are a kind of drill that jazz musicians go through, learning to articulate them at speed, draping dizzying lines across them. It’s not our job to question their existence, merely to navigate their complexities.

Hayes does the opposite. He says “What is this? What does it do? Why is it useful?” It’s like watching a kiss in slow motion. It reveals something new and otherworldly in the everyday. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever heard.

Resits: “H” is for Robin Holcomb (All The Records)

I miss the edge sometimes. When music draws you in to that warm, fuzzy room, unquestioning, I miss that extra edge. That sharp, subtle reminder that you are indeed dreaming. Robin Holcomb’s music has it, and she has a new album coming. This is a rare event. The spaces between Robin Holcomb albums are bracing, cold, but full of anticipation.

You could, if you wanted to appear clever, say her music combines hymnal traditions of North America with a penchant for Bartok’s two pronged clashes. But this is not enough. These breakdowns and smart arse analyses are never enough. Holcomb’s music resonates in that rare space where two disparate traditions cannot be imagined apart. This takes extraordinary ears, heightened awareness of where what you are hearing could go. That is the closest I can get to describing what a good musician does.

It’s like spinning plates. The ingredients are plates, firstly, and secondly a sharpened tip on which to spin them. Bartok and hymns. That’s an explanation of raw materials, but the magic that she weaves with them is how a plate will wobble, may look like falling, and then she rescues it, with either a heartbreakingly simple move or a bit of reality checking crunch.

Hearing this, you are alive, alive in the way she was when she heard these sounds and followed their weird, multiple trajectories and finding the best one. And then, what happens is that Bartok and the church dissolve, and a third, strange new love child emerges, and there it is: a new sound. Her strikingly original voice that somehow seems also “traditional” sits on top of it all. It has a stubbornness about it, it says “I don’t need that accompaniment to guide me, I’ve got my notes….” Amd whilst I’m not qualified to talk about the lyrics, they seem to me to stand defiant, like a monument….there is a world here I don’t know, but feel I must.

Her new album is called “One Way Or Another, Vol 1”, which has a tantalising hint of more in the future, perhaps less of a chilly gap before volume 2 appears.

I went back and listened to “Robin Holcomb”, “Rockabye” and “The Big Time”, records I know so well that I don’t have to listen to them. Priceless jewels all, widely spaced across decades , I envy all of you who are about to experience them for the first time. If you’re really lucky you didn’t even get to read this first.

Resits: “G” is for Glenn and Gould (and Goldberg).

A while ago there was a video going around of Glenn Gould. I shared it and, in doing so, started a fight. This was not the way one should play Bach, they told me, people have studied for lifetimes to correctly play this music, he’s a “baby” I was informed. It was decided that I was wrong to like him. The composer himself was, needless to say, not available to interject, although he doesn’t necessarily get to decide either frankly, as part of the contract with the world upon writing something is that it is no longer yours. At least that’s how I feel about it. And this was the problem.

When someone tells you it’s wrong to like something, they are commenting on something that has already irreversibly happened, that was out of your control. An outside force acts upon you, after which you carry the burden of its liking until you can shake it off. That’s not going to happen by somebody having a hissing fit on my Facebook feed.

A piece of art is not a Prime Minister. It does not function solely in its own time, and there can be more than one of them at any given moment. True, Glenn Gould may be standing as a candidate for the Monster Raving Loony Party, or perhaps the Inconsistent Ornamentation League (on this, more later), but his has proven to be a powerful message and he’s found his voters.

Just a thought: imagine having countless prime ministers to choose from, and downloading your own personal PM whose rules are only applicable to you (surely it’s coming soon!).

Gould has always revealed something hidden in the music that he plays. In the Quodlibet of the Goldberg Variations, which is the very last before the Aria returns, Bach evokes his family tradition of singing drinking songs in counterpoint. It’s a high art take on a dirty sing song, and it’s the final variation. Gould brings the melodies out like a drunk, they’re rough, bawdy and bashed out almost….my god it almost…. swings!!! Elsewhere, his typical breakneck speed in the lighter pieces seems to evoke a strange slowness amidst the sheer velocity of the notes themselves. Like a stereogram where, if you look at the countless dots for long enough, you start to see a big dog. No one else does that, not the way he does. It’s like a complete surrender to the music, he seems not only immersed but submerged in it, a willing hostage to the metronome. In the canons, dense webs of interlocking themes appear so simply stated as if they themselves will do the work.

