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.

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Keep Music Young, Keep Music Old

All people seem to talk about at the moment is the audience.  How to get one, how to renew one, how to keep one full of hipsters, moneyed people, people that are our kind of people.  Can we make music a bit easier to digest perhaps?  This seems to be the default position; we (the musicians) need to meet people (the audience) halfway, halfway between abject ignorance (theirs) and lofty enlightenment (ours).  Spurred on by the mentality of a Facebook targeted ad campaign, it is a “one size fits all” mentality, and it takes on the annoying habit of thinking we know what people want, need, demand, consume.

I am sitting here listening to Miles Davis, recorded live in 1969.  He doesn’t announce the tunes, he brazenly assumes that people don’t care what they are or that they already know them because of their unswerving and time consuming dedication to his music over the many years he had been patiently developing it.  All of these characteristics have been used, in his case, to sell his music, his image, to non-jazz fans.  All of these characteristics have also helped me to understand things, both musically and otherwise, about myself as a musician.  About what is possible.  And yet, for a moment, as I listen to the opening notes, I am lost.  I remember sitting with a can of Guinness with musician friends, eyes closed in intense rapture, listening with disbelief as the music coalesced, fell apart, rebuilt itself, returned to its almost non-existent fragile theme from which this had all, impossibly, emerged.  But now, and for the next twenty minutes or so, I am momentarily back in a place often reported on by people new to new music, whether composed or improvised;  It’s chaos, and I don’t care about it.  I am sick of the reverence accorded to it by people like me.  It’s two cats in a bag with a microphone.

Then I make a cup of tea, and return to it, and that feeling passes.  It is speaking to me again.  Like riding a bike, one never forgets, but one can be allowed an awkward few minutes in the saddle after a long period away.  I feel like we as a culture are obsessed with short term profit, and what this means is that people have to like things straight away.  There is no value attached to any long term view about anything.  Some things take a long time.  Some things are even worth getting through a period of hating them, because something good may come of it.

I recently went to my son’s school concert.  He’s nine.  The “orchestra” was a loose assemblage of whatever instruments and people could be matched together.  This is the other end of the spectrum, where music is new, new as a purely physical experience, music just hatching.  The theme from “Eastenders” took on a whole new pathos, a struggle worthy of the triumphant metamorphosis of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony when all the minor stuff turns to major.  Well, not quite, but maybe Beethoven was trying to capture something of what those kids may have felt.  What could be more Herculean than trying to get a trumpet that is the size of your whole upper body to produce a single unwavering note?  There were short bits of improvisation, comfortingly familiar chords forming a reassuring bed above which some truly unearthly noises were emerging.  As a musician, it was fascinating and somehow very moving; there were true moments of beauty, moments the kids may or may not have been aware of, where I was almost certain they would make it to the right note and then something so wrong comes out, and yet the concentration behind it makes it work.  It makes a moment.  It’s interesting how John Coltrane, the poster boy for complex improvisation, gradually worked towards a similarly pure sound and simplicity of utterance in his last years; he maintained, of course, the control and deep understanding that years of work had given him, but there is no denying that some people would say “a six year old can do that”.  John Cage seemed to me to aspire to this in his music, to the time in the human mind’s development before “intention”, the intention to do what one should do.  What this music had, in places, was DRAMA.  The drama of a pint sized kid with a clarinet who blows it and makes you think – not because he is amazing but because he is trying to get to…something – of Sonny Rollins.

 In music, in art, we either need a story, or we need to know pretty early on that one is not coming and accustom ourselves to being in that place.  Great music can exist where nothing really happens (Morton Feldman, Brian Eno, the early minimalism of Reich and Glass); but if music fails to make something happen, that is different.  That is “once upon a time there was…”; then nothing.  A broken agreement.  That is something completely different.  A common example might be “once upon a time I played these notes very proficiently and they all matched the chords and it was fast.  The notes are similar in their construction to the notes of someone a long time ago”.  This is, needless to say, part of any jazz musician’s training.  But Horowitz did not play scales in his recitals, and Usain Bolt does not do sit ups for the crowd.  This is under the bonnet, backstage stuff.

