Advice For Jazz Students #18: R is for rhythm

You are at one end of a long street. The early morning mist makes even familiar things look a little hazy. Further down the road you can see something is moving. You know it’s a person straight away, a moving object that big on a street is always a person. As they walk towards you, their gender, race, language, and even the brand of their phone may become clearer. These things are part of their humanity, they are details that fill out the essential truth. This person is not primarily an android user, despite what marketing researchers will tell us.

When improvising, ideas come out of the fog, and the first kicks I feel are rhythmic. The other stuff comes later, they help to project the initial idea into the musical space occupied by the instrument, the piano.

Melody is necessary because my instrument is lumbered with the man made chromatic scale, and harmony also, to a lesser extent, comes in handy to blur the melody and make it more rhythmic, to muddle the pitch, bring it closer to the drums.

Of course, the extensive canon of Western music also looms large in my memory, colour and counterpoint, thematic unity and all that. But where it used to be funnelled into a symphonic timeline whereby ideas were set in motion, explored and developed, then recapitulated and put to bed, now there’s a sense that our music is merely joining in with something that already exists. We are joining in with the world.

I used to love symphonic music, and still do but, as detailed in Nicholas Cook’s excellent essay, its hard to feel the triumph, the release, of the endings anymore. (Read his book, it’s life changing.)

Now we know that everything is essentially in an endless cycle, it seems that only humans ever made art in their own image, as an entity that is born, exists and dies. Look at this alphabet I have chained myself to. It has an arc, ending in its demise, and with letter “R” the end is near and I’m facing the final curtain. Time to plan a rousing ending, but…an ending of what?

We used to want to represent nature (from our omnipotent view above it), music that imitates what we see from our observation post. Now it seems there should be more of a feeling of taking part in it, losing the idea that we are the boss.

Music is everywhere. The cross rhythms of your footsteps and heartbeat might be music enough. At the slower end we have the seasons, the Earth’s night and day rotation, it’s year long journey around the sun. Wheels within wheels, loops and cycles.

A lot of jazz is based around Broadway hits that were only designed to be heard once. They are kind of offshoots of the Western operatic aria, and of the protagonist does at the end of her song, there’s no coming back. But Black musicians took these cast iron moulds and spun them around and around, making every calculated gesture into a signpost, a marker of not so much of progress as a point on a wheel. A sequence of chords, originally designed to stop at the end, is forced into an endless loop, each harmonic moment becoming like a rhythm itself, repeating endlessly, or until the club closes.

What I am trying to say is, try tapping two hands on a table, observe the infinite variety possible with two strands of rhythm, two arms. I like it, it’s my favourite practice routine. I like to think it connects me to the world and its workings.

A bus passes by outside, I don’t even see the number or where it’s going, and for me its story ends as the back wheels leave the edge of the window frame. The driver, though, is still there in the picture, until the end of her shift. Someone, somewhere, will see that bus to the breakers’ yard finale of its useful life. Most of us will not see where those atoms go, but they will be back, perhaps in the soles of the shoes of the woman who walks the streets of your town in the morning mist.

Advice For Jazz Students #17: Q is for quotation.

The older I get, the less I value creativity. Maybe what I really mean is “creation”, the constant generating of new material. It’s good when it flows, but new things are not always the answer. If you spend a long time in a particular musical world, you will probably end up…going deeper, working with less, and the music will open up. Freedom through limitation.

There are, after all, infinite ways to reorder and reorganise the ideas we already use. Using a well known melody in a solo stretches across boundaries of taste, time and popularity. A simple and familiar melody can momentarily open up a music that often appears elitist. Of course, most things that take time and concentration appear elitist these days.

Quotation can be cheesy though, a proper blue vein stink, “Colonel Bogie” will cut through a Gershwin song like a turd plopped on a Roman fresco, or break the flow of a solo like an unprompted name drop in a conversation.

But it can also be inspired, it can make you aware of how all music is related somehow, somewhere, through some distant branch, a twig, of a family tree. It releases something familiar from what seemed like an iron clad context, and places it in another, builds a bridge between the known and the new. It might win you, for that brief moment, some more fans.