The fact is, all of this is an illusion, as anyone who has attempted to emulate Gould’s style will tell you. I’m telling you now. It’s a precision job. And you’re welcome to disagree.

Some people don’t like the way he does his ornaments. It’s not how they were done in Bach’s time. I’m not getting in the ring with the Baroque Police, all that piano versus harpsichord debate. I know there are whole books on this subject, and the study of minutiae is something I would defend to the death. However, there’s plenty of “proper” Bach recordings available, trills, mordents and turns intact. One way doesn’t relegate the other, it is not voted out.

What the hell is a trill, you may be thinking? Hmmmm, let me think of the best way to explain it. Think of your face, and now imagine your left cheek has one note in it, and the right cheek another just above it. Shake your head as fast as you can as if saying no in the most assertive and neurotic way possible. That sound you are hearing is a trill, and it is used to enable notes on a harpsichord the illusion of sustaining (all notes on keyboard instruments with strings, including the piano, are dying the moment you touch them). For me the trill is a symbol of my failure as a classical pianist. I could never do them. Were there a way to control the piano from the jowls on my face (surely it’s coming soon!), then we’d be talking. Fingers, however, just won’t move like that for me, twisting themselves into a kind of rigormortis of protest before finally collapsing.

Music must, in the end, be useful. For a jazz musician, some music acquires greatness in relation to the number of ways you can play it, mess with it, and it still be the thing it was. Composing is in some ways an act of generosity. You are giving your stuff to people to work with. You owe it to them, because without their playing of it you have no music. Jerome Kern, composer of “All The Things You Are” and many other beloved songs, hated jazz musicians because they tampered with his music, and I think he was wrong to do so. Jazz musicians have kept his name in lights, promoted what I think of as a pretty syrupy ballad to a level of usefulness he could never have imagined.

I have spent twenty years hacking through the Goldberg Variations, eliminating all the trills, defacing it, taking what I can manage and leaving the rest, and it has been a massive influence on everything I do. Actually that’s a lie. Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations have been a massive influence on everything I do. He grooves, wails, whimpers and pranks his way through them, from dizzying speed to glacial creep, his counterpoint sounding like several different people playing one piece, with all the friction and argument that entails. Often, he’ll bring out some supposedly insignificant line with his infamous booming vocal, as if to say “yes, the managers are important, but what about the cleaners!” His interpretations exemplify the argument about the music itself, that of multiplicity over uniformity, many voices over one.

I could write about Gould forever, and I’m not the only one, but the fact that not everyone likes him is part of his appeal. I therefore need you, the detractors, to keep doing what you’re doing. We are all just making and listening, sculpting and digging in the big music ecosystem. The more the merrier, I reckon…mutual tolerance and diversity is, after all, big news these days.

You either mean it or you don’t.

Resits: F is for “Fred Frith: Hello Music” from “Guitar Solos”

Yes, this is how I would like to say hello. A big jumble of sounds, familiar, strangely alien. And best of all, in and out quick. No time for “exploratory” gestures. You have to know what you’re doing and do it. A “jazzy” (yes, for once, that’s the right word) riff bent at the edges, warped in the middle, and all the happier for it. Why doesn’t everyone say hello like this? Why doesn’t everyone play the guitar like this?

When you put your fingers on a guitar, learn your first chord, you put one hand on the fretboard to mark the notes, the other hand sounds the strings. This is “strumming”, what everyone does, what happens to guitars at parties. This is rightly held in high regard, universally loved and ubiquitously successful.

But there’s a whole other side, the strings behind the fingers marking the notes, that doesn’t get heard. Frith liberates this by amplifying both sides of his guitar. There are now two notes for every one, creating a strange, blurred musical image. It’s “out of tune”. For reference, “out of tune” refers to the huge world of music outside that of the Western canon (and now some within it). Music that is “out of tune” can enable us to hear the individual parts more as autonomous agents, like a crowd of people in a conversation with different accents, or different coloured clothes. An awkward blend. It’s how John Cage might have sounded if he’d liked jazz.

