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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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.