A review. Sort of.

I can’t help it, I read reviews.  I’m mad for them, reviews of stuff I’ve done, of things I’m into, of CDs I don’t want or don’t like, of things I’ve never heard of.  And because the distance between a drunken rant and a published article has decreased somewhat, there are loads of them.  And despite warnings of the “End Of Music“, a veritable torrent of recordings continue to pour out, provoking a kind of secondary flow of online comment in which everyone from the scholarly to the brainless, the outraged to the starstruck, gets their respective oars in.  Speed is of the essence; reviews come out before the recordings are released.  We all need to know if it is any good, and we need to know now.

There used to be this programme on the telly.  “The Generation Game”.  Objects would go past on a conveyor belt.  The “cuddly toy” and the “fondue set” stick in the memory for some reason (and if I ever had one, I would have to buy the conveyor belt to go with it) .    The contestant then had to recall as much as possible of what they’d seen in order to win it, victoriously trundling happily home with an armful of mismatched crap.  A simple game of recognition and recall.  Often reviewers will only get a chance to listen to something once, and in a sense they will find themselves in a similar situation.  What are the first impressions?  Can you hear the Pygmy rhythms, the Beatles references, the eighties pop attitude?  The cuddly toy?

I pulled this out from my CD shelf the other day having not listened to it for about 15 years.  As it happens, I chose it by picking two random numbers which, like “battleships”, involve vertical and horizontal coordinates (shelf number and count from the left respectively).   However, had I been actually looking for it, I could have seen it from down the street…

IMG_4679

Look at those colours!  Pretty garish.  This is what this recording is about; the clash of unmatchable colours, genres, sounds, eras, harmonies.  But rather than lay it all out like a collage where the different materials retain their sense of place and history, Frisell somehow combines these things into a single, identifiable style, a language even, where the guiding principle seems to be a kind of directness.  The way a song sung to a sleepy child is direct, or a three chord power ballad, a wonky riff.  Often elements of these things appear in the same tune, sometimes even at the same time.

I should go back a bit.

John Zorn started all this.  Naked City, his thrash metal/punk/classical covers/surf/60s cinema/S and M/improvised/heavily composed group, came bulldozering over the jazz and improvised scene in the early nineties.

And they could play; they alternated mind-melting virtuosity with an incredible sensitivity to colour, mood and texture.  It was as if Zorn had sat down and thought “How do I make music that is as different to Wagner as is humanely possible?”  Where the former values purity of language, development, unity of themes both musical and philosophical, Zorn…well….he just crams stuff together, impossible jump cuts through history, country and western, Webern-esque pointillism, thrash metal, film noir, lopsided riffs, jazz, but in a wine bar, not to be listened to but to be “sensed”, music that put you in a series of familiar places, only to whisk you off seconds later.  High and low brow stuffed together in a way that took out the high and the low.  His skill is in the way he varies the pace, manipulates the shock of the listener, who is frequently left feeling like he or she has run at top speed into a quaker meeting, or fluttered down like a feather into the path the Grand National.  It felt very new; a view of music that refused to linger long enough in any one place to look around.

Frisell, along with others like Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, Wayne Horvitz and Elliot Sharp came later for me.  And they were like the second wave.  Zorn went and smashed everything up, Frisell surveyed the wreckage and started to build things from it that remind us of how things were before it was all knocked down.  What sounds like fragments of old Viennese waltzes are put together into epigrammatic melodies, only to be trampled on by a Hendrix-styled guitar solo…except, listening again, there’s no trampling – not really.  Like two friends who appear to be arguing when in actual fact they are engaged in their own form of good natured banter, Frisell’s disparate materials seem to find some kind of common ground.  Melodies can be explored again, elaborated upon, a banjo can be louder than the distorted guitar which shadows its lines.  In “The Way Home”, a constant reiterating chord is at once familiar, almost naive, and yet the spaces it opens up allows the almost vocal inflections of his lead guitar to morph into noise and effects.

Simple and complex.  It’s full of these opposites that are forced to cooperate and get on, to occupy the same space. Nostalgia and chaos, delicate melody and frantic mayhem, it feels like a record that challenges our prejudices about what things could go together.  And it sounds so good.  It’s not a snapshot, it’s not “what happened on the day” (these records can sound good too of course); it’s a lovingly crafted piece of affectionate avant-garde, a complex construction of bits and bobs through which Frisell and his array of guitars weave with the delicacy of a calligrapher.  Even the “Chain Of Fools” cover, the one track that never got me…years later, on better headphones, I can hear how the familiarity of the tune allows the sheer detail of his sound to come through.