I like it. It swings. Duke Ellington, brace yourself, had a band that played out of tune. They moved the sound around, tuning was part of expression…loud and soft, sharp and flat. Rhythm holds it all together, dictates the choice of notes and how they move (and where to).

I’ve got an old kid’s guitar, too small for “real” music on big hands, hanging on the wall. From time to time I take it down, put my fingers on it and play. Not like the guitar, but like Fred Frith. It’s like rolling around in a bath of foam footballs, in that incompetence is as rewarding as perfectionism. At first, anyway. Every sound is a new discovery, fresh chaos.

Frith finds a tight knit logic in this untamed, clanging universe and, whilst appearing to skid from side to side throughout, brings the whole thing to an emergency stop with surprising inevitability. In and out. Total time: one minute, thirty one seconds.

Resits: “D” is for Thomas Dolby: “Hyperactive”.

I can’t tell you how many tries I’ve had at this song. Just trying to describe it, the feeling of it, without losing the essence and explaining it. The whole thing resists explanation, partly because I was young when I heard it and the impact was part mysterious, part kinetic, it made my body jolt in a way that was as close to dancing as I would ever get. I didn’t understand what went into it, and didn’t really imagine myself almost forty years later typing, deleting, typing, deleting, trying to write something that captured what I felt about it.

Anyway, what I love about it is the way the music starts all broken up, drums without a groove, bass that seems one beat away from its proper place, an angsty vocal that feels tight in the throat. Those “orchestral hits” that basically sound like eighty classical musicians disappearing into a black hole backwards. The whole thing is like a ball of energy ready to “blow”, as Dolby says in the lyrics.

It’s like those clockwork toys, I know, it’s a long time ago. You wind them up and then there’s that point just before you let them go, the rubber wheels pulling at the floor. I remember that feeling, in my body, the energy and the anger that, in an instant, could be converted to a kind of ecstatic trance. Beethoven, Fela Kuti, Miles, all the best rhythm sections had it and have it. When it happens, it can feel like it’s the answer to everything.

I also didn’t know what hyperactive meant really, certainly not the proper medical definition. To me it was just the feeling that this guy, a young Thomas Dolby, had this energy in him that made him feel out of place and caused him to terrorise his teachers and fellow pupils. When all those bobby socked teenagers felt that Sinatra was singing just for them, well, that’s what I felt like with “Hyperactive”.

The verse is all stop and start, confusion and frustration, but the bridge releases all that energy into an incredible groove that picks you up and hurls you forward, I can almost feel the wind of the air left behind rushing past my head. It’s kind of air punchingly great the way it suddenly takes off, and “they’re messing with my heart” is a nice twist on the “messing with my mind” that you’d expect: it’s not just his head, it’s deeper, and he understands that in a way “they” (teachers, shrinks, parents) don’t.

Once this transition happens, it’s like the tension is gone and he’s on a big rant which, in a way I hadn’t noticed all those years ago, gets a bit violent and sinister as it goes. But it’s too late, we are on his side. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager and kicked a bedroom door (that’s everybody, right? Er…..Right?) is on his side.

Yes, it’s all a bit cartoony. No, I don’t have anything against therapists. Or parents. Or teachers. But this song just seemed to drop on me at a time when I thought that being a jazz musician might just include playing on grooves like this, might include inventing them even. It’s pure rhythm (almost no chords, a surprisingly common trait of a surprisingly large amount of surprisingly good music). It seemed to find the perfect subject for the twitchy, metallic sound of the new music of the time, and it gave people like the young Thomas Dolby, kicking and screaming their way into an uncertain adolescence, a voice.

Resits: “C” is for Joseph Canteloube: “Baïlèro” from “Songs Of The Auvergne”

In 1926, some forty years before “She Loves You” by The Beatles, Joseph Canteloube begins arranging a series of folk songs from the mountains in central France.