But it’s a high risk pursuit, no question about it. The value of your investment may go up or down, and there’s a terrifying lean to the latter. Some music just won’t stand for it, demanding something more rigorous or consistent.

Choose wisely, not out of desperation or a need to please. Pick tunes that are well known and distinctive, that can slide into view unannounced. Aim for surprise at the familiar, like an English tourist finding a Starbuck’s in a strange town.

Don’t do it too much. It wears thin, like summer trousers. Like similies.

Advice For Jazz Students #16: P is for Practice, Play, Performance

I have to confess my position on this is fairly ramshackle. My brain doesn’t always function as it should, what and how I practised recedes from view like memories of learning to walk and talk. This means I don’t often attempt teaching about it. In fact, the only thing I have ever told students which I know for certain will work is a way of getting A4 photocopies to stay up on a music stand by pinching the centre of the bottom and top edges, thereby making it three dimensional, standing like an opened book. You can DM me for that.

But I have some suitably strung together advice about these three different, sort of similar stages of making music.

Practice” shouldn’t sound that good. People shouldn’t want to hear it. It’s private stuff. I wouldn’t pay to watch Aston Villa doing push ups. Most people prefer a methodical approach to it, something I often failed at (as far as I remember), because its efficient and it works. It arranges patterns and strategies in a systematic way which then, fingers crossed, emerge in “playing” and “performance”stages in more organic and musical forms. There are lots of online resources focused on this, but I think my former (often exasperated) teacher Simon Purcell should be your first port of call for varied and creative ways to practice.

Playing” is something you can practice too, as if someone were listening. For me it’s the practice of making a coherent whole statement…there are some musicians that blur this boundary, people like Sonny Rollins who get into something so intensely on stage that it feels like they are working it out for themselves. More like a process, an endless working out that can be two minutes or two hours long. It’s my favourite stage in many ways, but….

Whether playing or practising, whatever you play in a small room comes right back at you like a tennis ball off a school playground wall. This is not true of “performance“, which can sometimes feel more like trying to throw an inflatable doll across a windy river.

In order to get a crowd interested, and keep them there, you may need to do things you don’t practice. “Showboating”, as it is sometimes condescendingly called, is often called for. Personally I have a couple of tricks, and I don’t practice them because to remember you need them is to be on the stage, usually with a drummer who has around him a whole set of things designed to be hit hard outdoors. And you have an instrument that seemed loud in 1700 because it made more noise than a harpsichord. You need some kind of David and Goliath strategy here. It’s fun too, but it won’t happen in lessons, in your bedroom, or playing along with Art Blakey records. Blakey’s coming out of a little box, and like that other little box, the X Box, the guns aren’t real. I saw him once. And he was loud, dense, like a challenge….come on, what have you got? Guns blazing.

It’s not all about volume though. I once saw improvising singer Phil Minton upstairs in a London pub. It was a small room. He had no microphone and was making tiny sounds, if I closed my eyes I could see a miniature horse in mild distress. It was quiet, it filled the room. He drowned out the jukebox (yes it was a long time ago) coming from downstairs. This was pure musicianship, at least to me. It sounded like anyone could do it, and I confess I tried when I got home after the gig. My throat hurt after about a minute. It’s not easy.

Fill the room with big, soft, raging music. And move with the audience, see if you can go around again, have you lost them or do they want more? This is performance, and to do it you have to do it. There are no internet fast track plans, you cannot learn German in your sleep whilst losing wrinkles and earning 300K a year by following this link. Or this one. You can however, scroll to the bottom of this page for premature and garish orthodontic surgery, or whichever other goodies are on sale.

The choice is yours, only you can decide.

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 #14: N is for numbers

Fake news means you can’t trust anyone, especially not experts, who are in it for themselves and represent a conspiracy against the rights of the ignorant. Numbers, perhaps, are the one remaining fact of life.

(Pure Maths People dont @ me. We don’t trust you either.)

Numbers are the ultimate immovable experts, like statues in your living room. A series of chords like a II V I progression simply is. It makes a sound and it is meaningful because it outlines a tonal centre. Write that down. That sound is a fact.