Imagine, as a musician, being able to access that newness, sensation of surprise, the freshness of a well intentioned noise.  And now imagine having the skill and experience to feel it as it happens.  It’s a paradoxical process, we have to go forward and backwards all the time, gain knowledge, return to its source.  It takes time, whether as a listener or as a performer.  Those two cats in a bag might just be in there out of choice.  Maybe they aren’t fighting but mating.

Possible origins of “Brother Face”

 

 

I never used to read poetry; it was somehow a symbol of everything I didn’t know, and could never learn.  Steve Swallow’s album “Home” is built around Robert Creeley’s poems, but at the time it was the musical forms, endlessly rotating yet deceptively simple, that attracted me.  Listening to Steve Swallow’s music is like a familiar face that always appears new, yet retains its identity, as if one views it from a different angle each time.

 But then I started looking at the poems – strange fragments of conversation, no long words, there was nothing I didn’t understand, but I couldn’t find its meaning; it was confusing and yet something about it drew me in.  I decided to investigate, eagerly amassing volumes of his work; like buried treasure, I had a feeling I could dig it up in the future, and age might render it even more beautiful, perhaps I might even understand some of it.  Along with The Beatles, Beethoven late string quartets and making my own jam, it was something I could save for later life.

Several years on,  I am in many ways none the wiser.  I must say I don’t know what Creeley’s on about most of the time.  But I keep going back to him, there is so much to enjoy even without understanding, it’s taught me to listen to words both written and spoken as I would to music.  I want to understand it, and in the meantime am happy just to read it.   And every so often, a quote will jump out at me, and a meaning presents itself.  Here’s one, from a poem called “En Famille”.

 

“Somehow it’s sometimes hard to be a human.

Arms and legs get often in the way,

Making oneself a bulky, awkward burden.”

 

I love the way the words are not only describing a feeling, they are doing it.  Reading these lines, I feel like my mouth is reliving the actual experience, the consonants piling up and making a spluttering mess of what should be a perfectly normal sentence.  No long words.  At the same time, I think it expresses a feeling that many artists, writers and performers have; the need to somehow transcend the limits of physical body.  One often hears of people who feel they are “a woman trapped in the body of a man”, or vice versa.  Well I am a man trapped in the body of a man.  My arms and legs often get in the way, and so does everything else to be honest.  I feel that music temporarily removes the physicality of being alive and translates into a pure energy, or perhaps an energy “outside” of one’s body.

 If I’m playing, and especially if it’s going well, it’s “flowing”, I’ll get to the end of a tune and it will feel like someone waking me up.  It’s like falling asleep at the wheel, but with the physical danger removed.  This is not a cosmic, hippyish assertion; it means that as a player, one enters the realm of the listener.  The closer you can get, as a player, to the listener’s world, the more the music will seem to compose itself.  Of course, the stuff “under the bonnet” needs to be working too in order to get there, but I am loathe to talk about the fuel injection to someone who just wants to see a good race. 

In essence, music, both in its making and its appreciation, is an out-of-body experience.  (It is also, a lot of the time, an out-of-money experience.)   I feel like the occasional alienation one experiences as an artist, the often structureless form of the weeks, every one different and yet similar, busy and empty in strange alternation, the “What do you do I’m a musician oh that’s glamorous what kind of music jazz mostly….(silence)…does jazz still happen now that you can’t smoke indoors?” conversation – all of this is compensated for the intensity of the out-of-body experience.  The precarious existence of a musician, envied by many, sits uneasily with the sea of rampant consumerism where a desperate lunge for the shops seems the only way to stay afloat.  The escape needs to be real, not just a discussion about what is possible or not possible, it has to be physical, tangible, living.  At that point one might see a shadow not of one’s former self, but of the one that is here now.  Maybe not even a shadow, maybe a reflection.  Here’s another Robert Creeley poem, “Histoire De Florida” and it opens like this;

 

“You’re there

still behind

the mirror

brother face.

 

Only yesterday

you were younger,

now you

look old.

 

Come out

while there’s still time

left

to play.”