“Baïlèro” opens with a solitary line that sort of bleeds into its accompaniment, like a single drop of water landing on a fine ink drawing, relaxing its edges. The feeling is like sitting in one of those bulbous leather sofas with titanic cushions, the ones that are too big for most living rooms. It’s almost impossible to leave and, as the phrase ends, there’s a “yeah yeah yeah YEAHHHHHHH” moment, the accompanying chord enveloping it like a cloud. (Listen to that Beatles song again).

These dream-like washes are orchestrated and ordered with the precision of a diamond cutter. Whilst the audience wallow in the sheer sensuality of the sound, the composer watches the movement of parts like a hawk. Chords shift from one to the other like trees swaying in the breeze, and above them carefully crafted lines make it all feel so simple. Canteloube believed in the status of folk music as “high art”, he took elegantly formed folk melodies and made them grand, lush, surrounding them in exquisite counterpoint, just enough to savour the move from one chord to another. On this recording, Victoria de Los Angeles has a kind of joyous lightness in her voice, carefree above these harmonic clouds, hiding from us the years of work it took to arrive here (that is high art). The melodies cross and swoop like seabirds, bass notes are somehow revealed to us like huge rocks in choppy seas. This music sounds too natural, it moves too easily, to have been engineered by human hands.

My view is, however, somewhat biased. It was years ago, and I was listening to music with someone. We were exchanging drunkenly our favourite pieces of music. My offering was the aria from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” played by Glenn Gould, and hers was “Baïlèro”. It’s stayed with me ever since, the feeling and the music entwined forever in a moment. How had I not heard this stuff before? As I listen now, the music digs around in my subconscious, reminding me of places and feelings within it I sometimes can’t reach, but that are nevertheless there, held between the notes, among the swooping seabirds and the wine. I’m drunk again.

It didn’t work out, that particular relationship, but that isn’t the point. We musicians are frequently studying things, looking for inherent merits, underlying craft, evidence that something is timelessly good, stands on its own two feet. But music sometimes just drops on you, envelops you, at the time you need it, for reasons beyond your knowing and in ways you can’t describe.

It is, though, fun to try.

Resits: “B” is for John Butcher: “Sprinkler” from “Invisible Ear”

Sometimes it’s the way music hits you, full in the face, or maybe gently tugging at you like a nagging toddler. As I turned on the car radio, this piece had already started, so I had no idea who was doing it and with what. It insinuated itself into the atmosphere, emerging from the low drone of tyres on tarmac, camouflaged as noise. Otherworldly is a word that comes up far too often in describing music, but this, for once, had precisely that impact…an unknown entity creating sounds governed only by each other. It seemed to vibrate not the air, but some other undiscovered gas, melodies only gradually revealing themselves, starting as a noise on the periphery of motorway hum, becoming gradually more miraculous.

Free improvisation often contains its own little symphonies, the human instinct for tension and release skirting the edges of the structure it wants to escape. This is not one of those occasions. The whole thing has, rather, the feeling of a cyber insect emerging from its metallic burrow, feeling out first the air, then the ground, tentacles and toes twitching with electrostatic curiosity. Like a clockwork toy, the charm is not in where this music is going, but how, wandering around in itself, walking sometimes over the same space to see if it feels the same, sounds the same – repeated sounds transform in unpredictable ways, a simple gesture revealing its hidden complexities. There’s a feeling of the music leading, the saxophonist following without judgement.

It’s the definition of magic, slight of hand, a combination of small things working together to produce one illusion. The noise of the keypads against the holes, resonating through a long tube and producing feedback through an amplification system. It’s a saxophone being re-purposed, re-examined…like a magnifying glass cast over the unused edges of a canvas. Pops and scrapes merge and separate in strange two part inventions, each seemingly of its own world and point of origin.

I don’t know how it’s done, and I don’t particularly want to know how it’s done. I’m hanging on, perhaps in vain, to that moment when the music, before I knew it was music, appeared of its own accord and washed away the memories of whatever gig I was driving home from. Perhaps it was a wedding, the happiest day of someone’s life. They chose the tunes and we dutifully played them.

“Sprinkler” was, on the other hand, uninvited, but most welcome.

Thank God for the radio. I don’t always want to choose.