And so these chords are like pieces of driftwood, clung to in a storm. They will save you. Sometimes, though, it’s good to fight the urge to paddle furiously, to notice instead the design, the shape. The possibilities. That driftwood was once part of a bigger boat, beautifully made.

I prefer that numbers be made fallible, with movement, a certain play in the measurements. Let them breathe.

A certain type of superhuman can learn impossibly long chains of digits by attaching meaning to them, meanings combined like Lego bricks into their walk home, the view from their window, the order and number of memory competitions they have entered etc. For some, numbers are themselves a thing of beauty. I don’t know whether to envy these people or not. I am certainly in awe.

I’m on, though, the fence (again). Sometimes I hear chord progressions and all I can see are the wheels, the pulleys that make the angels fly across the stage of a small budget nativity. Other days, I am happy to watch flying humanoids as a plot device because why not? Its all real but it is also magic, sleight of hand.

Even numbers are not above criticism. And this might make them more, not less, interesting. Maybe not statues, but rather precious stones that reflect light in unpredictable patterns. It’s raining where you are and sunny here.

Numbers are beautiful, but sometimes you wake up in the morning and the view isn’t what it was. They are like people, they will sometimes help you out of a dead end, but equally often, drive you purposefully there.

They are like people. But it’s only us who say they are experts. Numbers have at least some modesty.

Advice For Jazz Students #13: M is for Marmite

Marmite, you either like it or hate it. Thick, dark, divisive, a salted oil slick of a spread, you can’t sit on the fence about it. I’m not sure if I like it or not, so I guess that makes me an extremist, dogmatic in a paradoxical centre.

At some point you have to get seriously monastic about playing jazz. You have to obsess about it, inhabit it, shut, to some extent, some other stuff out. And then, after some time, 10,000 hours, whatever they recommend these days, you have to rehabilitate yourself in the world of real people, hoping you’ll have time in between for some “maintenance” practice, keeping yourself match fit in between.

If you go to college, you will spend most of the time “under the bonnet”, building and fine tuning the engine, learning the mesh of the mechanics, what goes where, why, and how. Chords and scales in music are like axles and cogs, the basics of what makes the thing go.

But you can’t sell a good car like that. You need someone with good teeth and hair driving it through an empty mountain range, someone beautiful straining at the saxophone with “passion”. You need visuals that sit on top. You need a strong brand.

Marmite, the growing up spread.Know what I mean?

Especially now. Because experts are the new enemy of progress. Presumably this trend has “experts” of its own, influencers (influenzas) with their ears to what is left of the ground. Young people with teeth.

So how do we sell this? The new repackaged from the old? New terms like “Spiritual Jazz” are both juvenile and patronising, reducing everything else to the cold and rational. Improvisational forms instead renew themselves through large and small changes in who is using them. On “Ballads” for example, Derek Bailey uses the Tin Pan Alley tradition as a host and then, like a hatching insect, eats his way out of it. This is new. This is old.

Improvisation is an activity like any other. You might as well say eating is old hat, breathing a blatant steal. It is done, and done again, the quality measured in the conviction and not the “never before”-ness of its “content”, the arrogance of its delivery.

Marmite does not, of course, exist in a vacuum. It needs toast. It is, in fact, nothing without toast. Toast and butter. Toast does not, however, need Marmite. It is flexible, it has many companions, Honey. Cheese. Beans. All of these things create magic when toast is introduced. Soup.

Just not Vegemite, which is the sh*t of the devil, please, anything but that.

Advice For Jazz Students #12: L is for landing.

I often imagine a person on a diving board. He walks calmly to the edge and stands looking out into space, then down at the water. He has speedos on. He does some graceful arm swinging stuff and one leg comes up as he prepares to fling himself into….

So far so good. Most people could, with some prep, do a passable impersonation of that. And once you find the pure courage, the outrageous hutzpah, of actually jumping, gravity robs you of any credit for hitting the water. Nobody ever got points for that.

Of course, there’s the somersaults on the way down, the back flips, the altered dominants and the suspended resolutions. But really…it’s all in the landing…how you finish the job. It’s a ten metre drop, the stakes are high.

This is how I describe playing good melodies to students….I like metaphors because they make you feel something. It’s not dots on a page, or fingerings, it’s survival. To hit the water square on means you don’t hurt yourself. It’s also elegant, it’s pleasing to watch.

