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Getting the ingredients right: thoughts on Improvisation

May 6th, 2008 | No Comments | Categories: Music News · Musing on Music · tips for musicians |

Sunday’s gig with Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds went very well – thanks to those of you who came along. The venue, The Brickhouse on Brick Lane in East London, was suitably strange – on three levels (ground floor and two balconies, the top one had beds on it!) and amazing food, and we had to get them to move the stage away so we’d have room to set up all our toys.

For those of you just catching up, the Dodds/Lawson/Wood trio is a project spawned by my Recycle Collective venture – when it’s running, it’s a monthly music night, featuring amazing improvising musicians spontaneously composing in different combinations. Quite a few of the combinations I assembled for it are planned to become ‘bands’ of one sort or another, but many of the musicians involved are so busy that it’ll be years before it happens.

However, the trio with Roy and Patrick is one that was so good we’ve all made it our priority. I’ve been playing with Patrick for years (he played at the first ever ‘proto-recycle’ improv gig at Greenbelt in 2005), and have been listening to Roy play with other people for just as long, particularly in Theo Travis’ band.

We did a Recycle gig at Darbucka in October last year, and then went into the studio in early December to record in the same way – just set up and start playing. Since then we’ve been mixing and editing the improvs (which has been interesting for me, as I usually don’t edit) and have come up with a record that we’re all really proud of (more news on that ASAP).

So Sunday was only the third time we’ve all played together, but the musical chemistry is amazing.

And that, for me, is what improv is all about – the ‘composition’ part is just choosing the right players. At its best it’s about getting musicians together who respect each other so much that they never feel like going with someone else’s idea is a bad thing. Musician who listen more than they shred, whose default position is deferential. It means that the music tends to evolve slowly as each new ingredient is added and the the others react to it.

So I may start with a groove, or some spacey ambience, or patrick may lay out some kind of harmonic territory on guitar or keys, and then the others react to it and the initial idea is modified, developed, morphed into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Every time I sit down at the start of an all improv gig I wonder if we’ll have run out of ideas, if we’ll get 20 mins into the gig and just start playing a 12-bar blues or something.

One of the things on Sunday that triggered these thoughts was when the DJ who was hosting the day said he’d play a few more record and then we could ‘get up and jam’ – I was really taken aback, as I’ve never thought of this as ‘jamming’ at all.. it’s a whole other headspace to the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach that defines most ‘jamming’. It’s spontaneous composition, acknowledging that each of us as an acutely refined sense of what’s ‘good’ even when nothing is laid down to define what’s ‘right’. It’s not about finding some simple changes we can stumble through to make ourselves feel better, it’s about exploring our shared music worlds to find music that otherwise wouldn’t exisit, about listening, reacting and trying to add to what the others are bringing. This is 300% music – it’s 100% Patrick, 100% Roy and 100% me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt, playing with these guys, that my own musical vision is in anyway compromised or stunted, but I frequently feel my own playing elevated by the genius, sensitivity and creativity of the other two. We never have to ask the others to do something specific, as we each recognise that we are the masters or our own musical discipline – I know what ‘steve lawson music’ should sound like better than anyone else on the planet, and likewise Roy and Patrick. If I start telling Patrick what to play, it assumes that I know more about what he does that he knows. That’s insane.

There is, however, a deeply psychological streak running through all this, in that it takes a while to develop that kind of deep trust, to develop the ‘abandonment to the moment’ and to foster to confidence required to take the music where YOU feel it should go. With Patrick, this is part of a 6 or 7 year improvising relationship – when we first got together to play, he was rather puzzled by the idea that I didn’t want to play written songs, that I didn’t want to discuss keys and stuff, but just wanted to play. But the fruits of it is where we are now, exploring this unique shared musical space that the three of us occupy.

I’m really excited about the future of this trio, and the record release. With this, my solo stuff, the duo with Lobelia and Open Sky, I feel like I’ve got such a rich portfolio of music to work on, and feel really blessed to have the opportunity to explore the respective styles and approaches of the projects.

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