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.





Writing this down helps.

Ornette Coleman

Details, details.  When you specialise in something, when it’s “your thing”, it’s always about details.  There are books , step-by-step guides, making sure the details are right.  You get from one note to another this way, but…might it be better changing those two notes?  Here, listen to it this way (sound of a scale going up and down).  Now, listen to it this way (sound of a scale going up and down).  These details are important, of course.  After playing scales up and down a lot, and eventually learning how to vary the direction and anatomy of these scales, and patterns, and phrases handed down from other people older and more famous, one becomes drawn to the finer points.  And a lot of art is about finer points, refinement, it keeps the artist motivated to work; such adjustments are not always perceived by anyone else, but…it becomes like a painting not straight on the wall, a chair in the wrong corner, a constant source of irritation that needs to be “fixed”.  The scale needs to come down that way, the mirror needs to face the windows, you get twitchy when the order is ruptured.  Jazz is littered with people who have a system, a way of relating everything to every other thing, every note has its place.  Grids, tables, pretty pictures, justifications for every note, except for those that don’t fit, which are wrong.  All preparation for music, not the music itself.  To become immersed in this is, for certain types of musician, something akin to a religious faith.  It is an unearthing of the truth, a discovery of the divine light, the system that underpins all possible combinations of notes.  All possible combinations, that is, except those deemed undesirable; the wrong notes, the notes that are only played out of carelessness, lack of knowledge or technique, sheer disrespect.  Most jazz musicians are not quite at this level of fundamentalism, but most are touched by it, and it enables us to function.  Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist and composer who died on June 11th, took wrong notes and redefined them, making heroes out of villains.

It’s not that he didn’t have a system.  He referred to it as “harmolodics” and, whilst there are many more qualified than myself to explain it, the general gist is that it’s almost impossible to really say what it is.  This might help.

If the tendency to reduce music to a tangible system seems fundamentalist at times, Ornette is jazz’s Zen Master, demanding that we experience it directly and, as the interview with Philip Clark above shows, wrong footing any attempt at a concrete definition.  Many personal accounts of meeting him, of which there are many, testify to his openness with complete strangers, and he lives this in his music.  A B natural on a C minor 7 chord is to some an illegal note, a mistake, to others a complex dissonance to be justified and derived from some complex pattern of associations; to Ornette it always seemed like a stranger to be greeted as a friend.  He would famously bend these notes until they squirmed out of the reach of the alphabet, like the great blues artists, there is just a gesture, a sound.  His early music dispensed with harmonic instruments like the piano and guitar, in order that these “sounds” could exist for themselves, and yet in the seventies, he let these instruments back into the fold with a vengeance, often having two guitars at once who remained gleefully at cross purposes.

In 1985, Ornette made a record with Pat Metheny called “Song X”.  Metheny was a hugely respected improviser and a master of the specific in music, the elegantly turned composition, exquisite details below a veneer that to many non-jazz fans might seem “smooth”.  You could almost see him as the Donald Fagen of jazz, perhaps; and like Fagen, he has subversive tastes.  It was re-released in 2005 on its twentieth anniversary, and included in this new edition was a track called “Police People”, omitted from the original session.  I wonder why?  It’s a masterpiece, a perfect illustration of what makes Ornette extraordinary. Here it is.

Listen to the opening; bassist Charlie Haden sets up a groove, loose and twangy, but a clear set up for Ornette, who comes in at a different tempo, and in the wrong place, not in a clever way, not displaced by some mathematical algorithm, just wrong. Delightfully wrong, uninhibited, unaware of the wrongness.  But the sheer conviction with which he does it galvanises the whole band.  Conviction is a big, cloudy kind of word; it doesn’t reduce, it expands.  Sound, feel, inflection, it’s all of these, experience, awareness, finely tuned nuance, how are we to explain these words?  Again, these things are present in all great jazz musicians, all great musicians, but Ornette seems to strip everything back to these qualities in order to draw attention to them.  So then we get the tune, a three chord trick, a bit like Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, chords a beginner could play on the guitar, shuffled around a bit. This is unusual for Coleman’s music, whose compositions rejected chord sequences in favour of a looser and more improvised approach.  Pat Metheny is steaming on this tune, finding brilliantly swooping shapes in the timeless chords and responding brilliantly to the prods and jabs of the band. Then Ornette comes in.  At first all seems well. These are chords, remember, where all the white notes on a piano will fit very nicely on the top.  It’s difficult to mess it up.  And yet Ornette does it throughout, he makes it feel good; gradually, he takes charge, the chords become not redundant, not ignored, but just another part of the soundscape to be played with, against, across and around.  Like two views of a single subject, his lines touch, flirt with, the underlying chords, only to veer off into glorious clashes.  It sounds like “Tune a Day” reflected in a cracked mirror.    And yet his line follows perfectly the contour of the piece, the band respond; I think Ornette was the first musician brave enough to rely so much on response, on dialogue.  Like John Cage, he shook things up without demanding people view him as an iconoclast, and like Cage there was a sense that he thought it was all perfectly “normal”.  And it’s so likeable.  That’s his genius.

I always imagine him practising, wondering what he did.  Can one practise responding, expression, hearing music a different way?  Maybe he played long tones to keep that formidable sound in working order?  Because that’s the thing we all need as musicians.  At two minutes thirty, when Ornette sounds like he’s been playing all day, all year, his whole life. That sound is in his head, in his body, and from that sound comes his feel, and the feel finds the notes.  He comes in like an old friend knocking over the furniture; I laugh every time I hear it.

“Music is work.”  That’s John Cage, near the end of his life when, having tried many ways of making it, he was asked finally for a definition of music.  Work takes many forms, it’s just time filled with activity.  Sometimes it’s just living in the sound, making it move, thinking about how much it needs to move to get people to feel good.  Ornette took care of the details; shapes and sounds from jazz history, a huge dollop of the blues, things that make the music go.  But there’s that point when the player merges with the instrument, inhabits the sound and takes off….