Have you ever done that, gone to the edge of a diving board? Maybe you went through with it too. That feeling, of total focus and concentration, i feel like that’s what we should aim for with every utterance, every line, in improvised music, being in it. That’s the only way I can get the music out, really feel it. All the knowledge of all the modes and scales and chords and recordings and “what is hip” won’t help you (well maybe a little bit). You have to be aware on a molecular level, to feel that it’s life and death. A belly flop, a fluffed line, hurts like hell. I mean, look at that last sentence, you’ll see what I mean.

But here’s the secret. What you play in the middle is not going to kill you, it can be made good by the ending….learn to find an ending for every line and gesture. Have an exit strategy for any situation, and then you are free to just play. Jazz is about escape.

We are told to think ahead when improvising. I would take that with a pinch of salt: sometimes you have to think behind. Remember what you played just now, be aware of what you need to finish it. The mind thinks in many directions at once.

The diver, of course, is only going one way.

Advice For Jazz Students #10: J is for Jokes

Does humour belong in music?

What about if you take out the specific meaning (the words), the barb and the hurt, and then look at what’s left? Timing, expectation, perhaps shock (LOUD….soft), inappropriateness (a change of language?)…these things are fundamental tools in an improviser’s armoury…well, for me they are.

Stand up comedy is a big influence. The art of dropping the right word in, pacing a story in preparation for the punchline, turn of phrase, accent, tone. These are all qualities that seem more important to me than the subject matter. I have laughed my head off at really offensive jokes, it’s not because I’m a bigot but because the joke and it’s execution are paced right, and suddenly everyone looks at each other slightly ashamed. What power that is.

But musical jokes are my favourite because they are made at no one’s expense, but you get the hit from it, the surprise. They are the non-competitive football of jokes. Being a musician and an introvert (double honours), you can avoid offending people and then get your kicks in sound.

A joke, when reduced to its bare bones, is a set move. In jazz, a lick might seem analogous.

A lick is like a short scene from a film, a scene where the conclusion is completely predictable. The doorbell rings, a woman gets up, the camera following as she answers the door, the door swings open, a close up of her face and then we see…the face of her husband, due back at precisely that time.

Surely something like this would be better.

The bell, the woman answers, the hand on the doorknob, door swings open, her face in close up, the camera pans to the doorstep…and a wild dog looks up menacingly.

Perhaps then people see these tricks too many times, and now they expect the dog, so then you have to start messing around, the close up of the hand becomes the shadow of the hand, the camera pans around and it’s an alien, or there’s no doorway but another living room, a dog in a living room etc etc.

Maybe, after a while of all this crazy cavorting, the husband at the door becomes surprising again, novel, post modern, ironic.

So the point is, when Hank Mobley plays a lick, you recognise the beginning, the hand on the door, you have to, you are being made comfortable in preparation for something…the camera pans….but something changes, maybe he stops it short, maybe it goes up at the end instead of down. Little things. A lot of little things together make a personal voice. A personal voice, nevertheless, “in the tradition”. His licks are little set ups for surprise, and they are recognisable, familiar, over familiar even. But he knows how to use them. There’s the art.

I was too busy showing off for a while to get this properly….but, all grown up now, Hank Mobley is the business in my book. Subtle dents in a seemingly smooth surface.

And yet, licks still bother me. I don’t teach them. I think it’s because people can take them too literally. They are dangerous, like a kind of inverse explosive. They are “rendered”, marked as correct and all the energy is sucked out of the room. Something like this, in musical terms:

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“Ok. Come in and please take your shoes off.”

Ronnie Scott used to say, if no one laughed at his announcements, “these are the jokes”.

I think I get it now.

Advice For Jazz Students #11: K is for Kent

That’s where I grew up. Kent. Bromley, Kent. Jazz was the result not of my environment, but of my quest for an alternative one. If there was ever a destination to Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere”, it was Bromley. It did have its advantages. It offered a public library jazz department that somehow ended up full of Sun Ra and John Coltrane albums. It’s suburban blankness was somehow an invitation to do something. Something else.

