What’s the biggest an animal has to be before you can’t bring yourself to kill it? For me, it’s a spider. Mosquitoes? No problem, I actually get a buzz out of putting a stop to theirs. Every smear in the wall is a badge of honour – I am keeping my children safe from predators, indulging in one of the last bastions of “them or me” violence. Spiders are different. Especially the big ones. I recently had to remove one from beneath the piano in order that my daughter could stop screaming and come down off the chair. On this occasion, a regular paper and glass approach didn’t cut it. Undeterred, I prodded it out into the open floor and placed a salad bowl over the hapless, huge arachnid. It was, up close, very big indeed. It looked right into my eyes, all two of them. I was right where the action was, and we both knew it.
This is what I’ve been thinking about with music. Getting up close to where the action is. Some people find jazz boring, or alienating, and who can blame them? They are too far away from the action, or looking in the wrong place. As a musician, I frequently indulge in the traditional sport of critically destroying the latest gurning fool who has convinced the “mainstream audience” that jazz is exciting, writhing around like a maggot on a fishhook, the shooting pains of genius seeming to mould the very sounds of their instruments, the swoop of their lines equalled only by the saccharine and shameless inanity of their note choices. But why do people like this? It’s because there is action! It is being made apparent that something is happening up there on stage and, like the synthetic lift of a pair of silicon breasts, some people are all too willing to accept the illusion for the momentary pleasure it might provide. (Not me, that goes without saying).
Don’t get me wrong. A pianist like Keith Jarrett, who squirms and grunts with the best of them, has had moments of genius that are almost intensified by their real physicality (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt here). I can even his vocalising, which one could argue echoes the way some instruments in African music attach rattles in order to blur the purity of the note (hmmm, pushing it a bit here perhaps), to make it a distinct line rather than part of a homogenous texture. But bloody hell, he hasn’t half ruined it for the rest of us. Him and YouTube.
“Hello, my name is Arnold Schoenberg, I’m a composer and I’d like to be a composer-in-residence at your festival this year.”
“Ok that’s great. I need YouTube clips, maybe something showing you writing things down. People like to make that connection, you know, see how you do it…our audience loves that, makes it more….human, somehow…”
We all have to do it now, we need to think about the visuals. Personally, I don’t even smile when I’m playing. I am thinking about the notes, and sometimes this is not pretty to look at. I was once approached, very nervously, after a gig by a woman and her young son. She looked almost proud, as if she’d exposed my guilty secret, when she said : “He really liked the music but was scared of you because you looked angry.” It was a lovely occasion, I felt I had somehow reached out to this child with, you know, music, and left him with a vague feeling of unease for his trip home. But I was concentrating and was unable to oblige him with the cheerful and non-discriminating openness that facilitates learning.
It’s where the notes are, that’s where the action takes place. An improviser, whether playing a tricky chord sequence or working in an unstructured context, works at speed in real time. Inside the head of a jazz musician, music looks like a formula one racetrack. Not from a safe distance, but from the camera on the front of the car, where everything shudders in the wind generated by impossible speeds, where big things get bigger and closer at an alarming rate. If people could see that, they would be not only impressed, but terrified. Of course, like playing video games, you have to be coerced into thinking the missiles are real, you have to feel for a moment that your actual life is at risk. For a musician, when a gig is going well, this is not a great leap of imagination. Music is life or death when you are playing it – of course you get another bonus life for every mortal injury, it’s an illusion like any other, but the feeling is real. Close up is best. Maybe a camera attached to the instrument, where the action is immediate, or fixed on a pianist’s forehead. I honestly think that is where things look most interesting, vivid and realistic . Maybe seeing what a musician can see, an audience might experience some of that exhilaration, that need for speed that links James Hunt and Oscar Peterson. And playing fast is not the only way to excite an audience. Watch Monk hovering motionless over the notes as the music, the possible choices, fly by and then suddenly, rapidly, he will find the chord he wants and jab at it, like a heron standing over the calm surface of a lake in search of prey. This can be almost more exciting; the waiting, the stillness, the sudden and unpredictable movement.
The way a spider can look dead and then…