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.

I Have Trouble With History

“I didn’t really buy any of Sun Ra’s records because I could just go and hang out when they were performing, or go to one of their rehearsals, so I didn’t need the record!

Lonnie Liston Smith interviewed by Anton Spice .

Well, that’s cool Lonnie. The thing is, I’ve got everything in my little sardine box music screen machine here, so I don’t need to go out. Musically, I am staring blankly at the pasta section in a supermarket that stretches as far as the eye can see, marvelling at what I could eat. I’m not eating it, but I’m marvelling at my marvellous “eating future”. I’m going to check that out. The trolley’s still empty but think of what could fill it. No-Wave, post-punk, fettuccini, stuff my kids listen to, all things I’m going to check out. Really soon. It’s a really exciting time. Or it will be. The future’s bright.

Not all music, however, is designed for solitary listening, and we know that because people keep going out for it. It’s so cheap to have it sent straight into your ears, yet people spend a lot of money to be around other people listening to live music in a field where the wind may all but blow the sound out of earshot, and most of what you can hear is other people singing along to each other as the band do something somewhere out of sight. People do listen, even if it’s often with their eyes. Social media has propped up a kind of military takeover of the other four senses by the one that now reigns unchallenged; seeing. Seeing is believing.

As you get away from the festival experience, an event defined by numbers in many ways, immersion in music is more an act of will. Sometimes you have to do that yourself, make a conscious decision, lower yourself into the bath of it rather than wait for an attendant with a big bucket to pour it over you. Jazz has always been like that for me; and this goes for its history too.

My knowledge of jazz came from record covers laid out on the floor like a soap opera storyboard, this follows that, swing-bebop-cool-hardbop etc etc. I knew the accepted story, but my knowledge was not a bodily thing, it wasn’t in me, wasn’t backed up by any kind of experience. Jazz history played out like the Battle Of Waterloo with toy soldiers, and you just kind of put them in whatever position you felt most likely. The music’s past, and the past I would like to have experienced but didn’t, was for me a construct, pieced together from the musical fragments available at the time.

It all started around 1983, or thereabouts, The Churchill Library, Bromley, an exploded sonic star where the slowly falling fragments were catalogued alphabetically. Records I took home because they were there. Sun Ra’s “Mystery Of The Two”. Stravinsky’s “Requiem Canticles”. One casualty of the move from analogue to digital was the Duke Ellington with Jimmy Blanton album, which now sounds wrong because the scratch that made it jump a beat in 1984 is missing. Nothing was in any kind of order. Earl Hines, for example, he was an early favourite, but nobody had informed me that learning to play jazz required starting with later players, where it’s less about playing the piano and more about “information”, “content”. It was too late for me. Hines, Stravinsky, Ellington, Cecil Taylor – I started a file under “piano sonorities” and staggered on. For me they were connected by sound, as if the sounds themselves lived, went to school, met other sounds and reproduced.

But if I’d seen Hines bump into a young Cecil Taylor at the florist, I might have made that other connection, might have seen those worlds joined for myself. A kind of social bond that ensures the passage of the tradition, where it finds its own winding path, through accident and circumstance, seemingly disparate worlds coming together in a shared taste for daffodils. I had no history, no tradition, no reason to be doing what I did aside from a general dissatisfaction with life as it was presented to me and so, lacking a social connection, I made my history up, a fake news repository of unchecked facts and suppositions, and I surveyed it as I imagine the owner of a train set would, congratulating myself on the detail whilst knowing real engines don’t run on tables.

History was never my subject, I just couldn’t hold facts or remember names, couldn’t visualise the things happening. I never understood how, considering our impressive roster of cruel mistakes when we get together in big groups, we never learnt from them. It’s unlikely that lessons in jazz history would have helped me, but I would have liked to have seen where Duke Ellington bought his vegetables, I think I’d have learnt a lot from that.

“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.

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.

Sonny Rollins is here…

I found my way into improvisation via ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, essentially dance music without Ecstasy. Or, in my case, dancing. Learning about this music, and how to play it, you immerse yourself in a world that is, from the first time you cross its borders, essentially alienating for many people. Anyone who’s seen Woody Allen’s films can get along with early jazz and swing, but after that, it gets knotty. The dancing got left behind and bebop asserted a more highbrow approach, and this is where jazz as repellent starts. But at some point in my mid teens, this became the sound I had in my head, it was what I wanted to come out every time I thought about playing the piano. (Thinking is all very well, I’m still working on it now.)

Still, it’s the boiling lobster principle. After twenty, thirty years, you take a sound for granted that most people hear as a kind of indulgent white noise. Growing into it, I was around others who felt the same draw, we nodded our heads together to music which appears to have no beat, no tune and no purpose. This was in some way mirrored in our own lives of monastic practice by day, and Guinness by night. The music was and is offensive, actively disliked by those who don’t understand it, and nothing is more powerful than seeming to tell someone they are stupid. It was “everyone playing at the same time.”

Occasionally the “j” word gets popular again, and other streams of music appear; the advantage of jazz as an influencing genre is that you can often take half of what’s already in it and make something more digestible. This stuff is essential for the growth of the ecosystem of the music, but there are some musicians who manage to steer a path in and out of these currents, they are “likeable”, but they are “heavy” too. You stay with them and they with you. For me, it’s Sonny Rollins.

Rollins has always cut through the noise. Charlie Parker’s records in the forties still shock today, bursting with an energy that shoots out at all angles. He seemed to stream through the sky like a comet, died young and broke and looking old. Rollins survived.

He took Parker’s language and sound and expanded in all directions. The first good sign is that you cannot teach anyone how to play like Rollins, nor can you even pretend to. He appears to pluck sounds out of the air. He can weave around chord changes with impossible elegance and groove one minute, then hack away at one note like a lumberjack at a redwood the next. He moves sound around like a voice. Language becomes secondary. It’s not a “style”; it’s simply being good, being fast…..not playing fast, being fast. The only way to mimic Rollins is to be as witty, as imaginative, and as quick as the man himself. It’s impossible and it’s inspiring. The music is dancing again.

When I think of the archetypal improviser, someone who shuts their eyes and listens and simply plays what they hear, it’s him.

I am saying this because he is still alive. I want him to know. There are too many obituaries.

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.