In those days music meant classical grades. Clocking up measurable units of progress on a journey that has no end. It was fun and I loved it. My parents encouraged me to take an interest in ragtime, then I discovered stride piano and Ellington. In the meantime I learnt the clarinet, rose through the ranks of the Bromley Youth Concert Band, where I learnt about social music making, the feeling of being in an ensemble, and the inherent sex appeal of flautists. I was, and am, eternally grateful to Bromley for all these revelations.

But in the end, the absolute need for accuracy in classical music defeated me. Improvisation, on the other hand, turned mistakes into opportunities, blind alleys into open roads, it was making something in, and of, the moment. There was a kind of interior dancing involved that enabled me to side step the shambles of the real thing. It gave me a rest from Beethoven (and him from me) – I loved his music, and felt bad for him about my continued involvement in it.

Although I had to make a run for it away from classical music, the bmmmmmmmph of Max Roach’s bass drum still meshed in my head with the hhhhhhrrrrrrrah of Stravinsky’s Symphony In Three Movements. Jazz was not the only sound of surprise, and it wasn’t the only music where rhythm was first in the hierarchy.

It was, though, my first encounter with black culture. There were not many black people at my school, but on the sleeves of my record collection they formed a formidable majority. Where I “came from” was a homemade culture, cobbled together both from a carpet bombing of record shops and a carefully plotted network of associations. My trail of recordings led by, or featuring, Bill Frisell, was a particularly expensive component of the early 90s.

Bromley was only ten miles from the capital, and supposedly part of that misnomer, “Greater London”, but that was far enough away to make a train ride from Bromley South to Victoria a real “before and after” experience. London was a trip, the kind where you get off at the other end and smell the air.

If you are from somewhere, or something, I say use it, feel your immersion in it, be inspired by it and make the best art you can. If you’re not, follow your nose and make sure you acknowledge your borrowings, especially to yourself, as they will continue to inspire you. It’s a practical point as much as a moral one. We all need ideas, this stuff doesn’t come out of thin air.

Maybe it’s all been done already, but not in the particular order or proportions that you have chosen, or found yourself with. To find interest in that order once, then again, and again and again, that’s the work. I don’t see retirement coming any time soon, and money is only half the reason.

Advice for Jazz Students #9: I is for Industry and Immersion

Is music manufacture? It certainly was, for a short period of time in a small part of the (European) world. Notation and recording produced artefacts that either led to the music being performed, or, one step further on, led to it being heard in performance.

Streaming services certainly encourage some people not to listen very hard, others to determinedly seek out new music. Either way, the money to be made here is negligible unless you drip drip your way on to a coffee house playlist as a soundtrack to someone’s awesome day.

That’s one option I’m working on. Currently I’m trying to monetise my music, my insecurity, my self loathing and my children. A blog is a good start.

Do not underestimate the side hustle, it may be half (or more) of your earnings. And there’s the Bandcamp thing: other people with more knowledge have written (hello Steve) about that here, but it seems a nice spot for those with a genuine appetite for the new.

What concerns me, and maybe you, is “industry” as a state of mind. We do this because we have to do this, and so do it we will, if we can afford it. And that industry leads me to “immersion”.

Immersion is the state I am aiming for. After a tune, when people clap, I wake up from my brief sleep. I can only hope the audience liked it, because I was out and wasn’t available to deal with their grievances. At least that’s how it goes on a good gig. We are offering something, and that’s all we can really do.

Of course I have done my fair share of courting an audience. I have recorded music loved by fans, though not always by musicians (“Brubeck”), tried to get my arse kicked by people better than me (“Romance Among The Fishes”) and, most recently, tried to address the current taste for less density and more groove (“The Long Game”). Mostly, though, I’ve worked in other people’s bands. I hope it’s all me. It’s certainly all me asleep. Immersion is the driving force behind everything.

Sometimes to be immersed, we must learn some cold, hard technique or theory. The last thing I want to do when I’m asleep is to worry about where the edge of the bed is. That’s practice and research, and it’s a fantastically fun part of music making, because it feels like progress (or not when it’s going less than well). But it is, in some way, separate, a different state.

The dreaming and the doing. Two states. I wonder if they could, or should, meet?