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.

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.

A Life In Jazz

Liam Noble Curriculum Vitae

Liam Noble was brought up extremely rapidly by two parents in Bromley, Kent. His interest in music started from age two, when his analyst played him Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht”
as light relief from his regression therapy, resulting in the first in a line of prestigious awards – “Patient Of The Year, 1971.”

From there it was a short step to Cannonball Adderley, the records of Miles Davis that featured his wives on the front covers, and the exuberant expletives of Jelly Roll Morton’s Library Of Congress recordings. Music and swearing went hand in hand in Noble’s early years, hopelessly splashing through mid period Beethoven sonatas and Chopin Études in a sea of curse and rage. He has since avoided sharps and flats altogether.

In a career spanning his entire working life, Noble has worked with a whole roster of international talent that reads like a list of people on a CV. Among them are some that should be singled out for special mention.

He continues to practice Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, in the hope that out of 32, one will eventually come out right.

Noble is a sought after educator, holding several negligible posts at major institutions. Teaching can often become repetitive; he has avoided this by teaching only one hour per year at each college. This hour is then taxed at source.

Liam Noble’s new solo cd marks a significant departure from his usual way of working, including as it does many of the black notes of the keyboard, which are used in new and surprising combinations. The album has received rave reviews throughout the press, and more are eagerly anticipated when the music is finally released.

Liam Noble writes exclusively in the third person.

How To Learn A Tune

Method 1

Some time ago, it may have been five years ago, for the purposes of this story it really doesn’t matter, all that matters is that it was back beyond measurable time.  I was staying at my friend Trevor’s house in Birmingham whilst teaching there, and we were listening to Blossom Dearie’s album of songs by lyricists Comden and Green.  The tune that stuck in my mind at the time was “Lucky To Be Me”, Ray Brown’s bass quietly singing through the 5 foot speakers, Ed Thigpen’s delicate whispering brushes, Blossom Dearie just singing the tune, almost as if she’s known it all her life and is recounting it to herself,  absent-mindedly  tracing the chords.(1)   I remember just sitting, both of us just letting the music wash over us, which is what it does, still, today.  But I’m jumping ahead now; back to my first time.

The last track on the album…no, not a track, it’s a song…the last song on the record is a Bernstein tune called “Lonely Town”.  I’m not sure if I even heard it properly that night, beer and sound fused in an impressionistic haze as the night went on; maybe I just remember seeing the title and wondering how it might sound.  I went straight out and bought the cd and played it on my own (much smaller) speakers whilst washing up; sometimes listening to music like this merely jogs the memory to a time when you were really listening to it.  I have never been able to recreate the sound of that music that evening, speakers almost as tall as Ray Brown’s bass like your head was in it, hearing all those little things bass players can do in between the essential big notes that are almost inaudible until you get that close, hearing the ends of the notes on the piano as well as their gentle beginnings, the soft hiss of a brush moved off the skin of a drum.  And that voice, that is somehow even closer than life, impossibly close.

At this point, I still haven’t investigated the mysterious “Lonely Town”, not properly.  But I have a vague impression of it; a series of disembodied, yearning phrases set against familiar chords arranged, somehow, in a new order, there is obviously some “classical composer” cleverness going on here but it has such a mood about it.  The melody seems to want to form itself into something longer, finally rising in the bridge, the lyrics speaking of the redemptive power of love “shining like a harbour light”, the voice seeming to brighten in sympathy before sinking again.  The underlying rhumba seems to hint, however,  at a world weary acceptance, intoxicating and urbane.

A few months ago, I was teaching a composition class and we were talking about songwriting.  I have an idea that being able to write, and to recognise, good melodic lines is a good foundation for any music, as far out or straight ahead as you want to go.  So, I recommend this album to the students, partly because I think they might be lured in by the more obvious jazz credentials of the rhythm section, but also hopeful that they will experience something in this music, that it will work its strange magic on them.  Anyway, now I really want to learn the tune.  I know what it means to me, essentially I know it, but I don’t know what it is.  It resides in that part of my imagination that goes with Miles Davis’s L’ascenseur, Paul Bley’s Open, To Love, a kind of melancholic, blues infused solitariness that can be hard to find in jazz these days but used to be one of its strongest, most accessible emotions.

 So, last week, I put the record on and transcribed it.  I also bought some sheet music, the original show version with piano accompaniment.  I put the cd on my iPhone, and on the whim of the machine that is the iTunes shuffle function, it appeared unannounced, trudging home from the pub in the dark, wet landscape of Camden chucking out time, or amid the endless chatter of the Monday morning tube.  I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, the strange and abrupt twists and turns of the song’s middle section repeating endlessly in my head, not torturing me but just there.  I decided I needed to find a reason to play this tune.

Three days ago, I did a solo improvised set at Café Oto.  The only way to do these gigs is just to start playing and see where it takes you, to listen to what’s in your head and try not to get in its way before it gets to your fingers.  So, when, a few minutes in, the first couple of bars of “Lonely Town” emerged, that was where I went.  I tried not to think too hard about it, I had obsessed about this tune for days, months, years even, it was in my body, wired into my whole musical psyche, just a case of letting it out and not getting in the way.  It’s all about intention, there are no mistakes, it’s the flow, the flow will take care of everything.

Anyway, somehow I fucked the bridge up.

It seems I don’t know this tune yet, but there’s no rush, it will happen.

Method 2

1          (optional)



You can always disprove almost any theory in the arts.  The guitarist Eugene Chadbourne recorded another great old tune, Stars Fell On Alabama, in the eighties.  It seems more appropriate, somehow, for me to put the link up here

It’s one of my favourite recordings, which I come back to year after year.   When I saw him live and requested the tune, he said he didn’t know it because he’d recorded it “reading off a Broadway Songbook score”.  Important not to get too attached to one way of working, I think…

(1)  (at this point, I would normally put a link in to the album, but I’m not going to for reasons that will become apparent)