This CD came out a long time ago.  I listened to it obsessively for a year or so, at least until his next album came out.  I stole from him as carefully as I could in my own music, I tried to cover my tracks as best I could.  My main alibi was that his music is so guitarish.  And I’m a pianist, and I had a band with two saxophones in it.  Finally, I had to leave it alone for fear of losing myself in it, and I forced myself to be curious about other things.

Now, years later, it feels like a good time to hear it afresh;  things change over time.  This is a different record now to what it was back then.  More music has come after it, and what goes before now seems less immediate.  Frisell himself has now found a space in a kind of revitalised bluegrass style, where he can explore his fondness for texture and simplicity without too much gear.  His twists and turns are quieter, more modest somehow, but they are there.  “Half A Million”, the penultimate track on “Is That You?”, seems almost to be taken from one of his most recent recordings.  That changes the way you hear it.  At the time, it was just one of a number of directions he was hinting at.  You have to wait fifteen years before these things can reveal themselves.  And you can listen again.

Who Do I Listen To?

“Nature then, is just nature. I admit I am very impressed with it. The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can do for is to put some order in ourselves.”

Willem de Kooning


The cloud comes down, but too fast and too heavy, more like a blanket, or like jelly just before it sets. It always happens like this. I’m in a room with someone, and I’m teaching them. And they say something, and the room fills slowly up with an imaginary, cloying, sticky liquid. This person is aged between 18 and 21. They say :

“Who should I be listening to?”

I have been trying to think of what to say in reply to this for as many years as I’ve been teaching. It’s the key to everything. When a person says this, and eagerly awaits an answer, they are unwittingly telling you that they think they will never be a jazz musician, pure and simple. They have made this choice. Obviously I can’t tell them that. They want answers. Their parents have just forked out twenty seven grand in used notes in exchange for little nuggets of information such as the one I am about to impart. The great spirit of rebellion that spawned this music, the anger and joy coexisting in Bud Powell’s recordings, the machismo and feminine battling it out in the mind of Miles Davis, the sheer don’t-give-a-fuck fire running through Sonny Rollins’s titanic improvisations, Geri Allen’s fragile spider-like lines underpinned with the swagger of a New Orleans marching band, has it all ended up here in this room? I am starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.

Look, I’m no writer. The opening paragraph of this blog has, compared to my others, a lot of short sentences. This is because I’ve just finished James Ellroy’s brilliantly nasty, disparaging and fictionalised account of the years leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, “American Tabloid”. The anger and disgust of the unseen narrator jumps off the page at every turn. And it has lots of short sentences in it. My ear started to like the sound of them. And how they look. And that reminded me of the anger in Bud Powell’s music, anger that in his case was transformed into a kind of ecstatic energy. I imagine a lot of jazz musicians had this experience; there was plenty to be angry about, and in some kind of chicken and egg coincidence the way music was made was undergoing an explosive revolution.

With this in mind, I get on the tube; Jesus everyone looks fucking angry. Bill Evans comes on my headphones, even he sounds angry today, a taunted bull rampaging through a room full of rose petals. Ellroy, Powell, Evans, their energy is being let out in order that they can get up in the morning, write a new book, make a new record, they are making things ok.

Then something else happens; I go and see some very close friends of mine for a couple of days. The anger, the idea of anger, drifts away. The energy of friendship, of common ground both musical and personal, the way time passes and we are still here years later, the same and different. Bill Evans sounds different today, like he’s reading me a bedtime story. Monk’s angles are child-like, sincere, playful, but not quite as belligerent.

At a band reunion, a band in which I played an instrument I no longer even have, there are faces from even further back, the same but different. I remember sitting in the third clarinets playing Vaughan Williams’s “Folk Song Suite”, medleys of Broadway shows, newly commissioned overtures, “The Rockford Files”. From my vantage point, along with five other clarinets playing the same line, I could feel the air move, we were all somehow engulfed in it, embraced by the sound, so different to sitting at a piano, where one somehow hovers above it. (Watching Bill Evans play is, to me, watching someone trying to actually “climb inside” the chords, ear cocked to the keyboard with bird-like attentiveness, anxious to catch anything that passes.)

I remember the impossibility of looking demure whilst playing the bassoon, the irresistible urge to show off that frequently befell the lead trumpet or the percussionists, the way the conductor would lean inexplicably back in his seat for the “jazzy” numbers and then tense up like a cat eying its prey for the Gordon Jacob suite. I remember how, when we played “What I Did For Love” in the Marvin Hamlisch medley, I would feel waves of emotion that were almost physical and in the room, coupled with a teenage, slightly manufactured distaste for such sentimentality (anyone who’s ever listened to Keith Jarrett will know what I’m talking about). In particular, I learnt how to play with other people, and from that how to be with other people. I discovered that I wasn’t the only freak in Bromley in the 1980s. This is all valuable information that I still think about; well, maybe not the bassoon bit.

Look, I’m no psychologist. But when someone who wants to be a jazz musician asks me what to listen to, I imagine them asking me how to choose their friends. They are almost asking me how and what to feel. And it’s not entirely their fault. They are the customers now, and like all customers they are always right. Time is money, they don’t have a limitless apprenticeship to figure this out at their leisure, there’s no time for accidents, wrong turnings, red herrings. And the amount of energy needed to resist the increasingly conformist, consensual nature of modern culture is enormous. Jazz musicians are not, on the whole, still being beaten up by the police and given electric shock therapy in hospitals. But we are in a bit of a state over this whole role of music in contemporary life thing. Maybe this could, in some way, be our source of anger, our disgust, the unseen enemy that we kick against whilst all the time only putting “some order in ourselves”?

Eyes and ears and, I suppose, arse.

The modern day Travelodge shower has two things that of potential comfort; warmth and wetness, like the womb.  A return to that time before we had to deal with things other than ourselves.  Against the bare, nearly-white walls of the bathroom, a rush of hot water transports me to such an interior world, blocking out the concerns outside this place, leaving me alone with my thoughts.  It then transports me, feet up and arse first, on to the floor of the bath.  That noise – the sound of hitting the bath arse first – it’s a new sound to me.

Two things occur to me at this point (oh ok, sometime later); I am a bit over sensitive to sounds of all descriptions, and I am frequently unaware of the position of my body in relation to its surroundings.  I find this when I am looking at visual art.  I go to galleries from time to time.  I have no idea what I’m looking at or, more precisely, if I am actually looking at it.  I am here, it is there, somehow something goes awry in the space between us, me and it, and I wonder if it is my lack of awareness of spatial relationships.  You have to know where you stand, and to take an interest in that place, and the places of all the things around you, and to see potential beauty in those relationships.  An object in space is an object in space, and I sometimes struggle to see how it is better than or worse than another object in another space.  This is all highly embarrassing.  Sorry everyone.  At least I don’t say it is rubbish, I trust people that know better.  So I just keep looking through the things that pass for my eyes, eyes that probably miss a huge amount of whatever is in front of them.  In meditation, certain schools of Zen Buddhism say enlightenment is not something to wait for, or something that descends on you; enlightenment is the fact that you are sitting.  I keep looking and try not to expect to understand anything.

For me the experiencing of art is not about the brain, it’s about the senses.  It’s not intellectual, not in essence.  Art comes in through the eyes; yes, the brain then gets to work on experiencing the music’s structures, whether explicit or hidden,  making judgements about it, or finding “connections”, common themes, relationships to other arts, what it might be saying about something else.  Of course, structure in music can be a profoundly moving experience, whether planned or improvised, simple or complex, but without the sounds it is merely a description of itself.  Writing, for instance, was another art form that eluded me somehow.  I understood it was good, I understood people were saying important things, life changing ideas were being expressed.  But that side of it is more like philosophy, politics, sociology, other things I have no real grasp of.  Writing as an art became clear to me when a friend of mine advised me to read Shakespeare aloud.  Writing is sound, it comes in through the imaginary ears that can hear the equally imaginary voice that reads inside your head; that voice has no sound, and yet it never changes.  But to read aloud makes it tangible, makes the air move.  I like the air to move, and things to vibrate, which is why digital pianos are so horrible to play – no buzz through your fingers.  Just blind trust, trust that the places you learnt to put your fingers will send out some disembodied data that might, at some later stage when you are not wrestling with the sheer impersonality of the experience,  be reminiscent of the vibrations a piano can create in the air.  It’s all about quality of vibration.  Once that physical, tangible excitement gets across, then the brain can join in and explore the finer details.

I therefore fail to understand why some musicians are aghast when people don’t like their music.  Perhaps I go too far the other way when this happens to me, offering condolences and support where possible, apologising for the inconvenience, giving out biscuits and handing out warm coats.  This is not to be misinterpreted as thinking one’s own music is no good.  It’s just acknowledging that, between me standing here and you standing there is a lot of air, and it’s buzzing, and that is exciting for me (hopefully, and more often than not) and might not be for you.  I like sound.  Crickets on a Summer evening, conversations, chords, running water, it’s all soothing to me somehow.  Maybe you like other things.  Money.  Or sport.  Or going to gigs, endlessly waiting for them to make sense…

And so, lying in the bath, musing on what might have happened if my head were at the other end by the taps, two thoughts arise.  The first, suddenly grateful for my own life, the second wondering what the bath, a potentially huge and resonant instrument, might sound like.  And I began to drum, the rhythms between my thumb and fingers transporting me again, this time to my habitual place of comfort, back home.